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Newton mayoral candidates spar over affordable housing, staff turnover in first debate

Posted by Evan Allen  October 22, 2013 10:16 PM

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NEWTON – With just two weeks to go before the general election, Mayor Setti Warren and challenger Ted Hess-Mahan sparred Tuesday night over staff turnover in City Hall, unfunded retiree benefit liabilities, and affordable housing in the first one-on-one debate of the mayoral race.

Warren, who was elected in 2009, championed his work creating a capital plan for the city and eliminating the budget deficit, while Hess-Mahan, who has been a member of the Board of Aldermen for the last 10 years, emphasized his experience as an attorney and advocate for the homeless and people with disabilities.

The two candidates will face off in the general election Tuesday, Nov. 5.

“When I decided to run for mayor back in 2009 it was clear that our city was not living up to its full potential,” said Warren. “In four short years, I worked in a collaborative way with our unions, our employees, to ensure that we had a long term sustainable financial plan for our city… We need to continue what we started.”

But Hess-Mahan, who supported Warren in his run four years ago, said he had major concerns about how the city was being run.

“Why am I running, and why does Newton need a new mayor?” asked Hess-Mahan. “Briefly, $600 million in unfunded liabilities... An administration that prides itself on openness and transparency but didn’t exercise either on Engine 6 or the Austin Street project. An administration that claims efficiency but has a problem with senior management.”

Hess-Mahan said he believed the biggest issue facing the city is the $600 million post employment benefits liability. When Warren took office, Hess-Mahan said, that liability was at $532 million. He said the city should phase in changes to health plans, and consider prorating benefits based on years of service, increasing premium share and raise age and years of service eligibility requirements.

But Warren said that his administration has taken steps to address the liability, which, in 2011 when he settled contracts with all the city’s unions, had swelled to $640 million.

Warren said the big issue is long-term sustainable finances. The contracts he settled with the unions, he said, will save the city $200 million. His administration, he said, has created a rainy day fund from scratch, which now has $13 million. And zero-basing the city’s budgets has saved $23 million, he said.

Hess-Mahan hit the mayor over problems in the police department and turnover among city staff. The former police chief, who Warren fired for conduct unbecoming, was recently found by an arbitrator to have been wrongly terminated, and a police department secretary who was accused of theft from the department is currently suing the city, the mayor, and several employees, in state and federal court, after she was put on paid administrative leave and ultimately acquitted of the theft charges.

Hess-Mahan said that the staff turnover have led to a demoralized work force that makes mistakes, citing a recent traffic problem in Newton Centre caused by an intersection reconfiguration that the city eventually reversed.

Warren said that one of the hard things about being a leader is making tough calls.

“I made a decision to remove a police chief because of conduct I don’t think is worthy of leadership in the city,” said Warren. “I’m pleased and proud of the fact that we have a police chief now with professionalism and integrity.”

Warren said he is dedicated to bringing affordable housing to the city, pointing to the recently approved residential, retail and office development the Station at Riverside, which would bring in 44 affordable housing units, and the Austin Street project, still in the very early stages, which could add 25 more. He also pointed to zoning reforms that encourage affordable housing.

But Hess-Mahan pointed to controversy over Engine 6, a proposed affordable housing development for formerly chronically homeless people that the mayor refused to grant federal funding over the summer, as an example of an administration he described as unwilling to fight for affordable housing.

“There’s two things you need to end homelessness,” said Hess-Mahan. “You gotta have housing, and you gotta have courage. And this administration did not show either.”

The candidates also discussed the possibility of building a sixteenth elementary school in the Upper Falls to accommodate the city’s swelling enrollment numbers – an idea that Hess-Mahan supports and that Warren has said is not in the city’s plans. Hess-Mahan said another school would promote walkability and equity between the city’s villages, while Warren said the capital plan already addresses enrollment by enlarging existing schools.

Both candidates said they support an ordinance that requires residents to shovel their sidewalks; both said they would support charter reform; and both said they support the work of area councils.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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