NEWBURYPORT — The city’s three mayoral candidates discussed their plans for streets and sidewalks during a forum hosted by Local Pulse on Saturday, recognizing the topic as one of the biggest and most consistent issues raised by residents.
The forum, which featured Plum Island resident and U.S. Navy veteran Warren Russo, School Committee member Sean Reardon and City Councilor at large Charlie Tontar, was moderated by internet radio host Joe DiBiase at The Daily News.
Addressing DiBiase’s first question, which sought to get each candidate’s take on bonding and other funding sources for streets and sidewalks, Russo said his primary concern is how such projects are managed.
He pointed to the faulty paint striping job on High Street in 2019 that led the city to take legal action against a contractor, saying, “I didn’t see any city officials managing the paving of High Street, so it was done wrong; it was done incorrectly; it had to be done over again.”
If elected mayor, Russo said he would supervise and observe “every city project on a daily basis to make sure it’s done correctly.”
“You shouldn’t have to file lawsuits against a contractor in order to get them to do the job right,” he said. “We need city officials out on the job, supervising.”
Russo also cited a need to coordinate with neighboring communities to make sure streets are “smooth and level” from beginning to end.
Reardon said the need to pave, repair and maintain city streets and sidewalks is “a quality of life issue and a safety issue for our residents.”
Having spent the past several months knocking on the doors of residents, the candidate said streets and sidewalks are, “by far, the number one issue that I hear from residents.”
In terms of funding, Reardon is in favor of bonding. He also wants to have an in-house Department of Public Services crew that can work on streets and sidewalks.
“There’s only so many people in the state that actually do these projects, so it really isn’t always about money,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s about how much can you do in one year. If we look at that a little closer — even if it’s just sidewalks — I think we can really make some headway around the city.”
Tontar said “there’s no question” that streets and sidewalks are a priority, but there’s a reason the maintenance has fallen behind.
“The only way we could have spent more money on streets and sidewalks in the past is if we had not spent money on something else,” he said, citing the need for other past projects such as building the Francis T. Bresnahan Elementary School or the Senior Community Center.
“I think — now that we have addressed those needs that were a higher priority — it is time to switch to focus on streets and sidewalks,” Tontar said.
He added that the city recently hired engineering consultant BETA Group Inc., which graded every street in the city to determine how much work is needed, as well as the status of water pipes beneath these roads.
BETA is putting together a plan that seeks to replace every street in the city over the course of 20 years.
Tontar is also hopeful the city will receive money from the federal infrastructure bill, which was recently passed by the Senate and now goes to the House of Representatives. He said the availability of that funding would have the potential to free up the city’s debt service for use on other projects.
Speaking on what measures they would take to protect Plum Island, both Tontar and Russo cited the need for a hard structure or seawall.
Reardon said the city needs to advocate for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to receive funding through the federal infrastructure bill, so the dredging can take place this fall. He also emphasized the importance of supporting Plum Island residents, saying they have felt neglected for years.
Discussing the need for affordable housing, Russo said the city needs to focus on increasing commercial development “so we relieve taxpayers of tremendous tax burden and that will lower the cost of living for everyone.”
Tontar and Reardon each acknowledged the impact that the lack of affordable housing has on local businesses with many of its workers unable to live in the city.
All three candidates agreed that the city has long needed a hotel and that any Waterfront West plan needs to fit into the character of the city. Russo raised concerns about how long it has taken for both to happen.
Tontar and Reardon said they would like to see further discussions with New England Development about Waterfront West — a 4-acre-plus lot between Michael’s Restaurant and The Tuscan Sea Grill – and construction of a hotel there. Russo said he would like to pursue other locations for a hotel, such as the former Kmart building in Port Plaza.
One candidate will be eliminated in the Sept. 21 preliminary election, with two facing off in the general election Nov. 2. Early voting in Newburyport starts Monday, Sept. 13.
To listen to the forum go to www.newburyportnews.com/LocalPulse.
Staff reporter Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.