WARREN – The Warren G. Harding High School auditorium was a sea of purple and black t-shirts Tuesday night as political newcomer Dennis Blank and incumbent Warren Mayor Doug Franklin debated the issues.
Many of Blank’s supporters sat on the right side of the room and Franklin supporters were primarily on the left side at the Tribune Chronicle-sponsored debate.
Each side enthusiastically supported their candidates with applause as they made important points.
Tribune Chronicle photos / R. Michael Semple
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin, left, and independent candidate Dennis Blank shake hands prior to the mayoral debate Tuesday at Warren Harding High School. The debate was sponsored by the Tribune Chronicle.
“You will have a clear contrast in candidates in this election,” Blank said during his opening statement. “My opponent, Mr. Franklin, spent 25 years, or so in Warren city government. If you feel the city of Warren was heading in the right direction, then you have an easy choice.”
Blank described himself as a person who was born and raised in Warren, but a person who left the area to grow to what he is today.
“I am a retired businessman who grew up here,” Blank said. “I grew up literally one block from this high school.”
He lived and worked in New York, London, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Columbus. He worked for three Fortune 500 companies, two high-tech startups and worked 25 years for Time Inc., where he was marketing director of Fortune magazine.
“I could have gone anywhere, but I’ve chosen to come back here,” Blank said.
Franklin began his portion of the debate by having a moment of silence for John F. Kennedy Coach Tony Napolet.
“I know that our city is so special,” Franklin said as part of his opening statement. “We have a strong legacy of strong relationships and partnerships. I have lived here my whole life. I understand what it means to be ‘Warren Proud.'”
Questions were submitted by Tribune Chronicle readers. The first dealt with economic development.
“It is true we have lost many manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years,” he said. “What we tried to do is to create new partnerships.”
Franklin said his first act as mayor four years ago was to meet with every member of the business community in roundtables.
“Those meetings led to results, i.e. Laird Technologies, Warren Business Design on Parkman Road, and TBEIC, which is an incubator in downtown Warren,” Franklin said. “We are working with the Trumbull County Planning Commission in the Golden Triangle project, which will save 3,000 jobs in the area. We are working with 30 companies.”
Blank said the mayor is a good listener, but said he is reacting, not acting, on the issue of economic development.
“There is not a single individual working for the city of Warren whose job is to promote and actively day-in and day-out bring economic development activity into the market place to attract new economic development into the city,” Blank said.
The second question was about why Franklin and two previous mayors shied away from working with the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber on economic development.
“I categorically disagree with Thomas Humphries (executive director of the Regional Chamber) in that statement,” Franklin said. “Tom Humphries is one of the applicants to manage our property called RG Steel Administration building.
“If we did not have a good relationship with the chamber, particularly Sarah Boyarko, we would not have gotten 200 good paying jobs at Laird Technologies,” Franklin said. “I meet with Tom Humphries and the Chamber every single month.”
However, Blank said the city needs to do more.
“We are not in the game,” Blank said. “We are not competing with Hubbard and Cortland for jobs. We are competing with cities in India and Brazil. We have to be competing on an international level. We’re not doing enough.”
The next question was about spending priorities because the city’s budget will be reduced for 2016.
Blank said there will be cuts because the city has run a deficit in all four years of the Franklin administration.
“When Mayor Franklin came in, the city had a rainy day fund of about $1.6 million,” Blank said. “That is all gone. Over the last two months, the city has had a negative cash balance. We have some real problems.”
Blank said at this time, he cannot say where cuts will be, because the current budget documents are impossible to read.
“It will take weeks, if not months, to go through it,” he said. “They have money hidden here and money hidden there and no one really knows where the money is.”
Franklin denied the city has been running a deficit.
“By law, the city has to have a balanced budget by the end of the year,” Franklin said. “Otherwise, we would be in receivership.”
However, Franklin agreed that the city has been operating with less money every year because of cuts from the state.
