WATERVILLE — The mayoral candidates Tuesday touted the city as a great place to live, work and retire and offered plans for maintaining that status.

The discussion included ways to help improve downtown.

Mayor Dana Sennett, a Democrat, said that people are living in second- and third-floor spaces downtown and that it is important that the area have plenty of parking.

“If we have a population that’s going to be staying downtown, it’ll be a vital downtown,” said Sennett, 59, an advertising account executive for the Morning Sentinel.

Unenrolled candidate Karen Heck, also 59 and a senior program officer for the Bingham Program, said she thinks the downtown already is being revived. A former vice president of the Board of Directors for Waterville Main Street, Heck said the city needs to strengthen connections between Colby College and the downtown.

Hundreds of students volunteer in the city, which needs to market downtown to students, according to Heck, a Colby graduate.

“I’d love to see the second floors developed,” she said, citing businessman Charlie Giguere’s recent project to renovate apartments on the corner of Silver and Main streets.

Roy, 37, owner of Andy’s DJ Service, said that as mayor, he would not really have much power to make things happen downtown but he could ask the City Council to form a steering committee to work with Waterville Main Street.

He said he remembers the former Levine’s clothing store downtown, but it’s hard to get such stores to move into a town when it is run-down. Waterville needs to make itself look better, he said.

“We really need to get more businesses to come down here,” he said.

Debate moderator Sandy Maisel asked candidates to discuss the kind of cooperation the city does not get from that state that would help the city.

Maisel noted that Reps. Thomas R.W. Longstaff and Henry Beck, both Democrats who represent parts of Waterville, were in the audience.

Sennett said anyone who has a problem can contact state representatives, and then the issue can be addressed through the legislative process. In the past, the city did not have a good connection with legislators, but the present representatives have been responsive, Sennett said.

“I think to get the information to somebody that can represent us is so important,” he said.

Heck said she was not sure the city is being represented well enough to ensure that state revenue to Waterville stops decreasing.

She said the state needs universal health insurance. One reason people are not starting businesses in the city is that health insurance costs are so high, according to Heck.

“That is critical for what is happening downtown,” she said.

Roy said the state needs to be stricter about prescription medication, because prescription drug abuse is hurting people. He said residents and councilors must work on that issue.

“I believe it’s up to the people of Waterville to get more involved, to have these problems brought to the council so the questions can be brought to the state,” he said.

Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, asked candidates about the city’s role in dealing with vacated and dilapidated buildings.

Roy proposed the city talk with apartment management companies in the city to see whether they can take some of those buildings off the city’s hands.

Sennett said the city has been addressing the issue of dilapidated buildings, and in some cases, taking them over and tearing them down.

“We worked quite diligently to get many of those homes off the (tax) rolls,” he said. “Some were quite difficult to do.”

Heck said the city has only one code enforcement officer, whereas it used to have two or three.

The city should put money into code enforcement and hold property owners responsible, she said.

“I don’t think we should allow people to have substandard housing,” she said.

Candidates discussed roads, specifically Eustis Parkway, which is in rough shape, according to city officials. The city is working with the state on a partnership to fix that street, which connects North and Main streets.

Heck said she understands Eustis Parkway was left unrepaired because the city did not want to raise taxes. She said she hopes people contact councilors and show up at budget meetings where issues such as roads are discussed.

“I totally agree with you that we need to fix Eustis Parkway,” she said.

Roy said the city officials are waiting for money to be released to fix that street.

“They’re doing all they can,” he said. “I’ve been at City Council meetings, and there’s not a lot of money to play with.”

Sennett said the city could raise taxes and fix roads, but he hears people saying they do not want taxes to increase. He said 50 percent of the city’s population is on a fixed income.

“There has to be some type of compromise,” he said.

Waterville is not an affluent community and its residents do not have a lot of money, he said.

“We struggle. We had to borrow money from our undesignated reserves to balance the budget.”

Former Mayor Thomas Nale asked the candidates whether they are willing to look at the city’s welfare budget.

That budget is about $250,000 a year, he said. Of that amount, 50 percent is used for administrative costs, and three people work in that department, he said, adding that earlier, only one person worked there.

Heck said she would look into it. Roy said he thinks the whole system needs to be looked at. Sennett said all the departments should be reviewed to make sure they are not spending excessively on administration.

City Manager Michael Roy said Wednesday that the city’s welfare budget is actually $297,000, of which $122,000 is used for direct aid to people. The other $175,000 is for administrative costs for three full-time people, he said.

“Out of the $122,000 that’s direct assistance to people, we get reimbursed 50 percent of that by the state,” he said.

The amount of welfare aid dollars is actually $61,000, he said.

Besides the welfare director, there are two full-time workers in the department who do not spend all of their time in that department; rather, they “float” to other departments to fill in every week where needed, according to Roy.

He said the welfare budget is the same as it was when Maine Gov. Paul LePage was mayor.

It was LePage’s idea to have the two workers in the welfare department float to other departments, according to Roy. While the department’s expenditure amount did not change, other departments benefited from the move and did not have to hire more people to do the extra work.

“There was a real benefit to doing that — maybe not the intended one,” Roy said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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