FITCHBURG — The four candidates battled each other over key issues during the preliminary mayoral debate held earlier this month and, on Tuesday, two of them will move on to the general election on Nov. 4.
Going for his fifth term, Mayor Stephen DiNatale faces three challengers, City Councilor-At-Large Samantha Squailia, School Committee member Maritza Knight and retired Fitchburg Police Officer Stanley Young.
The two candidates chosen on Tuesday will face off in a final debate on Oct. 26.
The preliminary mayoral debate was produced locally at the downtown Fitchburg Access Television (FATV) studio by both FATV staff and FLAP TV staff and aired live on Sept. 12. It can also be found at FATV.org.
The polls open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The following is part 2 of a two-part series covering the debate.
Next, Cormier wanted to hear what the candidates thought about rent control.
“I have concerns…” Squailia said. But it’s a ballot question. “We’ll see what voters say,” she said.
Young, while not all in for the rent control idea, said there needs to be some “moderate” oversight.
Knight said rents should be tracked to see that landlords don’t overcharge tenants, citing the city’s “60%” poverty rate. She also agreed with Young that seniors want – and deserve – to know what can be done about easing the tax burden on retirees. “We need to do more for those people who helped build this city,” she said.
DiNatale said there are abatement options and the elderly can seek relief via the assessors office.
“That’s news to me,” Young said. “Why not just lower the rate [for people over 65, with conditions].” He said it would be “challenging” to do that, but it’s a break that seniors need.
Squailia agreed that taxes are a key concern for many seniors. But. short of a targeted tax cut or an abatement, there are other things the city can do, such as participating in the Senior Tax Work Off Program, as many other cities and towns in Massachusetts do.
Under the program, which the city hasn’t adopted, seniors who qualify can volunteer a set number of hours in a municipal department in return for tax credit.
DiNatale skipped over Squailia’s suggestion but asked Young how his would work.
Young said a registry could be established to determine whether seniors qualify for a tax cut and reduce their bills accordingly.
“How do we make up that lost revenue?” the mayor asked.
“It all comes down to money,” Young agreed, but he has some ideas. He said they should hire temporary summer workers, for example, with no benefits. He said more funds could come from his idea for the city to run its own ambulance services as well as buy specific public works equipment that will save money, both suggestions which were mentioned by Young earlier in the debate.
Knight said she’d look at how other big cities deal with the issue, such as Washington, for example.
Getting back to Main Street
Cormier’s next asked if downtown upgrades were headed in the right direction.
“Yes,” said Squailia, citing the significant investments and the new two-way traffic pattern. Regarding the vacant commercial buildings that still line Main Street and abandoned mill buildings that dot the city, she said the best plan is to redevelop the properties, despite it being an effort that will take multiple decades.
“[It’s] best bang for our buck,” she said.
Still, she favors casting a wider net. “We need to go beyond…into the neighborhoods,” she said.
Young agreed. He’s on a committee that has toured the city more than once and, as a longtime resident, he’s noted the cluster of businesses around city hall that tend to “come and go,” he said. “We have public safety issues all over.”
Boulder Drive has been repaved “a few times” he said, and that’s a good thing, sprucing up a thoroughfare in the city. But there are still traffic problems to be addressed, he said.
DiNatale said his administration has “chipped away” at the city’s vacancy rate, but it’s a challenge that comes with peripheral costs. Replacing water mains to allow new construction, for example, and other expensive must-do items, can deter developers from considering a building rehab project. Some of the city’s CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds might help out with that, he said.
Knight said that downtown revitalization is important but not the whole picture.
“We can’t forget the neighborhoods,” she said.
The “run-down” Cleghorn area, for example, needs attention, Knight said. The restorative needs are many and dealt to be dealt with. “It’s not right,” she said. As mayor, she’ll strive to make things better “for all residents,” Knight said.
Fitchburg was once a “booming” city and it could be again, she said.
Harking back to downtown, Knight said parking there is still a problem.
Squailia disagreed. “The parking problem is largely perception,” she said, with two downtown parking garages and plenty of space up and down Main Street.
Young spotlighted the kinds of restaurants on upper Main Street as business ventures that are welcome but too pricey in his view. “Are we looking at less expensive” options? he asked.
DiNatale said it’s all good. “We think fine dining venues are wonderful!” he said.
