- Special Sections
- Public Notices
TELL CITY – The two women vying for mayor in Tell City cited accomplishments and pledged to bar politics from decision-making during a political forum Thursday night but clashed over the state of city finances and the way the city has pushed for annexation.
Republican Mayor Gayle Strassell and Democrat Clerk-Treasurer Barbara Ewing faced off Thursday evening during a political forum hosted by The Perry County News and Perry County Chamber of Commerce at the Schergens Center. The two took the floor after series of storms passed over the city but set off their own fireworks in sometimes tense exchanges over city issues.
“When I was elected four years ago, I focused on the need for Tell City to stop the decline in our population,” Strassell said in her opening statement. “Our population must grow to support the services our citizens need and demand.”
Through her first term, the mayor cited fewer vacant buildings along Main Street, formation of a regional arts commission and other committees dedicated to the beautification of the city as some of her achievements when asked by News Editor Vince Luecke to look back over the past four years.
“There are so many things that are happening,” she continued. “So many groups are getting together and all working for the one common goal, to improve Tell City.”
Strassell added that the city has made improvements at city parks by repairing or putting in new playground equipment, adding a drug-sniffing dog to the Tell City Police Department and bringing nearly $2 million in federal and state grants to help with city projects, including $750,000 of that going to help low-income families make home repairs.
To sum up her first term as mayor, Strassell read from her 2006 State of the City address. “The remarkable evolution we are witnessing is not the result of a small group of privileged individuals dictating to the community what they can and cannot have. Instead our growth will be attributed to the people of Tell City working together like they have in years past.”
Asked to identify a failure, she said she was being unable to combine utility bills for citizens so they would no longer have to pay two bills and go to two different places to pay them.
In her 20 years as Tell City’s clerk-treasurer, Ewing told audience members, she has worked on 20 annual budgets and her knowledge of how the city works financially and about the management of tax dollars cannot be matched.
“During those 20 years I have gained valuable knowledge of budgeting, the finances of the city and what I call the nuts and bolts of the operation of the city,” she said. “To me, that is valuable experience and I am very proud to offer that to the mayor’s office.”
Of her successes, she pointed out that when she first started, employees kept records manually but she has taken the office through numerous computer upgrades and has invested funds that have brought more than $1 million into the city. “That is money you, the taxpayers, have not had to contribute for the well-being of the city,” Ewing said, adding that she has found ways to save money and be efficient, sparing taxpayers.
While Ewing will no longer be the city’s clerk-treasurer after this election, she placed more improvements in the 2008 budget and is eager to see them carried out. Ewing said she wasn’t always able to give every customer the answer they were looking for but said she always put service to the public first.
“I’ve not always been able to accomplish everything a citizen has asked but the main item is to treat them fairly,” she said.
The two candidates disagreed over whether the city’s clerk-treasurer should be called the city’s chief financial officer.
“This is the only place where I’ve heard the clerk-treasurer referred to as chief financial officer,” Strassell said in her time for rebuttal. In her opinion, the incumbent said, she sees the clerk-treasurer’s office as the city’s accountant who distributes funds in ways ordered by the common council.
Luecke broke format and gave Ewing a chance to respond. She said members of the Indiana League Of Municipal Clerk-Treasurers are often recognized as the chief financial officers of their communities and said she is “proud of that distinction.”
“Growth to any community is essential,” Ewing said. “A community must grow to remain healthy, however, the current annexation plan as presented to the council, by the mayor, does present some concerns to me.”
In August The News reported the city was taking steps to annex 790 acres that cover areas on the north, east and south sides of Tell City. She questioned why the selected areas were picked and why voluntary annexation wasn’t considered. As mayor, she said she has the responsibility to make sure she’s being responsible in her recommendation to the council and called the current plan a “shotgun approach.”
Ewing said there was lack of input from the council about the fiscal plan. “As clerk-treasurer I was not consulted on the development of the fiscal plan for this annexation,” Ewing continued.
In her opening statement, Strassell said the annexation will generate new property taxes, help public-safety expenses and open the door to new funding. “These areas already have most of our services that our citizens receive but have not contributed to our efforts,” she said, adding later that the city will recover money already spent to give them certain services.
As far as why the area was picked, she said they followed roads to make boundary lines and the areas did not require adding another trash route. Department heads drove out to see what the problems could be and what departments’ costs will be, she added.
“We should have never offered theses services out in the county without having an agreement on annexation because that has cost the taxpayers here,” Strassell said.
