Police, priorities & the pandemic: State College Borough Council candidates talk issues – Centre Daily Times

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There are seven candidates running for State College Borough Council seats in Tuesday’s primary election.

There are seven candidates running for State College Borough Council seats in Tuesday’s primary election.

Abby Drey

[email protected]

The State College Borough Council race will be among the most-watched, locally, in Tuesday’s primary election — so we wanted to give voters one final look at the candidates and what their priorities are.

Six candidates are running on the Democratic ballot and one is running on the Republican ballot for council’s three open seats with four-year terms. We gave each candidate a full week to respond to three pressing questions on borough issues, requesting candidates limit each response to 200 words or fewer.

All candidates chose to take part. A quick note: Incumbents Evan Myers and Theresa Lafer have reached back-to-back term limits and cannot run again for two more years, while fellow incumbent Katherine Yeaple (who was appointed after the resignation of Dan Murphy) remains among the current candidates.

Here’s a closer look at what the seven candidates said. Responses were edited for clarity and AP style:

Centre Daily Times: We’ve seen a lot of recent change in police departments across the country, and State College hasn’t been an exception with ongoing initiatives such as the development of a Community Oversight Board. What’s the main police-related change — if any — you would advocate for in 2022, and why?

Gopal Balachandran, D: First, I would advocate for permanent sources of funding for the Community Oversight Board and a Civilian Response Team. I would make sure we have the officers we need without hiring more thoughtlessly and thereby sacrificing permanent funding for alternatives to traditional policing. As is currently set up in the budget, these alternatives are subject to year-to-year change and could have no funding at all.

Second, the Community Oversight Board must be given proper, independent supervisory authority and must not be allowed to become a rubber stamp of the police. There has never been a Community Oversight Board in State College, so how this is set up — what types of authority it has, what types of cases it will oversee — are very important details that will need to be worked out. It’s the same exact set of issues with the Civilian Response Team.

The changes above would signal to the community that we hear the desire for more social services and, as members of Borough Council, take that feedback seriously. The changes above would also better balance public health, public safety and fiscal responsibility.

Richard Biever, D: The Community Oversight Board is something I absolutely support and, if elected, look forward to helping implement. I also support reallocation of police funding away from more police officers and hiring mental health professionals to take calls that require their expertise. I would also support looking at police training, specifically de-escalation techniques.

Lastly, I strongly support a community policing initiative that would have police walking through neighborhoods and getting to know residents and vice versa. We need to build relationships and trust between the residents and the police.

Catherine Dauler, D: State College police are professional and well-trained. According to the 2020 International Association of Chiefs Assessment of the Police Department Policy and Operating Procedures, the IACP team states that “State College is a special, unique place and the team appreciates that so many community members and police alike seek to be more collaborative, inclusive and united with one another.” Recent events have illustrated that there is work to be done, including the strategies that are under development for countywide coordination and upgrading of mental health services. Procedures must ensure that mental health crisis calls are handled to reduce risk to a minimum for all concerned.

Ronald Filippelli, D: We have a very good, well-trained police department. Community surveys in recent years show that a large majority of our citizens agree. I believe that we must develop an organizational strategy that puts community relations on a par with solving crimes and enforcing laws. This strategy is called “community policing.” The goal of this is to include schools, neighborhood associations, the business community, churches, and nonprofits as partners with our police in rooting out the causes of crime and delinquency. Perhaps this will call for a representative and diverse community advisory committee. This will give citizens an important role in identifying problems, and will give our police the kind of community support they need to protect and serve. We need to get our police out of their cars and in touch with citizens and not only in times of crisis. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Divine Lipscomb, D: Communities are not considered safe based on the size of their law enforcement. If such a theory were true, all American cities would be safe. Saying things like “we support our police” after an officer has killed a civilian also reads like “our police have the authority to kill with no accountability, and we support it.” Police officers are not the issue! The idea of needing a group of armed individuals to protect our community from the community is the issue.

We need to reallocate funding to go toward sustainable community alternatives to policing, including but not limited to a Community Oversight Board, mental health services and community conferencing. Community conferencing brings together those harmed by an incident to have real accountability and repair the harm done without punishment.

In a world where we wish to reimagine policing and implement programs like Centre County community conferencing, reallocation of funds is essential, as the borough’s reserve funds should not take the economic brunt for a policing policy shift. If we believe these community alternatives are essential services like most of the State College community and I do, they need to be hard-lined budget items with permanent funding.

