WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro faces opposition for his seat in the Nov. 7 election from former City Council Chairman Erik Thomas and political newcomer John Levesque for a three-year term.

It is the third consecutive mayoral election in Waterville to feature a three-way race with a Republican, Democrat and independent, coming at a time of high-profile million-dollar developments in downtown even as the city struggles with concerns over property tax increases, adequate school funding and its very identity as a burgeoning cultural and business center.

According to the city clerk’s office, there are 11,605 registered voters in Waterville. There are 4,871 registered Democrats, 2,052 registered Republicans, 403 registered members of the Green party and 4,279 unenrolled voters.

The three candidates will face off in a debate Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Ayotte Auditorium at Thomas College. Sponsored by the Morning Sentinel, the debate will be moderated by Jim Libby, professor of business administration at Thomas College, and is free and open to the public.

Waterville’s city charter says the duties of the mayor, who earns an annual salary of $5,000 and serves as ambassador for the city, include ensuring the provisions of the charter are faithfully executed, presiding at City Council meetings, casting tie-breaking votes, submitting items for council agendas and accepting items from the city manager and councilors and determining the order of agenda items.

Also, according to the charter, the mayor has power to veto certain ordinances, receives an operating and capital budget for the next fiscal year from the city manager at least 16 weeks prior to the start of the next fiscal year and reviews that budget and prepares a budget message. He or she also appoints people to boards and committees with council approval, and calls special meetings of the council, when necessary.

Isgro, 36, a Republican, says he is seeking re-election because he wants to continue the work he has done as mayor.

“First and foremost, over the last several years I have been able to play a key role in forming very important partnerships and coalitions that are really starting to come to fruition now,” Isgro said, “and I feel I have an obligation to fulfill my commitments to the city and its partners to see this through.”

Isgro cited the city and Colby College’s efforts to revitalize the downtown and Waterville’s work with Central Maine Growth Council, which Isgro calls the most important economic development organization working on behalf of the city.

“There’s the Trafton partners now working with us on helping us continue to grow our future manufacturing base on Trafton Road, and we see other partners like CGI who have really given a boost to the job market in Waterville,” Isgro said. “I think the key to a lot of this is also a commitment to the people of Waterville to ensure that these things are all done for their benefit and with them in mind.”

Thomas, 42, a Democrat, says he is running for mayor because he is concerned about what has been going on in the city the last three years and he and his friends are concerned that “there are people more interested in gaining power by misleading people than they are in solving problems.”

“I’m talking about a faction of people who associate themselves with the mayor,” Thomas said. “These are the people who traffic in innuendo and half-truths and mislead people about what’s going on with the city.”

Thomas cited as a “perfect example” an instance in which he knocked on a resident’s door recently and introduced himself and asked if there was anything he was concerned about in the city. The man wanted to discuss taxes, so Thomas said he asked the man if anyone had explained to him why taxes are so high.

“He said there are programs that the city is wasting money on, and I said, ‘What programs?’ and he just walked away. These are just buzz words that have no basis in actual fact. It’s symptomatic of what’s happening in national politics. We can’t solve problems in this community until we agree on what the problems are and how we got there and that’s the mayor’s responsibility — communication with the outside world and the citizens of Waterville.”

Levesque, 46, who is running as an independent, said he is seeking the mayor’s seat because he is disappointed in the political process and was encouraged by others to run for office.

“I am not a fan of Trump,” he said. “I was rather disappointed when he won and I felt the need to get involved at some level.”

Levesque said he likes to talk with people willing to discuss issues honestly. While at first he considered running for City Council, he decided to run for mayor. Since July, he has been knocking on doors and listening to residents. He said he knew that, entering the race as an independent without backing from a city political party, he did not have a machine, volunteers or money. But Levesque said he has spoken with hundreds of Waterville residents since then and found that people are predominantly concerned about opportunity — jobs, he said.

“Thirty years ago, you could graduate from high school and work in the mill and get a job at a decent wage,” he said. “After a few years, you could have a family.”

But when manufacturing jobs left, they may have been replaced by other jobs, but the wages were not as good as those in manufacturing, Levesque said. He said he hears from people who are concerned because they want their children to grow up in the city, have opportunities and continue to live here, but many move away because the desirable jobs are not here. For a long time, people held onto hope that manufacturing jobs would come back, but that is not the reality, he said.

“So I think just barking up that tree is the wrong way to go,” he said.