A strategic maintenance plan and a plan to address storm-water runoff are what the city needs to help its infrastructure, according to Ewing. In her opening statement, she pointed out the city’s streets and sidewalks show deterioration. “This is not a result of the quality city employees we have, but it’s due to not having a maintenance plan intact,” she said.
When prompted about how to ensure new development doesn’t make the city’s current drainage problem worse, Ewing said she’s looked into developing a rate tier that allows the city to give developers who show incentive in building retention ponds or underground storage facilities to control runoff a reduction in their rate.
The Democrat also cited 17th, 18th and 23rd streets as other places that need the city’s attention and commended Strassell on the work on 14th Street. “Those people experienced a water back-up problem and they did deserve to have that issue addressed,” she added.
With the streets Ewing addressed, Strassell said the city spent $15,000 to have engineers see what the problem was. It can be fixed she said, but because of the tight budget, the city doesn’t have the more than $300,000 needed.
“My administration has solved problems with surface-water drainage, which cause septic back-up that have been ignored by previous administrations,” the mayor said earlier in the forum. “This was done with federal and state grants, not citizens’ tax dollars.
In reference to Windy Creek, Strassell said there is little the city can do to help the overflow problem there because of restrictions in place by the Corps of Engineers and Department of Natural Resources. City employees don’t patrol it all the time since it’s mostly private property so citizens must tell them when there is a problem, she said.
“As a city we cannot ignore the situation,” Ewing said in her rebuttal, adding she’s personally walked the creek and its tributaries. “Health issues, property loss. It’s real and those residents have real concern.”
The mayor’s job isn’t accounting, Strassell said in response to Luecke asking about the city’s operating balance declining. She said she relies on reports given to her by the State Board of Accounts and information from the clerk-treasurer.
Because of Indiana’s change in how to collect taxes, she said, cities all over the state “cringe” on how they are going to keep everyone employed and pay bills.
Strassell said she inquired about the last four years with the state auditor and at the end of 2003 the city’s account showed $686,794 and at the end of 2006 it showed $763,733. “To say all these things and to talk about my spending when it’s really unjustified, I don’t spend a penny that isn’t approved by the city council,” she said.
The mayor didn’t doubt Ewing’s ability to “outtalk” her since she’s been clerk-treasurer for 20 years but said her experience in the banking industry and manufacturing meant she was no financial novice.
Since Ewing was not sure which figures the mayor was referring to, she said she would stick with the original question and based her reply on state documents.
“When I noted the city’s operating balance had dropped close to $400,000 over the last four years, it came from a certified budget order from the Department of Local Government Finance, approved by the state and city,” she said.
Over the last four years, Ewing continued, expenditures have increased more than projected revenues and when that happens, they have to spend savings or get funds from the operating fund.
Strassell said the city had been investing money in areas that needed attention and pointed to the relatively stable level of city debt.
“Since I’ve been mayor I haven’t increased the city’s debt,” she said, adding that of the city’s more than $7 million debt, she’s only added about $545,000. “So we might have been spending money but evidently I’ve been paying cash” instead of financing, she said.
Politics And The Office
Luecke asked the candidates to share how they have, or will, keep politics out of the mayor’s office.
After taking office, Strassell said there were only two people who changed jobs. One was not reappointed while the other was moved to another department and this was done, not because she knew they worked hard to not get her elected, but because she looked at how they did in their jobs.
“I’ve never hired anyone based only on politics,” Strassell said. “I’m proud of it. That’s how it should be. We’re a small town. It shouldn’t be clean sweeps when the top of the staff changes. We’re a nice town. We have nice people and this business of protecting your future, vote Democrat – give me a break.”
In her response Ewing said politics is defined as the art of governing and “this is what this is all about. It’s how you govern.” As clerk-treasurer, she said she worked with both parties and noted that she worked well with Republican council members and as mayor, she will continue to work with both parties.
“Politics will not, and I made that statement in my opening address tonight, politics will not enter into the Ewing administration,” she said.
To The Future
The candidates were asked to look in to the future and share what they would like to have accomplished by October 2008. “I want to be able to offer to the citizens effective leadership,” Ewing said. Also, she introduced a plan called Partners in Pride that pairs citizens with the city.
Out of this, she said, will flow a new youth council, bring back a summer arts program and implement a traveling City Hall where common-council meetings would be held in different districts.
“I feel like I’m the best choice for voters and I will be re-elected,” Strassell said. In her second term she said she envisioned continued work on the riverfront, festivals being held there and the river becoming a greater source of pride for Tell City.
She said she also wants the housing program to continue to provide safe homes for seniors.