One candidate cautioned against rolling back the city income tax during Friday's forum, the last one before Tuesday's election.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Youngstown mayoral candidates in attendance let out a collective sigh of relief at the conclusion of a forum sponsored by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
Friday's forum at the St. Byzantine Center on Shady Run Road was the 11th and final debate for those vying to win Tuesday's Democratic primary for Youngstown mayor.
Not all seven Democratic candidates appeared at the previous forums, and Friday's event was no different. Three candidates -- council President James Fortune Sr., Councilman Michael Rapovy of the 5th Ward, and William Flickinger -- didn't attend.
Taking questions from chamber members Friday were state Rep. Sylvester D. Patton Jr., Police Chief Robert Bush, state Sen. Robert F. Hagan and former council President John R. Swierz.
The four agreed that the city's 2.75 percent income tax -- the highest municipal income tax in Ohio -- doesn't help attract business to Youngstown. Youngstown voters in 2003 approved a 0.5 percent income tax increase.
Bush, Swierz and Patton said they would roll back the tax, but suggest different ways to do it.
Bush said he would work to increase the tax base by attracting new businesses and helping to expand companies in the city. He then would hold an economic summit two years into his mayoral term with business leaders, and cut 0.25 percent of the tax. He would cut another 0.25 percent two years later.
Swierz said the high income tax leads some employees to urge their employers to leave Youngstown.
Swierz wants to cut 0.25 percent during the first two years of his administration. He said the city needs to operate more efficiently and effectively.
One way to do that, Swierz said, is to hire tax inspectors to make sure everyone who works or lives in the city pays income tax. The city has lost millions annually because of uncollected income taxes, he said.
Patton said he voted against the tax two years ago because it hurts economic development. He wants to eliminate the additional 0.5 percent income tax by reducing overhead, specifically lowering the number of city employees.
Hagan said it is wrong to promise an income tax cut because it would result in a $7 million drop in the city's budget.
"We can't afford it," he said. "We can't make a promise we can't keep. If we get business here, we can look at it. Cutting the tax out is out of the question at this time."
YSU partnership crucial
The four candidates agree that it's vital to have a partnership with Youngstown State University to spur economic development in the city.
Swierz said the city hasn't partnered well with YSU in the past, and Bush said more needs to be done with the university.
Patton said one of the few accomplishments of Mayor George M. McKelvey's administration is its strong relationship with YSU, and he wants to continue it.
Hagan said a better partnership with YSU is vital to the city's survival.
The candidates say they support regionalization and the consolidation of some duplicate services with surrounding communities.
"It's a difficult issue," Hagan said. "We need to sit down and come up with a plan to consolidate services. You can't increase taxes so you have to regionalize and consolidate."
Bush said he supports regionalization, "but I won't see it in my lifetime."
Besides Swierz, the other Democratic mayoral candidates in attendance Friday said they support the city's efforts to take over the Mahoning and/or Trumbull county's emergency 911 service.
During their closing statements, Bush said he was the only candidate with management experience -- as police chief and before that, the city's law director -- and thus is best qualified to be mayor.
"I won't need a learning curve," he said.
If elected, Swierz said he would make the city's operations more cost-efficient. For example, the city doesn't have a centralized purchasing department.
"We're setting ourselves up for failure," he said.
During his four terms in the Republican-controlled Ohio House, Patton said he has worked well with leadership.
"Much of the progress the city has made was through the help of the state and the federal government," he said. "There is a smaller pot of money to fight over. Who best to work with Republicans than me?"
Hagan, known for his pro-labor stance, said the business community doesn't always respect his decisions in the Legislature.
"I will make changes to make sure that everyone is properly represented" if elected mayor, he said. "We have to work toward a better and brighter future."