Councilmen bid for mayor's spot in Shamokin
SHAMOKIN - The city's mayoral race in Tuesday's primary election is marked by competition between two sitting councilman who seek the Democratic nomination.
Bill Milbrand and R. Craig Rhoades will face off, with the winner likely opposing Republican challenger Dan McGaw in November's general election. McGaw, 53, of 506 S. Seventh St., is unopposed in the primary.
The three are vying to replace George Rozinskie, who is not seeking re-election.
Milbrand, 53, of 1015 N. Liberty St., and Rhoades, 60, of 815 N. Shamokin St., were each re-elected to city council in 2011 and are in the second year of their respective four-year terms.
Should either of them be elected mayor, a replacement will be appointed to serve the remainder of their term, according to the county office of elections.
The mayor and city councilmen all have one vote when it comes to city matters. There are subtle differences in the positions, but the largest may be the title itself. In interviews ahead of Tuesday's primary election, both councilmen spoke of their mayoral ambition.
One of the differences in offices to Milbrand is that the mayor has more involvement with fiscal affairs and is viewed as the leader inside City Hall.
"I think my experience as a businessperson suits me well for the management of those fiscal affairs," he said. "I love and I care about the city. This is my hometown. I
love this city and I'm worried about it's outcome. If there's anything I can do to make it better, what better place than in the mayor's seat to try and do that?"
Rhoades is serving his sixth consecutive term as a council member and has sought the mayor's office in the past. He, too, spoke of how the mayor is seen as the city's leader.
"I would use the office to lead as the mayor of the City of Shamokin," he said. "I feel I have put a tremendous amount of years of service into the community as a council member that I would like to do it as mayor to lead it in a better direction."
McGaw's mayoral candidacy is his first attempt at political office. He believes his 28-plus years working for the state parole board will serve him well, having experienced both the efficiencies and inefficiencies of government.
He says his biggest concern would be the city's finances. While he's inexperienced in balancing a budget as large as the city's, his outlook is this: "I'm not going to spend what we don't have."
"I'm not seeking the job for me, I'm seeking the job for everybody," McGaw said.
With the office of mayor comes the responsibility of overseeing the police department.
Both Democratic candidates say they're satisfied with the department's performance, each alluding to the department being short-handed. There are three police officer vacancies caused by retirement over the past five years. Rhoades also credits officers' work in dealing with drug-related crime and says he appreciated their efforts to keep down the potential cost of overtime.
The existing police union contract expires at year's end and the city and the department are engaged in negotiations on a new deal. Neither Milbrand nor Rhoades would address specific changes they would seek in the contract as they are involved in negotiations, but both say there are changes they would pursue. Rhoades says he believes any changes to the contract likely would have greater impact on future officers.
Whatever the result, neither expects a significant decrease in the police department's budget, and neither would support department furloughs regardless of the city's fiscal position.
"I don't see it being a tremendous amount, but I do see a decrease," Rhoades said. "Every year I do feel people are entitled to a raise ... as long as they are performing their duties. A day's pay for a day's work, that's all I ask."
"I can't see any huge drop in the police budget. There are a lot of essential items there," Milbrand said.
Milbrand was critical of people within the city who avoid paying taxes but use emergency resources funded by tax dollars. "They forget those taxes they didn't pay are what's funding that resource," Milbrand said.
McGaw says the city's police department is a strong one. They're visible and they handle a large volume of calls for a small town.
"From when I worked with them, I thought they were top of the line," he said. "I think we could probably use more policemen here."
He says he would not support department furloughs in any situation. "I think that would be the wrong place to be looking to save your dollar," he said.
While he's not privy to the contract negotiations, McGaw says he hopes any overtime is balanced department-wide, which would also keep future pension payments balanced.
McGaw did question city council's decision to hire a law firm to negotiate the police contract, especially since, as he says, they haven't really "sat down" with the union.
Rhoades voted against that move. Milbrand voted in favor but was upset in the days after when he discovered the union's demands had been given to City Hall but he hadn't been given a copy to examine. Neither had he, Rhoades said.
As to the city's finances, Milbrand said, "I don't think we're out of the dark but I think we've come a long way over the past few years."
He says he was instrumental in implementing the city's landlord/tenant policy, which has created a new revenue stream and could also boost the city's tax rolls since tenants must be identified, with that information shared with the city treasurer.
