By Virginia Dean
Nine individuals running for five Board of Aldermen two-year seats met on Feb. 19 in a special televised forum hosted and moderated by Tom Donahue, CEO of the Rutland-based BROC Community Action. The debate was broadcast live at PEG-TV studios in Rutland City.
Incumbents Paul Clifford, Sharon Davis, Matthew Reveal, Scott Tommola and Matthew Whitcomb are running again. Joining the ballot are John Atwood, a computer programmer who previously ran for an Aldermen seat unsuccessfully; Samuel Gorruso of Sam’s Good News; Kam Johnston, a school commissioner who previously ran unsuccessfully for mayor; and Michael Talbott, chair of the media and communication department at Castleton University.
The deliberation began with opening statements focusing on why each candidate decided to run, either again or for the first time. Many, including Reveal, Tommola, and Clifford expressed their concern about high municipal taxes.
“I want to do what’s best for the city’s taxpayers and their families in this community, and, in order to do that, we need to keep our taxes down and businesses growing,” said Reveal.
Rutland has the third highest tax rate in the state, noted Tommola.
“My mission is to help this board work with the administration to make aggressive decreases in our tax rate,” Tommola said. ”It’s like a three-legged stool: the first in involves looking at spending and management; the second how to create revenue; and the third, looking at our Grand List that is shrinking because of the increasing number of nonprofit properties that are coming off the tax rolls.”
After opening statements, Donahue asked candidates to highlight one issue they are passionate about.
Talbott said that creating new rental units is essential to attracting people to downtown Rutland.
“I believe the city could take the lead to create an easy to navigate incentive program to encourage the rehabilitation of our housing stock and increased investment in new downtown living opportunities which is key to attracting new residents, reducing the tax base for current residents and increasing our tax base,” said Talbott.
Clifford and Reveal both pointed to the city’s infrastructure that, in their opinion, needs an overhaul.
“We need to fix it,” said Reveal. “Businesses do surveys before they come to look at a place before they invest. If we don’t fix it, it won’t do any good whether that’s with sidewalks or roads or underground with sewers, pipes and water.”
Davis agreed that the city’s infrastructure needs repairing but other ways of paying for the rebuilding must be found. The city’s neighborhoods are her passion.
“That’s our tax base,” she said. “The residential properties. We need to strengthen and stabilize neighborhoods that have been affected by drugs and crime.”
Donahue then noted that last December, the Vermont Tax Structure Commission indicated that, over the last 10 years, Rutland County has experienced the highest decline in population and the second highest decline in the workforce in the state. He asked candidates how they would reverse this trend.
Whitcomb said there needs to be greater marketing and communication with state legislators, and Clifford noted that a merger between the city and town could result in a stronger voice in Montpelier.
“The only thing holding us back are the naysayers and big egos,” Clifford said.
Gorruso said that Rutland has lost “some huge paying executive jobs” and that that “is where the money comes from.
“We have to replace them faster than we lost them,” he said.
Johnston said having a regional train system would help to bring people to the area and would allow Rutland to take advantage of economic growth in Chittenden County by rail lining to Burlington.
Talbott stressed that creating and supporting the arts is a proven way to economic viability for small rural communities. “I can bring this cultural funding to Rutland to increase its visibility,” said Talbott, noting that his experience as chairman of the Castleton University communications department.
When asked about the $5 million bond that addresses paving and improving sidewalks, five out of the nine candidates supported it, although a couple were worried about the cost.
“I support the bond but people need more details,” said Whitcomb.
Talbott and Johnston agreed. “I don’t doubt the need; I doubt the plan,”he said. “Voters need more specifics.”
Atwood said he was undecided about how to vote. “Improving our roads and sidewalks are key,” he said, “But I’m concerned about the details… How is the money going to be spent? For how long? And how much money will be needed to complete the entire project? Going into debt should be for something new, not for routine maintenance for things we already own.”
In what Donahue called “a lightning round,” all candidates were asked if they supported the city and school budgets. All nine answered yes to the city budget but only Atwood and Talbott said yes to the school budget.
In closing remarks, each candidate had a chance to reiterate why he or she is entering the Aldermen race.
“I will continue to bring my dedication, hard work and knowledge,” said current Aldermen Chair Davis.
“I want to bring my expertise back to the board and try to get this community going again,” said Gorusso, who served on the Aldermen board from 1988-1997
Johnston, who is currently a member of the Rutland City School Board, said he wants “to share information.”
“We need face-to-face negotiations and transparency,” Johnston said. “I can see things from both sides – the city and school.”
“I will work hard for the city and taxpayers and do everything I can to keep the tax rate down, grow businesses, and fix the infrastructure,” said Reveal.
“I’m invested in creating and identifying opportunities for our young people,” said Talbott. “I have an idea that Rutland can carve out a new identity by embracing the arts. I want to be a fresh voice on the board.”
“I understand the real issues,” said Tommola. “The primary job of an Alderman is fiduciary for the taxpayers.”
“I want to control costs, grow revenue and try to build a Rutland that works for every resident,” said Whitcomb.
“Rutland is a great place for me,” said Atwood. “I’m ready to serve and get involved. We need to have a little bit of faith in what works that has already been started is effective and will bear fruit.”
“My record speaks for itself,” said Clifford. “As far as my dedication to this city, I’ve served on the board and been a businessman downtown. I know this city, and I want to contribute to it.”