Jacob Werner, R: One must evaluate how the police can engage with all people in the community to build trust. Establishing regular committee roundtable discussions would be my first goal; bring all concerned citizens to the table to have open and respectful dialogue to express concerns and work with police directly to establish action items. I would also call for ongoing de-escalation training and require regular continuing education for all members of the police. I would encourage the development of further education for members of the police to obtain advanced degrees in mental health fields. I would ask for a complete review of the International Association of Chiefs Assessment of the Police Department report and make that review open to the public.

Katherine Yeaple, D: Mental health disorders are not a crime and should not be treated as such. I would advocate for a Mental Health First Responder Unit. Or a Co-Responder Unit that teams up a mental health professional with an officer. Mental health knows no borders. These programs can start with the borough but ideally would serve the entire Centre County region. These programs have been successful in places like Portland, Oregon, and Denver. Professionals working alone or in tandem with law enforcement can better de-escalate crisis situations to reduce the risk of lethal force. These models can effectively take the pressure off our police so that they keep their main focus on public safety. The other thing is we need to increase police accountability. The Community Oversight Board and the new hiring policies to target underrepresented groups will help in achieving this important goal.

Metro clothing store on College Avenue in State College closed last year after 35 years in business. Abby Drey [email protected]

CDT: Local businesses are hurting financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So are plenty of residents. How can State College undo, or at least move forward from, the damage inflicted by the pandemic?

Balachandran: Thankfully, the federal government has provided assistance to both the borough and to businesses. We need to make sure those funds end up in places that need them so that we can maintain a healthy, vibrant downtown that includes all, regardless of race or class.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for proper outdoor gathering spaces. COVID will likely be a part of our lives in some form or other. Being able to gather outdoors in safe ways is, and will still be, important. I believe we need to reimagine our downtown as a space for pedestrians, with pedestrian-only plazas and reimagine our streets for bicyclists, pedestrians, families and all residents. More foot traffic will also benefit local businesses.

Finally, we need to confront the reality of vaccine hesitancy and play more of a leading role in getting our community to as high a vaccination rate as possible. None are truly safe from COVID if members of our community remain unvaccinated. By the same token, we need to recognize that vaccinated individuals are at greatly reduced risk from the virus, and outdoor spaces provide little risk of transmission. Our public health messaging and ordinances should better reflect these realities.

Biever: I have two of those businesses. My wife and I have a musical theater school and professional theater company, both of which were severely impacted by COVID. I am uniquely qualified to bring forward the needs of the small business community, and I feel this point of view will bring a needed balance to the council.

We need to carefully distribute federal dollars coming as COVID relief both to small businesses and individuals severely impacted by COVID. I support the idea of a Universal Basic Income for individuals most financially impacted.

Dauler: While many pandemic restrictions remain in place, local businesses need our patronage. Outdoor events such as the Art Walks on weekends sponsored by the State College Downtown Improvement District as well as First Fridays this summer provide reasons to go downtown. Funding from the American Rescue Plan will be needed to help local businesses that are hurting. Loans and grants should be provided when needed. If necessary, some additional funding should be allocated from the American Rescue Plan to help residents with rent, mortgage and utility payments based on a previous borough housing assistance plan in effect in 2020. Free eviction mediation services should also be made available to residents. In addition, crisis intervention, as recommended by the Mental Health Task Force for countywide coordination, and upgrading of mental health services is the best strategy for aiding the ill and their families. In light of lessons learned during the pandemic, State College should develop a state-accredited health department.

Filippelli: COVID has had an immense impact on our local businesses. We need to use a large part of the American Rescue Plan funds to stabilize small businesses and help them recover. This means the extension and enlargement of the borough’s current low interest loans, and outright grants to businesses in emergency situations. Businesses eligible should be locally owned, not franchises, and should have a borough location. I am talking about businesses like Harper’s, The Nittany Quill, Kitchen Kaboodle, a host of locally owned eateries, and others. We should also extend the two-hour free parking downtown until we see a noticeable recovery. Rescue Plan funds should also be used for rent support and mortgage support for qualified full-time residents. This will involve cooperation of proprietors, banks and other interests. The borough should be at the center of these negotiations.

Lipscomb: From the beginning, I have committed to governing with our community and taking the community’s feedback. So I would submit that the borough needs to assess the needs of the small businesses carefully. This should entail conversations, electronic surveys and any other assessment tools that get direct feedback from the businesses directly impacted. From here, we can glean the information needed to assist our local business community financially. I would ensure that the money allocated to the borough through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act is distributed to the businesses that are in need via grants and loans.

I would utilize this same method with community members and work with the community organizations formed during this pandemic to address these same concerns. I am a firm believer in Bryn Stevenson’s notion that “those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions.” It is the council’s elected duty and obligation to engage the community in finding these solutions together.

