NEWTON — Six candidates for mayor tackled economic issues during a forum Thursday, as each pitched their visions for building a more business-friendly environment in Newton that would attract more companies and their workers to settle here.
The session, organized by the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, focused on business issues for a crowd of about 50 at the Wells Avenue office park.
The chamber represents business in both communities, but candidates at the Newton forum argued that the city must do more to remain competitive in attracting businesses and workers.
Candidates attending the forum were city councilors Amy Mah Sangiolo, Ruthanne Schwartz Fuller, and Scott Lennon, along with residents Eli Katzoff, Geoffrey Woodward, and Al Cecchinelli.
On paper, Newton is an economic treasure:It’s close to Boston with a large, well-educatedand well-off population, plus access to the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 128, as well as the MBTA’s subway, buses, and commuter rail.
But the city’s permitting process for businesses to locate here can be cumbersome, development of more affordable housing has been slow, and the city faces significant costs in upgrading its aging infrastructure, alongside costs of benefits for retirees.
Fuller, a councilor-at-large from Ward 7, argued that Newton needs to do a better job of developing plans for housing, business, and transportation, and then taking regulatory steps to help reach those goals.
She pointed to neighboring Needham, which has aggressively worked to attract companies through business-friendly zoning and other initiatives. That includes TripAdvisor, which actually moved from Newton to Needham in recent years.
“Needham proactively thought about redeveloping their city. We didn’t,” said Fuller.
Sangiolo, a councilor-at-large from Ward 4, said Newton needs to have a better-coordinated permitting process for business.
She noted that when the New England Book Fair had to relocate from its Newton Highlands home earlier this year, it faced a difficult process of obtaining the proper permits from city departments. The book fair later reopened at the Marshall’s Plaza on Needham Street.
“If we have that coordination, that sort of ‘one-stop-shopping’ kind of mentality, that would go a long way to make it easier for businesses to be able to thrive and locate here,” said Sangiolo.
Lennon, who represents Ward 1 and is the council president, said he would be a strong advocate for the city in improving transit, particularly as mixed-use developments on Austin Street and Washington Place, which include affordable housing units, are built.
Lennon said the city should devote some of its efforts to encouraging affordable housing for local workers, including police, firefighters, teachers, as well as employees of local companies.
“I think we need to look at creative ways to find affordable units, like we’re doing in those mixed-use developments, with our accessory apartment ordinance... that people can take advantage of,” said Lennon.
Katzoff, who operates a video production company in Newton, said one challenge for businesses is getting foot traffic from customers. Newton needs to attract more patrons to locally owned stores, he said.
Doing that, “I think we can create a place where it is sustainable to open a shop,” said Katzoff.
Cecchinelli said the city should promote more affordable housing, and create incentives for developers such as tax breaks.
Sangiolo was the only candidate at Thursday’s forum who said she would seek a Proposition 2 1/2 tax override during her first term as mayor.
She pointed to the city’s school budget and capital spending needs, and said she would spend her first year planning an override proposal and then put it before voters the second year.
“What we really need to do is make sure that . . . we are all willing to invest,” said Sangiolo.
Neither Lennon nor Fuller would commit one way or another, and each said they would need to study the issue.
Katzoff and Woodward also did not say whether they would support an override, while Cecchinelli said he wouldn’t support an override.
One area the city faces a financial challenge is pensions and post-employment benefits for retired city workers.
In 2016, pensions had an unfunded liability of $317 million, and post-employment benefits liability of $719 million, according to a Standard and Poor’s analysis.
The firm reported that nearly 10 percent of Newton’s total governmental expenditures in 2016 went toward those costs.
In February, current Mayor Setti Warren outlined the city’s strategy for fully funding the city’s pension liability by 2029 and benefits by 2042.
The city currently has a AAA bond rating with Moody’s Investor Services and Standard and Poor’s Financial Services, although both pointed to the combined cost of city pensions and post-employment benefits as a credit weakness.
Greg Reibman, the chamber president who moderated the forum, asked Katzoff, Woodward, and Cecchinelli why voters should pick one of them over the city councilors in the race.
Cecchinelli pointed to his years involved in city politics, including his participation in groups like the local Republican committee and the Newton Taxpayer Association.
“I have a right to be up here,” said Cecchinelli.
Woodward said he was driven to represent the citizens of Newton and provide solutions to problems facing them. He currently works at the US Department of Health and Human Services as a grant writer.
“I have had a whole career of solving problems,” said Woodward.
Katzoff said members of the Newton community are disconnected, and as mayor, he wants to find ways to bring people together.
One area that divides the city councilors from the other candidates is fundraising, according to data from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Fuller is in the lead, having raised nearly $224,000 from November through July, with Lennon coming in second with about $166,000 in fundraising. Sangiolo, who filed paperwork with the state in March declaring her intent to run for Mayor, has raised almost $37,000 from April through July, records show.
Three of the remaining candidates — Katzoff, Cecchinelli, and Richard Saunders — combined have raised less than $2,500, while Woodward has not reported any fundraising through the end of July, according to state records.
Saunders did not attend Thursday’s forum.
Warren, who took office in 2010, has announced he would not seek a third term. Instead, Warren is among a group of Democrats seeking to replace Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.
All seven Newton mayoral candidates will appear on the city’s preliminary election ballot on Sept. 12. The two candidates with the most votes will go on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.