Levesque says that where manufacturing has decreased, the areas of finance, health care, insurance, consulting and legal have grown significantly. He said one of his priorities is identifying the desirable tech service sector companies and finding ways to get them to Waterville.

FOCUS ON ISSUES

Isgro said that if he is re-elected, his continued focus will be on infrastructure development and job growth to help provide more opportunity for people to live and work in Waterville. Expanding the tax base so the city can continue to work on having a sustainable mill rate also is a priority, he said.

Challenges include ensuring the city has a growing tax base so it can continue to provide quality services that residents expect and ensuring the city is working to stabilize school system finances, according to Isgro.

“But I also don’t want to overlook the fact that we have a serious drug problem, too,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we have a forward-thinking police department working on these issues, but it’s going to be a real continuing effort.”

Isgro said that while police Chief Joseph Massey has not approached city officials about anything specific that he needs to fight the drug epidemic, his department has done a great job with its “Operation Hope” program, in which volunteer mentors are paired with people struggling with drug addiction and seeking help, and partnering with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency on the drug issue.

Public/private partnerships, such as development of the Trafton Road interchange at Interstate 95, will be critical to Waterville’s future, according to Isgro. He also cited the importance of working with other schools to share resources as student populations decline. While Isgro said he does not know exactly what that collaboration will look like, it could mean possibly combining a high school or junior high.

“I really believe that in the end, the students are probably going to be the ones to lead the way,” he said.

There are no easy answers, but it is important the city ensures a sustainable education system that complies with federal and state mandates, but also provides resources for students of all abilities, he said.

Thomas says he wants to make sure residents have factual information so they can make informed decisions.

Spending, he said, has gone up faster under Isgro than it did when he (Thomas) served on the City Council from 2011 to 2014. Isgro was elected mayor in 2014.

“The city is spending $2 million more than it brings in this year — the fiscal year we’re in right now,” Thomas said. “The mayor’s not doing anything to fix the problem. I would challenge the mayor to give a list of all the spending he has cut. If he hasn’t cut it yet, I’d love to see the list of what things he’s going to cut when he is mayor the next three years. You can’t make cuts to the budget without cutting these things — public works, police, fire, school system — and services will suffer.”

Thomas said that as he knocks on doors, residents tell him they are concerned about taxes, the school system and crime.

The police department, he said, is underfunded. If elected, he will focus on taxes, as well as school and police funding, he said.

“First of all, we need a partner in Augusta. The governor went from Waterville to Augusta and he basically abandoned Waterville,” Thomas said.

He said when Gov. Paul LePage was mayor of Waterville, he argued that communities should get the state revenue sharing they are due.

“It may be the case that there are other municipalities that have waste in their budgets,” Thomas said, “but that’s not the case in Waterville.”

“The governor has been cutting income taxes on the backs of property taxpayers, which is the most regressive form of taxation because it’s not based on your ability to pay,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the city’s problem with crime is a direct result of underfunding the police department, and it started when the South End police officer position was cut a few years ago.

“Here’s the message I really want to get across — we need to talk about what our priorities are and in order to do that we need to talk about facts. We need to be honest about what the budget situation is, and then once we’re dealing with facts, then we can talk about priorities and what we can and can’t afford.”

Levesque said he would love to get city officials, business leaders and those from the hospitals and colleges together to discuss Waterville’s natural resources, people and assets and show the city in a positive light — kind of like a public relations push. A power point presentation and video package could be created, and Levesque said he would show it 200 times, if necessary, to promote the city.

CGI Group, the technology company that moved to Waterville, is a great example of how Colby worked with the city and state to draw the company to the city. He said the city can take the lead in forming partnerships with Colby and Thomas colleges and the Alfond Foundation in such efforts.

“We can be much more aggressive,” he said.

Calling himself “kind of a research nerd,” Levesque said he likes to read about things that work and he likes new ideas. He said in studying why young people leave communities, he learned that it’s not just about opportunity or lack of jobs that pay well, but student debt often plays a part. It is difficult to pay off student debt with a $12-an hour job.

He looked at cities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, he said, where the city built its own high-speed fiber-optic network and operates it like a public utility.

“They went after software developers, tech companies and start ups, and now they’re the IT hub of the southeast,” Levesque said.

He said the city also offers loan forgiveness for young people who live within the city limits for a certain period of time.

“Why couldn’t we do that here?” he said. “I’d do it in lieu of tax breaks.”