“It is not an excuse, it is just the facts,” Franklin said.
The next question dealt with the city hiring a private company to operate Packard Music Hall, but officials using the savings to create jobs in other city departments rather than saving the money.
“We were trying to reduce our subsidy coming from the general fund, which was averaging between $250,000 and $400,000 a year,” Franklin said. “We were able to accomplish that with this agreement.”
Franklin said the second goal was to make better use of the hall. Prior to JAC coming in, the hall was nothing more than a rental facility, he said.
“We had record sellouts at Packard Music Hall,” he said.
Blank said when they are talking about record sellouts, Warren’s share of the sellouts was about $600.
“We get 25 cents per ticket,” he said. “We get zero from liquor sales.”
Blank said turning Packard Music Hall over to someone in a no-bid contract where the city gets practically nothing from it is ridiculous. He questioned why the employees that worked with Packard Music Hall did not go with JAC, instead of staying on the city’s payroll.
“We are still paying the money we were paying when we were subsidizing the Packard Music Hall, it is only going into other areas,” he said.
Franklin said the employees are no longer being paid for through the city’s general fund, but instead they are being paid through enterprise departments that earn their incomes through fees paid for services provided by the city, including water and waste water.
The next question dealt with cleaning up blight.
Franklin said he introduced a neighborhood blitz program earlier this year, where various departments of the city work together in a concentrated fashion to clean up different areas of the city. He added there were 457 abandoned homes torn down over his term and had new entrance signs placed at the entrance of the city. He also noted the demolition of Austin Village Plaza and the former GE plant as examples of commercial property demolitions that occurred.
“We are very happy what we have been able to do,” he said.
“In some communities, a neighborhood blitz would be called doing your job,” Blank said. “I believe there has been lack of priority in cleaning up the neighborhoods. The operations department, which would do a lot of the cleanup and blight eradication, has been reduced in staff over the years.”.
“The mayor is not setting priorities,” he said. “I personally believe our parks should look great. You should be able to use the restrooms in Packard Park. They should not be locked up, because you can’t keep them clean.
“The streets around Courthouse Square should be swept and snow removed, so people are not parking in the middle of Market Street,” he said.
The candidates then addressed the drug problem in Warren.
“If I had the solution of that problem, I would be running for president and not the mayor,” Blank said. “This is a problem that’s plaguing our country.”
Blank said the people in the neighborhoods know where the drug houses are located, but nothing is being done to address them.
“We can make it uncomfortable for people like that,” he said. “We can park an unused police car in front of the houses.. We can get the law department to be more aggressive.”
Blank said the city cannot arrest itself out of drug problems.
“There must be rehabilitation and education, and jobs,” he said.
Franklin said a mayor has to take responsibility.
“We need to take two-prong approach,” he said. “Our Street Crimes unit is not receiving enough credit for what it has been doing. We’ve had record heroin busts and record marijuana busts.”
When asked what they would do to take care of deteriorating roadways, Blank fired first.
“No money is being put aside for proper road maintenance,” Blank said. “That is part of right sizing of the budget and the city operation. We have to have the right number of people to do those jobs. They have to be done systematically, routinely and regularly over time.”
Franklin said the city invested $11 million into road maintenance over his four years as mayor.
“We are sharing equipment and personnel with the Trumbull County engineers,” he said. “We do need additional revenues to have maintenance program. There is more money set aside.”
The final question dealt with the perception of nepotism when it comes to hiring practices.
Franklin said he has not had a relative hired in the city in the years he has served in public office.
“We don’t hire based upon bloodlines, we hire based on qualifications,” he said.
Blank said people believe it is a rigged game to get hired in the city based on who you know.
“It is very difficult for an outsider to get a fair chance at those jobs,” he said. “Jobs need to be posted more broadly. If I am elected mayor, we will have a citizens oversight committee on all hires to make sure we have the best qualified candidates.”
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