By MIKE CHAIKEN
The Democratic and Republican candidates for council squared off on business-oriented questions at the annual Bristol Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum last Monday.
The candidates from the First, Second, and Third Districts were queried about economic priorities, taxes, and making city hall more business friendly.
After an introductory question, the candidates were asked to speak about their top economic priorities in the coming council term.
Andrew Howe, a Republican challenger running in the second district, said the city needs to do more to encourage small business development.
Peter Kelley, a Democratic challenger in the Second District, said there needs to be more employee workforce development.
Incumbent Democrat in the Second District David Preleski called for more incentives to attract business, which in turn will create jobs.
Jodi Zils Gagne, the Republican incumbent in the second district, said the city needs to make Bristol’s downtown a destination for Bristol residents. The development of the theater at Memorial Boulevard School and the arrival of the new Bristol Hospital complex on the old mall property will help that.
The best way to create job growth, said Third District challenger Democrat Brittany Barney, is to support local business and attract new businesses.
Mary Fortier, the Democratic incumbent in the Third District said, “We have to educate people for the jobs we do have, support small businesses, and provide education to the workforce we need.”
David Mills, the Republican incumbent in the Third District, said the city has to continue its marketing efforts. The city also needs to continue offering incentive programs like StartUp for businesses looking to relocate to the city and add job.
Cheryl Thibeault, the Republican challenger in the Third District, said there needs to be incentives that help attract new restaurants to the community.
For Eric Carlson, the Republican challenger in the First District, the city has to ensure that the state keeps the Bristol Technical Education Center open. The school is needed so local businesses can get the trained workers they need, said Carlson.
Incumbent Republican Anthony D’Amato in the Third District said marketing of the city is key to economic development. You can have all the best things in the world in the city but if no one knows about it, what good is it, he said.
“Why are we not attracting businesses and not keeping successful businesses,” said Gregory Hahn, the First District Democratic challenger. “We’re not paying attention or we can’t support the business growth. We fell asleep at the wheel. We can’t do that.”
Joshua Medeiros, the Democratic challenger in the First District, said the city needs to “develop objectives, develop strategies for those objectives, and take action.”
The candidates also were asked about city taxes in light of the turmoil in the state government.
Barney said, “We have to get creative… and not rely on the state.”
“We have to increase value (of properties to ease the pressure on homeowners),” said Fortier.
“Keeping taxes low is important,” said Mills.
Attracting new businesses and growing the value of the commercial real estate grand list will help reduce the tax burden on homeowners, said Thibeault
“We have to continue to use our resources wisely,” said Carlson.
“We have to grow our grand list,” said Hahn, as well as move the downtown projects forward. “We should done something four years ago.”
“I’m fully willing to explore ever option before raising taxes,” said Medeiros. However, he said, “The state problems shouldn’t be used as a scare tactic for a lack of leadership.”
Howe said the Republicans should not be blamed for the lack of movement on downtown, noting Democrats had hired a firm that spent years working on the downtown project without any progress.
“We need decisive strong leadership to grow our tax base,” said Kelley.
The key to maintaining tax levels is to have more efficiency in government, said Preleski.
“We keep our taxes down by attracting new businesses,” said Zils Gagne. “Taxes will rise in the future. It’s inevitable. But we need to take the pressure off the homeowners.”
The candidates also were asked about making city hall easier for businesses and residents to navigate.
Carlson said the city should have an ombudsman to guide people through the permitting processes.
D’Amato said the city hall needs a more logical layout with related departments near other such as a hall of development. Also boards need to learn how to work together with the main goal to guide someone through the process.
The city leaders should bring in staff for suggestions on how to improve efficiency for users, said Medeiros.
“Lighten up the red tape,” said Hahn. “We need to loosen up the communication.”
“We need to show existing business we care about them,” said Howe.
“We haven’t given our employees the tools (to make things easier),” said Preleski. “There’s not enough communication (in city hall).”
Zils Gagne said some communities, such as Plymouth, have put the permitting process online. That may be an option for the city.
Barney said the city should organize a focus group of businesses and people involved in the permitting process to find a solution. She also advocated getting the process online and to get a new city hall for better organization of city departments.
“We need better communication so residents know what is going on in city hall,” said Fortier. To that end, the city website should be evaluated. Additionally, she a change in leadership will make a difference in City Hall.
There should be someone in the Bristol Development Authority office who can help guide a business through the permitting process, said Mills. New signage directing people where to go also will help, said Mills.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.