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Borough Council Candidates Discuss Challenges and Opportunities Facing State College

by on May 02, 2019 4:46 PM

Candidates running for State College Borough Council in this month’s Democratic primary answered constituents’ questions and outlined potential policy goals at the Centre County League of Women Voters’ Candidates Night Forum Wednesday.

Six Democratic candidates — Jesse Barlow, Deanna Behring, David Brown, Tom Dougherty, Janet Engeman, and Peter Marshall — discussed topics ranging from sustainability to local diversity. The forum featured only candidates participating in contested races. For this reason, the election’s sole Republican candidate — Lynn Hermann — did not participate in the session.

Regional Cooperation

Barlow, a Penn State professor of computer science and engineering and council incumbent, kicked the evening off with comments on the extent of the borough’s involvement in the Centre Region Council of Government (COG) and how it fosters collaboration among municipalities.

“I think that our participation [in COG] is very valuable to us and to the region,” said Barlow.

Behring, the assistant dean and director of international programs for Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, added that she hopes that COG will make sustainability one of its top priorities.

Brown, another incumbent, echoed his fellow candidates’ answers, adding that financial concerns needed to be taken into account. Dougherty, a current undergraduate student, agreed with Brown’s budgetary concerns and prioritized the CATA system.

“We should continue to be very active in the COG because it’s saving the State College Borough money,” Marshall, a former State College borough manager, said.

Challenges Facing State College

Barlow, Behring, and Brown emphasized the need to create a reliable tax base to secure local governmental budgets. Brown said he would address the borough’s “serious” infrastructure problem and the funding of Alpha Volunteer Fire Companiy. Marshall agreed with their sentiments, pointing out that growing governmental funding deficits are a “concern for the future.”

He and Dougherty both noted that they hoped to make the State College area a more welcoming, diverse community. Dougherty said that making living in State College more affordable while attracting a diverse range of businesses downtown would assist in this effort. Engeman again stressed the importance of sustainability.

Proposed LERTA plan

State College is considering a Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) ordinance, which would offer a 10-year tax abatement on improvements made to redevelop historic buildings for commercial uses, an effort to preserve about two dozen buildings instead of seeing them demolished for new construction.

Centre County and State College Area School District also are expected to consider the LERTA plan.

The candidates each expressed support for the plan, with Behring noting that LERTA could help maintain the “charm” and “historic neighborhood feeling” of downtown. In his response, Marshall said he was concerned about the “unintended consequences” of the construction of various high rise structures downtown.

Town-Gown Relations

A question on improving relations between students and permanent Borough residents coincidentally fell to Dougherty, who, if he is elected in November, woudl be the first Penn State undergraduate to serve on Borough Council since 1973.

“We need to talk more,” he said, mentioning “The College Avenue barrier” that metaphorically separates residents and students.

“The university needs to participate in this as well,” Engeman said, adding that the town should be considered a resource for students.

Marshall pointed out the issues of integrating students, who live in the borough temporarily, into a permanent entity. Behring cited recent community input sessions focused on feedback regarding the Musser Gap conservation project as an example of successful community-student dialogue.

Racial Relations

“It depends on who you are,” Engeman said, noting that the death of Osaze Osagie, who was shot by a State College police officer in Marchhad raised racial tension in the area.

Marshall said that he suspected that individuals belonging to historically marginalized communities “suffer more than white males, for example.”

“But I think we’re working on it, we’re trying to do better,” Marshall said.

Barlow expressed support for the possible addition of an office of equity for the borough, which would make recommendations to council on race issues and possibly form educational programs. Behring and Brown both called for the acknowledgment of Brown called a “vast and extensive” problem, while Dougherty highlighted the importance of attracting a diverse group of young professionals and students to the area.

How to Cover Escalating Borough Expenses Without Increasing Real Estate Taxes

The candidates agreed that an alternative revenue stream was needed in the Borough. They cited several different proposed methods of addressing this issue, including a "pour tax" on alcohol served at bars and restaurants, as well as a local entertainment tax and providing some of the county's hotel occupancy tax, which currently only supports tourism initiatives, to municipalities.

Engeman emphasized the need to find a way to channel revenue generated by the hotel tax into the local economy.

The municipal primary elections will be held Tuesday, May 21.

 



Jim Davidson is a Penn State student and Onward State contributor.
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