Improving communication with Penn State and doing further work to preserve borough neighborhoods are top on the list of important issues facing the State College Borough Council, according to the four candidates running for three seats.
Two current members will leave the council, due to term limits, and Councilman Tom Daubert is up for re-election, which the Democrat is seeking. Democrat and former council member Theresa Lafer, current Planning Commission Chairman and Democrat Evan Myers and former borough police officer and Republican Rick Garis also are vying for those seats.
The council recently voted to remain in the Centre Region Code Agency after a monthslong discussion on whether to withdraw. Daubert said he doesn’t think the current council will reconsider that right now, but that it will ask for additional information from the agency.
“We’ll keep the pressure on to make it an organization to serve us the way it should,” he said.
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Daubert and other candidates described the borough as “landlocked” and said officials must be “very careful” about spending money in order to keep services and not raise taxes.
“It’s always a struggle, but I think that’s something we must do,” he said.
Daubert said he’d like to have more interaction between the council and the university.
“There’s a lot of interaction between the staff people of both places,” he said. “We have not talked to any policymakers at the university for a long time. I’d like to really get moving on that.”
Garis said he thinks the big issue for the council will be budgetary, citing previous borough documents that note the borough’s declining tax and revenue base and “expectation of the community for continued and enhanced services,” according to the 2009 strategic plan.
“We’re going to have a problem maintaining our standard of living in State College,” he said. “We have to figure out how to raise revenue or cut things that we have enjoyed in the past.”
Garis said potential options could include raising property taxes, instituting a local sales tax or increasing permit fees.
On the council’s debate over staying in the regional code agency, Garis said he supports its final decision to do so.
“I think you’re in it or you’re not in it, and my choice is to stay in it and make adjustments in-house,” he said, offering the idea of hiring a staff member whose only job is to respond to rental housing enforcement issues.
On borough and university relations, Garis said both entities have done a lot to address issues and that they can only continue to get the message out about local laws.
Lafer said ordinance and housing issues affect the entire community, not just students.
“These are aimed at people trying to get around the rules, whether they’re homeowners, permanent residents, absentee landlords,” she said. “We want to keep the students in the neighborhoods safe and sound. We simply want them to be part of an inclusionary neighborhood.”
The idea has been offered at council meetings to place a check box on rental permits that identify a home as student-occupied, but Lafer said tracking those homes isn’t as simple as that.
“There are a lot of apartments and rentals, so it’s not a small question,” she said. “I think we’re going to have to work with the codes and zoning offices to find a functional way of tracking this.”
She said the council also should have “more direct, substantive” discussions with university trustees and administrators, in an effort for an increased open relationship between the entities.
The borough also should continue to work with young entrepreneurs, Lafer said, adding that State College tends to be on the “cutting edge” on that issue.
Myers has publicly made the call numerous times for Penn State officials who can answer questions on development plans to attend Planning Commission meetings, and he said such communication needs some work.
“While Penn State has listened to some extent, they still need to be more forthcoming in a public way with information,” he said. “I think it’s the public’s right to know what’s going on with a major entity like Penn State. Even if it’s not the right to know, it’s being a good neighbor.”
Related to maintaining strong neighborhoods, Myers said he’d like to work on increasing homeownership by having the borough purchase or convert student homes and other rental properties back to family homes.
“I think there’s a unique opportunity right now, with all the apartments being built all over the place, for student homes to be turned back into family homes,” he said. “Even though State College is landlocked and we don’t want to look at raising taxes, a way to raise revenues is families paying real estate tax and income tax.”
Myers said, under that umbrella, the council should discuss seeking more affordable housing and regulating properties rented out for event weekends.