Levesque said that, instead of offering a company a tax break, a city would, up to a certain point, match the company’s loan forgiveness funding as long as an employee lives within the city limits for a certain amount of time, as a way of investing in people. Those employees would live, work, shop, eat and spend money in the city, he said.

“Something like that makes a lot of sense to me,” he said.

For years, Levesque worked as a paramedic and then a registered nurse and said he looks at a problem, makes an assessment, develops a plan and starts to address it. If it doesn’t work, he makes a change and does something different.

“It’s not rocket science. None of this is original. This is stuff that’s worked elsewhere. I think it’s worthwhile to look and see what other people have done and see what’s successful.”

DOWNTOWN DOLLARS

Isgro has worked on downtown revitalization since the beginning, when Colby President David Greene held meetings with downtown businesses, arts organizations, city officials and others to determine what was needed to help improve downtown, draw more people to live and work there and help boost the economy.

A priority that was identified in those meetings was the need to address vacant and deteriorating buildings downtown. Colby is investing millions of dollars in the downtown and is building a student residential complex on Main Street that is expected to house 200 students, faculty and staff involved in a special community service and civic engagement curriculum in August 2018. Colby also bought and renovated the former Hains building at 173 Main St. and renovated it. CGI Group occupies the top floors and Colby has offices on the second floor. Retail businesses will move into the ground floor of both that building and the dormitory across the street. Colby also plans to build a boutique hotel next year on the former Levine’s clothing store site downtown.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” Isgro said of downtown revitalization efforts. “I think it provides a good model for other communities who carry the burden of a lot of non-taxable property because the reality is, Colby is now involved. That will make them one of the largest taxpayers in the downtown district and what they’re doing with capital from both Colby and the Alfonds has spurred kind of an economic shock wave through the commercial real estate market and has spurred other private investment.”

When asked what he thinks about downtown revitalization, Thomas said it is something he worked on for 10 years as a member of the board of directors for Waterville Main Street and as a city councilor.

“This is a misconception in town that this is all of a sudden happening,” he said. “This was 10 years worth of relationship building. Colby College hired somebody with David Greene’s experience because that’s what they decided is the direction they wanted to go in. That’s because lots of community leaders built relationships with (former Colby president) Bro Adams and the board of directors and convinced them we needed more people working downtown so they needed to put their staff downtown.”

As for the Trafton Road interchange development, Thomas said he was on the City Council that voted to approve it in 2014.

Levesque said he thinks the partnership between the city and Colby on downtown revitalization is a good one.

“I think what’s good for Colby is good for us — they’re one of the biggest employers in the city,” he said.

Colby has to compete with colleges such as Bowdoin College, which has a bustling urban downtown in Brunswick, according to Levesque. He said when parents and their children look at colleges and see a vibrant downtown in the community, it makes a difference in their decision-making.

“It makes perfect sense to me that they (Colby) want to invest their money for revitalizing downtown,” he said.

He said he thinks Colby’s involvement is “great,” and as mayor, he would love to partner with Colby and Thomas colleges, as well as the hospitals, on other efforts as well, he said.

CANDIDATE EXPERIENCE

Levesque is employed by a Portland business but works from home and says he has a flexible schedule that is perfect for serving as mayor. He said he thinks he and Isgro and Thomas all bring something different to the table.

“Nick is a finance guy — numbers are what he gets — Erik is an artist and is culture-oriented. I just have a business mind. I’m practical. I hate minutiae. I’ve always been able to pull the lens back and get a look at the big picture.”

Thomas says he wants voters to look at his history of service to the community when going to the ballot box.

“I’d never done one thing in my time on Waterville Main Street or through the City Council that was meant to benefit just me,” he said.

He said he cares about the city and his friends who are worried about their children’s education. He said people do not understand that the Waterville school system is in the bottom 15 percent of spending for schools in the state.

“My experience with Waterville is that we’re a community that comes together to solve problems, and there’s not enough of that going on right now.”

Isgro said being mayor is a lot of hard work — a family effort — and he feels good about what he has done in the last three years. He said it feels good to see the community work together on common goals.

“Because at the end of the day, if we look back 10 years from now and none of us got everything we wanted but we all say we did something great, it will have been a success,” he said.

He added: “It’s important that as we grow and develop, the person in the office of mayor has the backbone to keep the taxpayers at the forefront of future decisions. I believe I’ve proven that I’m that mayor.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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