Squailia pointed out that the city can’t determine which businesses want to locate on Main Street, or regulate how much they charge for goods and services. “But we can advocate…reach out,” she said.
Young said that’s what he meant, bringing in more family-friendly enterprises.
Squailia quickly came up with one. Putnam Street Lanes, which she said may be the “second oldest” candlepin bowling set-up in the country, is “very affordable” for families,” she said.
Better now than 8 years ago?
Candidates had the opportunity in the next question to give straight forward reviews of DiNatale’s performance as mayor and DiNatale took the opportunity to make a crucial point about online criticism. Cormier asked, “Are we better off now that we were eight years ago?”
Young said, “No.” DiNatale got off to a good start when he was first elected, he said, citing road work, razing derelict buildings and other proactive measures. But that changed over time, he said. The streets are not in good shape, government salaries seem to be headed up while other items in the budget are stressed. Streetlights that are out but not repaired, for example, like the one near his home on Arlington Street, which has been unlit for two years, he said, despite many calls to the city.
Other people have similar complaints, he said, aired on social media but ignored at City Hall. “I’d do better,” he said.
DiNatale defended his administration as accessible and transparent. “I’m not running for mayor of Facebook,” DiNatale said following Young’s comments.
“Yes, we’re better off now,” said DiNatale. He said the majority of the city budget is made up of “non-discretionary” expenses and bills must be paid; community development, the city’s buildings, veterans; public safety, public works, trash pickup; and of course schools – the largest piece; all of which must be paid for, DiNatale said. Meanwhile, he said costs like health insurance just keep getting higher.
“Where do you cut?” DiNatale said. And there are so many other things, he said, “we can’t touch.”
Knight’s answer to the moderator’s question was “No.”
“The city is not better off!” she said. She spotlighted the schools, indicating that the city may not get what it pays for. The education system has declined, she said, and things have not run smoothly over the last few years.
The school superintendent left the position and was replaced with a contractor. “Then Covid hit,” said Knight, who is a member of the School Committee.
Runaway salaries – excluding teachers – should be examined, she said, while the “academic achievement gap” has widened. As an educator with a doctoral degree and experience in the field, she said she could help.
“I can assist the superintendent” to close that gap, she said.
Squailia said she likes to believe the answer is, “Yes.” Despite fiscal woes and housing issues, “we’ve seen growth,” she said. “We are better off.” But, still, she said bad decisions and poor planning did occur.
As a whole, she said the city has come a long way and she’s optimistic about its future.
“We are doing well, but we need to keep it up,” Squailia said.
DiNatale objected to Knight’s comments about the schools. While MCAS scores for ELA (English Language Arts) are down, math and science scores have gone up, he said, and the graduation rate was 85.5% in 2022. Fitchburg High School got its accreditation and that’s good news, he said.
“The state doesn’t rank schools,” said DiNatale, addressing a comment from Knight that suggested otherwise.
In response to another comment from Knight, DiNatale said his source of the information he was providing was the Fitchburg School Committee, not “third-party” sources.
Next big thing?
Moving on, the moderator asked them to predict what the future would bring. With the paper mills –once a major employer in the city – long gone, he asked: “What’s the next big thing?
DiNatale said advances in development at the airport and the area around it were high on his list. It is now a landing and take-off site for the Lifeflight helicopter, and there’s an anaerobic digestion system in process. Also, bio-development. The city has“loads of vacant industrial space” available, he said.
Knight said the city is located over an aquifer and might tap into it for profit, by bottling the water. It was proposed, years ago, she said, but was turned down. As mayor, she’d take another look, she said.
“What sector will drive future growth?” is a many-faceted question, in Squailia’s view. “We’re diverse,” she said. Noting that the state is all-in for bio-medical facilities right now, the city can capitalize on that, she said. Finding suitable space shouldn’t be an issue, either.
In fact, it’s attracted new enterprises already, including “the artist community.” Fitchburg State University is one of the city’s biggest employers, and the cannabis industry has also moved in, creating mobs, as well as the Game On Fitchburg recreational facility.
Young agreed with her and Knight on gains in the airport area but it’s still underutilized, he said. Given that the railroad runs into the city, he’d advocate for a train stop there, which he said could “draw more industry,” that the city needs.
Squailia liked the idea. “It’s a connection opportunity…interesting,” she said.