AUBURN — Nearly a dozen candidates for City Council had only a few minutes Tuesday to make their case to voters at the Auburn Public Library, hitting on issues like high property taxes, the school system and attracting new residents and business.

The 90-minute forum, moderated by Auburn resident and former Lewiston Public Library Director Rick Speer, gave a brief snapshot of the issues facing elected officials in 2019.

The candidates described a city at an important juncture, with questions over how — and where — the city should grow, along with a new Comprehensive Plan coming in 2020, and a new high school on the horizon.

Roughly 40 people attended the event, with 14 candidates jostling for the seven council seats. Eleven candidates attended.

Most candidates described high property taxes as the biggest hurtle to attracting new growth in the city, while others, pointing to the city’s recent discussions over the agricultural zone, said Auburn needs smart growth that focuses on the downtown and walkable streets.

Candidates were each given one minute for introductions, followed by two-minute responses to a limited number of questions. In response to a question from Speer over what candidates believe is the most important issue facing the city, many said property taxes.

“Property taxes are the biggest driver as why people leave,” said Rhyanna Larose, who is running for Ward 4 councilor.

She said the city needs to focus on its small businesses that “make Auburn unique,” and create a walkable downtown that can attract younger generations.

Her opponent, Brian Carrier, also said he’d “take a deep dive” into the budget to find savings, as well as make sure the city has the infrastructure and business climate that can support new economic development.

Matt Leonard, a former executive director of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, who is running for an at-large seat, said on multiple occasions he’s running because “taxes are too high, it’s become too difficult to do business in the city, and Auburn needs fresh leadership.”

Leonard, who also served on the Twin Cities anti-merger campaign two years ago, said the city could save millions if it renegotiated its interlocal agreements with Lewiston.

Sitting councilors Holly Lasagna and Bob Hayes commented on the recent discussions by the council on Auburn’s agricultural zone.

“You’ve got to grow, but do it in a controlled fashion,” Hayes said.

Hayes’ opponent in Ward 2, Tim MacLeod, said the city needs to focus on attracting younger people, adding services such as electric charging stations and high-speed internet.

Lasagna said forming the new Agriculture Committee is important, adding that the council needs to work more collaboratively with the Planning Board on the issue.

Dan Herrick, a former councilor running for Ward 3, said the agricultural zone discussion is about housing. He said the city needs more tax revenue from businesses rather than depending on residents.

“Housing is not the answer,” he said. “We need industrial and commercial development.”

His opponent, Stephen Milks, said he owns seven properties in the city.

“It’s a big challenge for owners to keep rents in control while taxes are going up,” he said. “We need to create an environment that attracts business.”

There are five candidates running for two at-large seatsy held by Councilors David Young and Belinda Gerry.

Katherine Boss, running for an at-large seat, said the biggest issue facing the city is divisive political discourse. She added that the City Council needs to do a better job of “crafting clear goals” when tackling an issue.

“If we don’t do it, and it turns divisive, we stagnate our ability to make any progress,” she said.

Asked how Auburn can best attract new residents, many said the city needs to capitalize on Greater Portland’s bursting housing market.

Hayes said the city needs to promote its employment opportunities, new high school and look at developing land closer to its urban core or along the turnpike.

MacLeod, like others, said Auburn’s downtown could be a shopping destination if made safer and more walkable.

Carrier said the recent strategic planning process highlighted the need for more housing in areas that people want to live.

“Safe rental housing is very hard to find,” Boss said.

“We’re already doing it. We’re already growing,” Young said. “We’re the best kept secret. We have the location, but we have to figure out how to manage it.”

Leonard said people are attracted to Auburn, but the high taxes and school system are ultimately a turnoff.

“People go to other communities,” he said.

Gerry said that much like neighboring Lewiston, Auburn does not have the quality of housing needed to attract people.

Questions from the audience Tuesday dealt with the city’s image and school system. Asked what councilors could do to influence the quality of schools, many said support teachers and push school officials to focus on the curriculum for the new Edward Little High School.

Larose said that unless outside socioeconomic factors like homelessness, nutrition and family support are addressed, the school system will continue to struggle.

“If they go to school hungry they aren’t going to learn. We need to look at it a little differently,” she said.

Boss said the city needs to give teachers more of a voice, and that the best thing the council can do is appoint a thoughtful representative to the School Committee.

Leonard urged voters to support putting “new blood” on the School Committee.

Lasagna suggested the Auburn business community take a more active role in Auburn’s career and technical education, which she said could “create pipelines for our students.”

“Getting a new school is like giving a teenager a new car,” MacLeod said. “Its about what’s going on in the inside.”

The candidates for City Council are:

Ward 1: Michael Farrell, Holly Lasagna (incumbent)

Ward 2: Robert Hayes (incumbent), Timothy MacLeod

Ward 3: Daniel Herrick, Stephen Milks

Ward 4: Brian Carrier, Rhyanna Larose

Ward 5: Leroy Walker

At-large (two are elected): Katherine Boss, Brad Farrell, Belinda Gerry (incumbent), Matthew Leonard, David Young (incumbent)


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