Executive candidates talk jobs, taxes

Category:  News
Wednesday, November 1st, 2017 at 6:34 PM
Executive candidates talk jobs, taxes by Dakota Palmer
Graphic: Shelby Kirk

On Oct. 26, current Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper (D) and election opponent Art Oligeri (R) faced off in a debate in the East Middle School auditorium. The hour-long debate, sponsored by Erie News Now and The Erie Times-News, was moderated by Erie News Now’s Mike Ruzzi. The additional panelists were Lisa Adams of Erie News Now and Pat Howard of The Erie Times-News.

Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to a panelist’s questions, occasionally with some follow-up inquiries. Before the debate began, each candidate gave an opening statement.

“We are at a crossroads in Erie County for our community,” Oligeri said. “We are in danger of continuing our managing decline. We have lost jobs, we have lost population, we have lost young people, and we have lost our tax base.” 

Oligeri went on to explain how, if elected, he will control spending, claiming Erie County has a “spending problem.” He said he has an economic plan which focuses on business retention, helping businesses expand and creating more jobs.

Dahlkemper said: “I’m very proud of the record I’ve been able to achieve over the last four years. When I ran four years ago, I promised to create a transparent and an efficient government — one that was a model for other counties to emulate — and we’ve done just that.” 

She referenced the Erie County website, which has a link to county finances on the front page. 

The first question asked what the role of the county executive is and what it means to the candidates. Oligeri answered first, saying the executive is the face of economic development and the “face of Erie County.” The position requires someone who will communicate with other groups and the mayor, he explained. 

“It’s really difficult to move Erie County forward when there’s no communication with the two most important people in the community,” he said, referring to current communication with Erie City Mayor Joe Sinnott. 

He continued by stating he will “bring a lot of marketing to the table” and he wants to have the 38 municipalities work together to create a unified county.

Dahlkemper said she has taken a leadership role in economic development since first being elected and created a “system better than we’ve ever had.” 

“It’s about retaining the jobs we have and being there,” she said. “I’ve been out to businesses and helping them get the resources they need to keep their businesses going and grow their businesses.” 

She mentioned she would like to see the county attract outside businesses, in addition to retaining current ones. 

Oligeri mentioned he wants to develop an economic team that identifies strengths and develops a global brand. He also wants to focus target and marketing efforts on companies that relate to Erie’s strengths. 

“I will be Erie’s number one salesman,” he said. 

When Dahlkemper was asked what her biggest accomplishment was, she responded: “What you do as government is create the culture for jobs; you don’t actually create the jobs themselves, [and] we have created that culture.” 

Dahlkemper said companies in the area are investing nearly $500 million into the community and adding 1,300 jobs to the Erie region. 

She said making Erie more competitive comes down to community development. 

Oligeri, however, is taking a different approach. He believes a large issue as to why businesses are leaving Erie is because the Erie International Airport is “unfriendly to businesses” and does not have enough flights. If elected, he claims he would address the airport issue in his first 12 months.

Howard asked the candidates how General Electric (GE) actively leaving the railroad business changes the dynamic of Erie County. Oligeri said there has to be a constant dialogue between elected officials and businesses to figure out how to save jobs. He reiterated an earlier point, saying the “most important economic development is business retention.” 

Dahlkemper, continuing on the topic of jobs, disagreed slightly with Oligeri’s statement, saying GE is a global corporation and elected officials are unable to change their minds about keeping jobs. She said they have to be proactive about huge plots of land with “huge economic development potential.” 

Dahlkemper noted during the latest round of GE job cuts, she and the Erie County Redevelopment Authority spoke with GE and proposed taking possession of buildings the company doesn’t need, doing an environmental cleanup and putting the buildings to use. 

When asked what qualifications set them apart, Dahlkemper said her diversity of life experiences. 

“At 21, I found myself a single mom. My son and I were on food stamps, and I finished putting myself through college,” she said. “That was a huge turning point in my life and formed a lot of my compassion for people who have things happen to them in their life and have struggles.” 

Additionally, she said she worked in human services, as a dietitian, and was a businesswoman. Her time in Congress gave her an “understanding of federal and state government,” while she also has connections in Harrisburg that would assist her. 

Oligeri said he was born and raised in Erie. 

“I went to school here, I raised a family here, I started a business here,” he said. “Many times, I say my wife and I of 44 years never moved out of our zip code, [and] never moved out of our parish.”

He described himself as a “no-nonsense leader,” and said he knows a lot about people and working through situations in the business world. If elected, he plans to reverse managed decline. When asked about his leadership style and how it is different from Dahlkemper’s, he said: “I use the word ‘we,’ not ‘I.’ No one accomplishes anything by themselves.”

Dahlkemper said over the last four years, she has found the “right people” to help things move forward. 

Oligeri noted he tried to visit all 38 municipalities, and while visiting with residents, he found each community has different needs.

“Sometimes it’s better to listen than to speak, because you don’t learn anything by talking,” he said. Oligeri said he recently spoke with Erie City residents from the lower east side about the McBride Viaduct. He admitted he did not know much about the McBride Viaduct issue before, and now he is more well-acquainted with the issue because of speaking with Erie citizens. 

Dahlkemper said when she was first elected, she biked the county and met with residents over a three-day period. She noted she helped establish a bus route to and from Corry and a new radio system for first responders. 

Both candidates were asked what concerns they’ve heard from residents outside of the metropolitan area. Oligeri said “irresponsible spending” and then noted the county “has to stay within budget,” questioning why the county has had two tax increases in the last four years.

Dahlkemper rebutted and said: “Mr. Oligeri doesn’t understand how county government works. Three-fourths of the budget is mandated and is money that comes from [the] state and federal government.” 

She also noted the county council put in the tax increase and claimed she did not want to increase taxes. 

Each candidate addressed how they would work with the new Erie City mayor. Oligeri said, “At no time should there be a situation where there is no communication between leaders, and that’s what the status quo is.”

He plans to meet with the mayor at least weekly, and said he will meet more frequently if necessary. He also said the strength of the community is based on the core city.

Dahlkemper said she is looking forward to a new mayor and a “new partner” to work with. 

“We need to continue to use the resources of the county, improving them as we have, and going out and assisting our municipalities,” she said.

During her closing statement, Dahlkemper addressed the audience and viewers and said: “What my opponent has done is had a campaign of innuendo, distortion and personal attacks, and you deserve better than that. You deserve someone who has concrete ideas, specific ideas and a vision.”

In Oligeri’s statement, he said voters are unhappy with the status quo. 

He continued: “I represent change...We’re in dire need to move this county forward in economic development. I know Erie County can do better, and I know that as Erie County Executive, I will do better.”

Dakota Palmer is the news editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.

Tags: erie

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