Candidates in Rochester’s Ward 5 met in a final face-to-face forum Tuesday, a week before the Nov. 6 election.
With the first question, Rochester City Council candidates Shaun Palmer and Judy Hickey found division during the event hosted by Med City Beat and former Post Bulletin Executive Editor Jay Furst.
The candidates for Rochester’s largely northeast ward were asked whether they considered the proposed $18 million plan for upgrades to the North Police Station a “bait and switch.”
After the building at 4001 West River Parkway Northwest was purchased for $3.2 million in 2016, approximately $450,000 was spent to renovate it for an initial staff of about 25 employees. At the time, building a new facility was estimated to cost $19 million.
Earlier this year, the council heard the $18 million proposal to expand use of the building, which would include adding an enclosed parking facility for patrol cars.
While the city council members will be asked next month whether the police station upgrades should remain in the city’s long-term spending plan, future discussions will offer the new Ward 5 council member a chance to weigh in.
Tuesday, Palmer said he’s not certain the council has been asking the right questions.
“I think at this time we need to step back, find out if we really need to have that building, if that’s the right use for the building,” he said. “Maybe the precinct should be in a different spot.”
He suggested considering building a new police station near the city’s Public Works Department or near Rochester Community and Technical College, where it could take advantage of steam generated by the county.
He said the council needs to clarify the goal to make the right decision.
“I’m not sure the council was told really what the goal was,” he said.
Hickey said the building’s purchase was based on value and a specific goal.
“They wanted to have better response times and better cover the north side,” she said, noting that the region is seeing the greatest growth.
Noting the cost of recent proposals eclipse early estimates, she said she’d stop short of suggesting a ruse had taken place.
“I wouldn’t call it a bait and switch,” she said. “I’d call it that the needs have changed or the needs have expanded on the space.”
Still, she said the council must use caution, since borrowing for construction could cost the city more than $2 million a year for a decade. She said a stepped approach might be more workable, with upgrades made over time.
“It’s not an all-or-nothing decision,” she said.
Asked by an audience member how they would communicate with their constituents, the candidates expressed a desire to be responsive.
“I learned this as a city employee: I’m going to return calls within two hours,” said Palmer, who retired after 25 years as a Rochester building inspector.
He said he’d like to find ways to engage residents in different parts of the community and supports recording formal and informal council meetings, as well as maintaining online connections with constituents.
Hickey said she also sees a need to maintain connections, suggesting her door knocking won’t stop when campaign season ends.
She said that while social media is a good tool for engagement, it can also be used to degrade people with opposing views. As a result, she said she would strive to find a variety of ways to engage people, which would include attending neighborhood meetings. “For every different person, there is a different way to communicate with them,” she said.
As work continues to redesign North Broadway between Civic Center Drive to 13th Street, both candidates cited a need for improved engagement in the process.
“There’s a lot of discussion going on, and the stakeholders are not being brought in,” Hickey said, adding that the lack of engagement creates conflict once plans are revealed.
She said she expects the change in city leadership to bring more opportunities to involve stakeholders.
“I think we are going to see things done differently in the future,” he said.
Palmer said he also believes more engagement is needed early in the process, noting public discussions on renovating North Broadway should have started three years ago, with notification of all neighboring property owners.
“That’s the council person’s job to do that,” he said of providing the notice and reaching out to those affected by the work being done.
When it comes to paying for the project, Palmer said he’d like to see the city rely on state and federal funds before testing property owners’ willingness to be assessed for the project.
Hickey said she feels some resolution needs to be made to ensure property owners are not going to be overly burdened by the project.
Rochester’s Ward 5 race is on the ballot for Tuesday’s election, along with the mayoral race and wards 1 and 3.