WATERVILLE — The subject of “political elites” became a hot-button topic at a Waterville mayoral debate Wednesday night when moderator Steve Crate asked candidates Phil Bofia and Jay Coelho to identify who has endorsed them for mayor and who has not.

“It’s not a delicate question,” Crate said.

A member of the public emailed the question during the debate, sponsored by Crossroads-TV, and livestreamed on Crossroads’ Facebook page and local cable access channel 1301.

Crate is a former city councilor, member of the Waterville Board of Education and a new Planning Board member.

Crate said one of the mayoral candidates claimed he was being endorsed by “one particular nonprofit,” yet that nonprofit is not allowed to endorse a candidate.

Crate declined to name the candidate, saying rather than “calling someone out,” he was allowing the candidates to speak for themselves.

Coelho, a Democrat and former city councilor, said he is the first and only candidate ever to be endorsed by the Waterville firefighters’ union. He also is endorsed, he said, by an “overwhelming majority” of the City Council, Board of Education and charter commission members. He also is endorsed by Hilary Koch, a Democratic candidate for Maine Senate District 16, and state Rep. Colleen Madigan, a Democrat who represents House District 110.

“I work with plenty of groups,” Coelho, 43, said. “I don’t mention them. I typically try not to. I do a lot of community service.”

Bofia, 33, also a former city councilor who is running as an unenrolled candidate, said when it comes to endorsements, he does not have many — the only endorsement he seeks is from the people of Waterville.

“Let me tell you, I do not seek endorsements from the political elites,” Bofia said.

Phil Bofia Contributed photo

The Waterville City Democratic Committee recently charged that Bofia was distributing literature that make it appear as if he is being endorsed by several of Maine’s congressional and legislative leaders, but the statements in that literature were actually taken from letters those leaders sent to Bofia to congratulate him after he won a local community award a few years ago.

Crate asked a follow-up question Wednesday, asking each candidate to state what they think a political elite is.

Bofia said a political elite is someone who has been in politics a long time.

“The people who have been endorsing him are the people who have been in power for so long,” Bofia said of Coelho.

Bofia claimed that creates division, and candidates should not be pledging allegiance to political elites.

Coelho responded he was not really sure what a “political elite” is, adding his campaign has been endorsed by many average people. Coelho said his goal is to listen to ideas and build consensus.

Jay Coelho Contributed photo

“I am for poor people. I am for the middle class. I am for everyone who lives in the city,” Coelho said. “I don’t subscribe to political elites.”

Despite an apparent note of tension between the candidates over the issue of political elites, they were respectful of and polite toward each other.

Bofia and Coelho seek to replace Nick Isgro, who is serving his second three-year term as Waterville mayor and has decided not to seek reelection. The candidate who wins Nov. 3 would be inaugurated in January.

Bofia was appointed to the City Council in January 2019 as a Republican representing Ward 2. He was defeated by Flavia Oliveira, a Democrat, in November 2019. He works as an IT business analyst for CGI in Waterville.

Coelho, 43,  was elected to the City Council in 2018 as a Democrat representing Ward 5, and served one year. He was defeated in his bid for reelection by Rick Foss, a Republican, in 2019. Coelho owns You Broke IT? and Grub Bakery, both in Waterville.

The mayor position is part time and pays $5,000 a year. It is largely ceremonial, although the mayor is expected to preside over City Council meetings and may cast tiebreaking votes, veto council actions and issue memorandums and proclamations. The mayor also may make appointments, with consent of the City Council, and present a budget message every year.

Most questions at Wednesday’s debate, which included those related to solar energy, taxes and tax increment financing, were given to the candidates ahead of the debate. Members of the public were able to email Crate with additional questions.

Crate asked if the candidates thought property taxes in the city are too high, too low or just right, and why. The current tax rate is $25.76 per $1,000 in assessed property valuation.

“I definitely think that our taxes are too high,” Bofia said.

He said the tax issue has been among the recurring concerns he has heard while knocking on voters’ doors.

“I have looked at the budget, line by line, and I’m here to tell you we can do better for the people of this city,” Bofia said.

He said if elected, he would work diligently with councilors, the city manager and department heads to make sure a budget can be developed of which everyone can be proud.

Coelho said that in 1992, the city’s tax rate was much higher than it is now — $30 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. There are places in the budget where officials could do better, but items should not be cut that will hurt people, according to Coelho.

“We do not cut off a foot in order to buy one shoe,” he said.

Coelho said there are 5,440 parcels of property in the city, and 3,500 of those claim the Homestead Exemption, which provides a reduction of up to $25,000 in the value of people’s homes for property tax purposes, thus reducing their tax burdens.

“The biggest issue we are faced with is revenue sharing,” Coelho said.

Asked if they would be able to work on a committee whose members might disagree with their positions on a topic, both candidates said they would.

They differed, however, on solar energy, with Bofia saying the city’s plans to lease property and get taxes from companies that plan to build solar farms will be beneficial all around. Coelho said he thought solar energy is “fantastic,” but he has questions about what the panels will be made of and whether those companies will vow to mitigate possible damage to the property when the farms are no longer viable.

“My biggest concern here is always that solar isn’t just the only answer,” he said.

Bofia, chairman of the city’s solar committee, said Waterville requires the developers to have a bond in place to take care of any issues when the farms cease to operate. The solar projects will generate money for the city, at no cost to taxpayers, he said.

“In short,” Bofia said, “our deal is a deal that is tremendous for the city.”

On the topic of tax increment financing, each candidate said such efforts are beneficial if they make a difference to taxpayers and bring businesses to the city.

Crate asked if the candidates felt education in Waterville is properly funded at the city and state levels.

“The real question to me: Is the right amount of money being spent directly on our children and for the benefit of our children, and I’d say no,” Bofia said.

He added that when he has knocked on voters’ doors, people asked why the school budget keeps increasing when the population is decreasing.

Coelho said Waterville is different than it was years ago, and schools are now asked to do much more, such as providing children with mental health support, more-specialized attention and other services.

He said teachers do not get get paid enough, especially when they take money from their own pockets to support students.

“There’s not a reason that any child that goes to our school has to worry about a meal,” he said.

Bofia vowed to bring bold leadership to the city, and said several times he planned to bring “positive politics,” as well.

“In 2020, too many people are disgusted by politics and feel they are moving in the wrong direction in our city,” he said.

Coelho said he believed the city and its officials should focus on humanity and compassion.

“I lead with kindness and compassion,” he said, “and a heck of a lot of common sense.”

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