Candidates for mayor focus on future at forum

Lebanon’s three candidates for mayor didn’t display a lot of disagreement in a forum conducted Sept. 25 by the Chamber of Commerce, but they shared a common focus on the need for economic development and figuring out how to solve the hurdles to that: the wetlands issues and the need to complete the Westside Interceptor Wastewater Collection Line.

But they voiced differing opinions in both the forum and in questions from Lebanon Local on how to address those issues and others the city is facing or will.

Following, presented alphabetically, is information about each candidate and their responses to those questions.

Paul Aziz

 Paul Aziz was elected mayor in 2012 and has served three terms. Previous to that, he served on the Planning Commission and the Parks and Tree Committee.

He’s a graduate of Lennox High School in Los Angeles, and attended Long Beach State and Linn-Benton Community College.

Aziz, 57, cites “ a lot of positive changes” that have occurred under his leadership: increased government “trust and transparency” with all City Council meetings live-streamed; fulfilling “every promise I made; and the council working together ‘better than ever.’”

He said the 2040 Vision Process and Strategic Plan was his “top priority” when he became mayor and he’s happy with the outcome. “It’s given the council direction and tools to make decisions for the future.”

“Together with the City Council, city administration and many other organizations, we’ve done much to improve the livability for residents over the past six years. From attracting businesses to better parks and rec, Lebanon has changed a lot.”

That change has been “positive,” he said.

Aziz says a mayor needs to be “a strong leader with new ideas.”

“One recent idea, put into action, is the committee I appointed to create the Lebanon museum to preserve and display rich history of Lebanon.

Also, he said, being visible and active are important as mayor.

“I believe in supporting organizations and causes; however, the most important job is getting things done. Whether it’s in a boring meeting or dealing with complaints from citizens, I do get the job done.”

Bob Elliott

 Bob Elliott was born and raised in Lebanon, graduating from Lebanon High School and working for American Plywood for 30 years, including as a regional manager.

Elliott, who describes himself as a “young 85,” is “devoted to making a difference in the community.” He’s been involved as a board member for the Strawberrians and Willamette Manor, and has been active in BOLD, the Rotary Club and at COMP-Northwest medical school, where he interviews incoming candidates.

He values the small-town feeling and friendliness in Lebanon, he said, and is “passionate” about economic development, downtown revitalization, assistance to the homeless, and improving parks and recreation.

He’s served on the City Council for 16 years, 12 as council president, and has served as acting mayor a number of times when sitting mayors could not be present.

“I know how to run the council meeting and I know what has to be done,” he said.

Elliott noted that, as a retiree, “I can be a full-time mayor.” He also said he would be a “visual” mayor.

“I believe elected officials should show support for all activities and events. Too many times I am the only elected person that shows up.

“Lebanon is my town. I care what happens to it.”

Tom Gregory

 Tom Gregory served 22 years in the military before retiring. He has a bachelor’s degree in adult education and a master’s degree in leadership and management. He has no previous experience serving in government.

He aims to “help this community and its growth as it moves into the 22nd century.”

“First and foremost, I’m not a politician,” he said. “I am just a man trying to fix a broken system, and I think I can do a better job than what has been done.

“Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. When you hire the same person over and over again, and you expect a change, that’s what you get. That’s the point.  I’ve got different ideas. I am a candidate but I am not a politician. I am a person just like you. You’ll see me out in town – that’s where I am. You need a mayor who’s going to be out there talking to you and hearing your problems.

Gregory, 55, said his biggest goals, should he be elected, would be to lower water bills, and find new ways to promote industry and jobs in the community without becoming an economic burden to the city. He said his emphasis would be on “creating jobs, not hoping they will come by, building in unused parts of the city.”

Also, he said, he would be available to the public, adding that he plans to “be available” to the public as mayor.

“Look around town. Do you ever see the present mayor anywhere in town? Can you go into City Hall and just see the mayor? I am always out, around town, talking to people and helping those I can.

“No more closed-door City Hall.”

Albany, Adair and even Corvallis are seeing significant residential and commercial developments moving forward, but developing our prime commercial industrial land  is not competitive in the market because of necessary wetland mitigation. Residential development on the southwest end of town will require significant investment in the wastewater collection system. What should the city’s role in financing these projects be? Another URD, or something else, or nothing?

All three candidates agreed on the importance of mitigating wetlands and completing the Westside Interceptor.

Elliott said, “Several developments who wanted to come to Lebanon could not do it due to the price of the land with the wetland issues. But we’re working on that.”

The wastewater collection system will require approximately $11 million to $12 million to complete, but the city currently has $3.9 million to work with. He noted that the city plans to extend the system to 6th and Walker in the next year.

“This is the ‘pay-as-you-go’ plan,” he said.

Elliott said he thinks developers should pay “their share” for improvements required to accommodate their projects and he voiced reservations about creating any more urban renewal districts.

“We have three and one more possible (URDs),” he said. “I don’t believe we should do another one. We’re pretty maxed out on all of that. I think it should be pay-as-you-go.”

Gregory agreed that the community should not have to pay “so some developer can make $1 million a month. That’s not fair to us.”

He agreed that “impact fees” would be a solution to facilitate growth,.

“It’s not right that some old lady, who’s barely making ends meet, has to pay $250 a month for water bills. It’s crazy.”