Cuts in spending could come with the elimination of medical benefits offered to city council members and its mayor. Milbrand is enrolled in the health plan but says he's not opposed to forfeiting them and would propose to do so for the positions of council and mayor.
Rhoades, who is a self-employed contractor, is enrolled in the city's health plan and says he did so after his first wife passed away six years ago. His second wife is insured and he says he'll look into switching to her plan, calling it a "likely change." He says he'd also forfeit the salary if it "became an issue."
The cost of medical benefits for elected officials were among the first topics broached by McGaw. He'd like to see those costs eliminated for the positions of mayor and city council. If elected, he says he won't enroll in the city's health plan and he'll donate his salary "down the middle" to the police department and toward the city pool.
He'd also like to see the city build up a reserve fund so that in the face of emergency, such as a building collapse, there would be available funding to deal with it.
Rhoades says he believes the city has "made tremendous strides" in improving its finances when it once "looked like we were going into Act 47," a state-controlled program for financially distressed communities.
"We're not out of the woods and I don't know that we ever will be," Rhoades said, pointing to a decreasing tax base and a decline in tax collection.
The landlord/tenant ordinance has helped add names to the tax rolls, he says. There is a backlog in paperwork at the treasurer's office to accomplish that, and he says he supports hiring a part-time person for that office to speed up that task.
A major key to the city's potential rebound is improving its available stock of housing, Rhoades says.
"We need to be able to attract people who want to live within the community," he said.
He says there are areas in Shamokin where entire blocks could be demolished, clearing land to construct affordable, single-family houses. It's an idea he has pitched before and continues to believe in, and he feels the Shamokin Redevelopment Authority would be vital in accomplishing such a project.
Shamokin's location is ideal, he says, as it's within striking distance of larger metropolitan areas. It also has strong sporting activities nearby, and the developing Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area could be a "tremendous asset." It could lead to the development of camping areas and perhaps a hotel/motel, he says.
Milbrand, too, spoke of tearing down buildings in a neighborhood overrun by blight and replacing them with "starter homes."
"I'd like to see it come to the point where people would move into the city instead of out of the city. ... What's wrong with promoting the Shamokin community for folks who work at Geisinger who could call this home? If we could get this place cleaned up and make it attractive, let's do that," Milbrand said.
Increasing the cleanliness of the city is important, Rhoades says. There are many people who do just that by taking care of their homes. Many others do not. He asks that more people clean their properties, help sweep sidewalks and streets, and "take more pride in the community that I think has faded away."
Rhoades wouldn't say the word "merge," but it's what he alluded to as he spoke of improving cooperations between Shamokin and Coal Township. It may not be plausible, or even wanted by residents of either community, but its pros and cons should be weighed through a study.
"I hate to use the word (merge). It seems like you're taking away something. I wonder what you could create by creating a new community of the two? That would be something I'd like to breach a study on and see where we could go with that."
Rhoades continued, "I put myself out on a line for saying that. ... As elected officials, we need to look at how we could better serve our citizens."
Milbrand believes the city's future is correlative to the health of its downtown. Things aren't so great along Independence Street, and he says it's time to reinvest there, perhaps through a Main Street program.
Shamokin, he says, is far enough from area malls and other popular retail areas that the retail economy downtown could bounce back if area consumers are supportive.
"Live here, shop here. ... Why go out of town to buy things that you could have in the downtown?"
Current business owners could band together, work with the city and assist in resuscitating Independence Street. Those efforts could also help entice others to invest downtown.
"It's tough, but there possibly could be some entrepreneurs out that there that would want to start a small business," Milbrand said, before referring to his own venture into busing when he purchased Catawese Coach Lines. "I did it. I took over a small business at 50 years old. I'd like to see other people follow suit."
He says there also must be an initiative to develop professional buildings or perhaps a professional center in the city.
Danville's downtown has retail shops, restaurants and professional services. It's bolstered by the presence of Geisinger, Milbrand says, but Shamokin has now has that presence, too, with Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital. He believes the health care company's potential to reinvest locally could not only stimulate the local economy but also could turn Shamokin into a "sleeper community" for its employees.
McGaw says the ideas expressed both by Milbrand and Rhoades about building single-family homes and investing in the downtown are ideas he could support.
He spoke of a homeowner on South Shamokin Street who leveled an old home and built a new one with a garage. It sits between two other good homes.
"That house raised the value to the left of it and the right of it. It made that block more attractive," he said.
He says he "can't imagine the cost" of leveling a city block, but plugging away at such an initiative could pay dividends.