Election 2013: Milbrand says key to future of Shamokin found downtown
SHAMOKIN - Mayoral candidate Bill Milbrand is optimistic when it comes to the city's well-being.
On a scale of 1-to-10 on the current overall state of Shamokin, Milbrand gave it a 6. His glass-half-full outlook coupled with a self-described passion for his native city and its citizens is a driving force behind his candidacy.
On Tuesday, he hopes his experience as a public servant - four years on city council and decades as a volunteer fireman - will result in his election to become the next mayor.
"I would like to lead this city and hopefully we can change the thinking a little bit and try some new ideas,"
Milbrand, 53, said in an interview with The News-Item ahead of the general election.
Milbrand wouldn't get into specifics about all the ideas he has if he were elected mayor. In general, he said he's hoping to create new revenue sources by enhancing the downtown. He's also interested in spurring a downtown alliance with the Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Milbrand doesn't support taking a $2.8 million loan, requiring a payback of more than $5 million over 40 years, to renovate the American Legion Building on Independence Street, as is been under consideration by council. He doesn't foresee a significant return on investment and doesn't believe it will have a lasting economic impact on the rest of the downtown. He would rather continue seeking grant opportunities with less financial risk to renovate the aging landmark, which he doesn't believe is at risk of closing. He would like to see the Legion gym made available to the general public since it's funded with public money, and would prefer a dedicated manager oversee its operation.
If Shamokin is going to take a loan or invest such a large sum of money, Milbrand said he'd like to spread it about. He says he would research opportunities to invest in buildings to make them more attractive for potential businesses.
Shamokin is about 1 square mile. It doesn't have much space for large industrial buildings, he says. Also, it's too far from the interstates to be attractive to commercial and industrial real estate investors. Instead, he says city officials must focus on the downtown.
"That would be my ultimate goal. It's not an easy task. I'm not promising that. I'm not promising anything. I don't know what we could do," he said. "But I do know one thing - the community, the taxpayers and everybody else in this community has got to stand behind City Hall and help us to what we're trying to do. ... The more support we get from the community, the better off we're going to be."
Niche businesses could work downtown and could help draw more traffic into Shamokin, he said. But it takes risk and entrepreneurs willing to take that risk. Tax breaks might help, he said.
"One thing we can do is we can offer some incentives like tax breaks for startup businesses. I think that would be a great incentive for someone to start a business here," Milbrand said.
He says he's committed to seeing through the grant programs the city's already involved in for the stone channels of Shamokin Creek and Carbon Run and the "99 steps."
Earlier this year, the city agreed to hire a firm to test an assessment in a city ward. That plan was tabled. However, Milbrand believes the city should do just that: hire assessors and pay commission for every person or property they add to the city's tax rolls.
He helped in the creation and adoption of the city's landlord-tenant policy, which is designed to identify tenants residing in registered rental properties. Milbrand says it needs to be beefed up. Council voted this year on the first reading of an ordinance that would require rental inspections; a second vote hasn't come, but Milbrand believes it's something council should pursue.
Health care benefit
The individual cost of health care for elected officials has been kept from public disclosure, which has landed the matter in court. But Milbrand provided The News-Item a pay stub he receives from the city, which shows he pays $100 per month toward a health care insurance plan that, for single-person coverage, Milbrand said, costs the city $813.59 a month.
Also, Milbrand receives $3,250 annually, a stipend paid to all councilmen, paid in monthly installments of $270.83.
Milbrand, who's been on the health care plan all four years he's been in office, said he didn't put much thought into the financial impact the insurance has on the city budget. He does now.
"I actually kind of felt guilty about it" when it became a public topic, he said. "I really did, but I didn't know quite how to handle it."
Milbrand said he's working with a broker toward purchasing a private plan for himself beginning in 2014. He'll exit the city's health plan, and he won't accept the waiver fee offered for doing so. Discontinuing it for all elected officials and the related savings, estimated at more than $100,000, should be discussed when next year's budget is being put together, he said. He said he'll raise the issue with fellow councilmen and the mayor, but Milbrand said he won't make a motion on his own to bring a vote on eliminating the benefit.
"I'm going to see what it looks like in the budget. I think it's something we're going to have to discuss in budget meetings. Depending on the budget, I think it's something that can be cut," Milbrand said.
He believes research is needed on the potential regionalization of police coverage in the Shamokin and Coal Township areas. He acknowledged it's an issues that extends beyond the city's borders and would take a lot of cooperation. But he says he thinks it merits investigation and consideration.
The police department budget makes up about half of the city's total operating budget. There are three vacancies on the police force and the potential for retirements in the coming years.
"It's inevitable. And maybe after the regionalization of the police department and we see how that works out, maybe regionalization of some others, like the fire department" could be considered, he said. "We work together anyhow."