The wetlands issues are “complicated,” he said. “What we need to do is we need to find businesses that want to be part of wetlands mitigation.”

He cited the example of Lowe’s, noting that “they came out here and they were proud of what they did with the wetlands. We want companies like that.”

“We don’t want companies that are going to come in and destroy our area. We want companies that are going to build up and give us jobs.

Also, Gregory said, he thinks Lebanon should have a vocational school.

“If we’re training CAD operators, these businesses are looking for that. We’ve got what they need.”

Aziz said the Westside Interceptor has been in Master Plan for years and the cost is high.

The city should fund it, he said, echoing Elliott’s statement about the expansion planned for next year.

He also agreed Lebanon is “nearly maxed out on URD space.”

He said one option to pay for the interceptor system would be low-interest Municipal Infrastructure Fund loans from the state, noting that he testified before the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee last year on “how important those loans were for us in Lebanon.”

“Thankfully, the Legislature approved those loans for municipalities again.”

He acknowledged that wetlands “are a big problem” and that companies have passed on locating in Lebanon because of that. He pointed out that the city ended up paying $10 million for wetlands mitigation when Lowe’s came to town.

However, he said, the city is working with state and county officials and other municipalities to re-assess wetlands properties, which, early on, is “reducing the percentage of wetlands significantly.”

The city is also working on establishing a wetlands bank that would allow credits to be used to offset wetlands on properties that could be developed.

“Both of these are critically important for Lebanon to keep our economic development on track,” Aziz said.

The City is working on implementing the Lebanon 2040 Vision and Community Action Plan. Please review the 2040 Plan in terms of what, in the plan, you would prioritize, what you would remove, if anything,  and what you might add, as well as how you would propose to pay for it.

Aziz said the 2040 plan was a “top priority” for him when he ran for mayor in 2012.

“I was concerned that the community didn’t have a vision,” he said, noting that more than 1,300 people participated in developing the plan, drawing more than 3,000 unique website visits.

“Our strategic plan gives us a road map for the City Council and staff on priorities. Basically, it’s our to-do list, something we never had in the past,” he said.

All items in the plan are important “because they were identified by the community,” he said, adding that many do not require funding and others are “not expensive.”

Of the 36 items in the plan, 19 are in the works or completed, and he’s anticipating that number to rise to around 23 in progress by the end of the year, he said.

“That’s not bad for two years’ work.

“I feel the strongest message the community sent was that they wanted growth, while retaining the small-town values and (that) the downtown needs to be the heart of the community,” Aziz said. “And I agree.”

Elliott agreed that “much progress” has been made.

He said he would prioritize parks and recreation and advocated the creation of “a complete inventory of land, utilities and development resources that are available.”

He also called for the removal of elements in the plan that are no longer relevant, such as the downtown reuse strategy for the Elks Lodge, which is now occupied by a church.

Gregory also emphasized the citizen involvement in creating the plan, and said the big hurdle he sees is funding.

“If you go 20 years out, you look at what this plan’s going to do, you should be questioning what’s my water bill going to be in 20 years? That’s what I’m asking.”

He pointed out that one element of the plan is replacement of City Hall.

“That’s OK, I understand why, but at the same time, where’s this money coming from? It’s coming from each and every one of you. You’re gonna pay for it.”

Gregory advocated Lebanon’s taking advantage of opportunities to cash in on tourism, particularly “the waterfalls” at McDowell Creek Park, citing the tourism that occurred during last year’s solar eclipse.

Though the park is located some distance from Lebanon, “I get it, but if you go to Disney World, they say it’s in Orlando, but it’s in Kissimmee. We’re the big city. We’re next to the waterfall. Come see the waterfalls in  Lebanon.

“That will fill your businesses. People will start coming down the street and they’ll start making money here.”

What is the greatest challenge facing Lebanon in the next five to 10 years? And what will you do to face that challenge?

Elliott said he believes the city’s biggest challenge is the wastewater system.

“We’ve got to correct that. That and the wetlands problem we have. I don’t know what the solution is but we’ve got to get it done, whatever that is.”

Gregory said he agreed on the wastewater issue.

He said he also believes Lebanon needs more jobs.

“Most of the people that work here are traveling to Salem, they’re traveling to Eugene. They’re traveling everywhere else but Lebanon. I’m putting priority on getting jobs here for people, for us. For our kids. That’s important to us.

“If that’s not what you want to hear, if you want another park, then let’s get another park. I don’t think we need another park. We have 12 of them.”

Gregory noted that the city needs to show off its assets to companies considering it as a location.

“We have two colleges. Most cities this size don’t have two colleges. We have a veterans home and a lot of people don’t even know there’s only 50 of them in the United States. We have one here.

“We need to sell our town better.”

Aziz said he believes the wetlands and Westside Interceptor are the biggest challenges.

“Both are key to growing the city at a reasonable rate – not excessive but growing it reasonably.”

Another issue for the city is PERS reform, which, he said, “nobody really talks about.”

“The PERS reform is huge, it’s going to cost a lot – it already has. They’ve overspent and we are having to pay a lot more, as a city, into that and it’s hurting the budget.”

He said the city needs to work with the League of Oregon Cities in advocating with the state on those issues.

“Our budget is balanced, with reserves of over 20 percent,” Aziz said. “When I started as mayor, it was way down, less than the teens. The city, I think, is doing pretty well, Just look around and see.”