Werner: In order to help restore normalcy, we must stop tax-and-spend policies. In order to move forward from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to completely and fully re-evaluate the budget and prevent further immediate increases in taxes and fees for service. I would restore parking fees to downtown to help re-establish that revenue stream — it is time to reopen. I would call for an audit of all borough authorities, boards and commissions (ABC’s) to assess how borough funds are used and what functions have been provided. I would re-evaluate the need for all of the current ABC’s and look at consolidation and/or elimination. ... I would create accountability within the borough to ensure that taxpayer funds and resources are being used appropriately and judiciously. I would also ask for complete transparency of borough business. We cannot continue to tax businesses and residents to make up for inefficiencies within the borough.

Yeaple: Specifically, provide grants to those businesses and nonprofits that have been impacted the most due to the pandemic — theaters, restaurants, gyms, museums, etc. For those who are experiencing housing instability, provide grants for rental or mortgage assistance due to job loss or inability to work due to illness. Ensure that residents of the borough have access to decent, long-term affordable housing with existing programs we already provide through Housing Transitions, Inc. and the Community Land Trust, but also look for new methods incentivized by the American Rescue Plan.

The Center for Community Resources office at 2100 East College Avenue. Abby Drey [email protected]

CDT: What are the three priorities you would bring to Borough Council, and why are they your top priorities?

Balachandran: First, I want to bring greater transparency and accountability to policing in State College and greater allocation of resources for mental health and social services.

Second, I want State College zoned in a fair and equitable way. There are either $400,000 homes or rental properties that increasingly cater to the luxury market, but no housing in the range of what might be affordable for new homeowners. As a result, the character of downtown has changed; the borough’s tax base has suffered and led to fewer homeowners and thus fewer chances for less affluent households to build wealth. Allowing more townhome-style development could alleviate much of this scarcity — and reduce our carbon footprint — but the zoning rules would have to change.

Finally, I dream of a State College where a 5- to 75-year-old can bike from one end to the other on protected bike paths, free from motorized traffic. I want a State College where bicyclists and pedestrians own the streets, not just cars and people who can afford them. I recognize there would be difficult hurdles to bring this vision to fruition, but we must set ambitious goals today for the community tomorrow.

Biever: My first priority is economic equity. This would include COVID relief to small businesses and individuals most severely impacted. It would also include making affordable housing more widely available. One way is to zone neighborhoods for multi-family housing, which would make living more affordable, create diversity in our neighborhoods, and bring more peace and harmony to the borough.

The second is racial justice. The top issue here is the police killing of Osaze Osagie and how the borough handled the investigation. As mentioned above, I support several reforms to make sure this never happens again.

My third priority is mental health and other social services. COVID brought to the forefront an array of underlying issues, such as mental health, housing, food scarcity, racial justice and other overlooked issues for which people need assistance. I commit to tackling this on Borough Council, not just by myself, but by engaging broadly and deeply with the community.

Dauler: Responsible financial management during the recovery is my first priority. Funds from the American Rescue Plan will help us get the State College budget back on a firm financial footing.

First: Borough reserve funds used for pandemic expenses must be replaced. In addition, money should be allocated to enhance existing affordable housing programs. Also, our downtown has suffered and needs grants and loans from Rescue Funds to bounce back.

Second: We must continue to support borough affordable housing programs. The Community Land Trust has purchased, rehabbed and sold homes to qualified low- and moderate-income buyers over 25 years. Those homes provide housing and stability in every neighborhood in the borough. Partnerships with Housing Transitions, Inc. and the Borough Planning Office have served as a model for successful community land trusts in the state and nation. In addition, State College with the Housing Foundation provides affordable rental housing to income-qualified individuals and families. Kemmerer Road Apartments and Bellaire Court are two examples.

Third: A Racial Equity Plan should be adopted after elected officials/staff training, community learning about racial equity and healing, and using the plan to facilitate solutions unique to local challenges.

Filippelli: My three priorities are closely related. They form a three-legged stool.

1. Affordable housing. State College already has two nonprofit affordable housing agencies. The borough, through its use of federal funds, is the main support for affordable housing. We need to increase this support. We should amend our inclusionary housing ordinance to require higher payments from developers to finance affordable housing. In other words, in all new multi-unit construction, the developer must increase his or her contribution to affordable housing.

2. Eroding tax base. Only approximately one-quarter of the households in the borough pay all three local taxes. Students, who make up two-thirds of the population, usually pay only real-estate taxes through their rents. Incidentally, the owners of rental properties pay no local income tax on rental income. This is one compelling reason for more affordable housing for permanent, tax-paying residents.

3. University contributions: The university is largely exempt from real-estate taxes. It does pay the borough annually an in-lieu payment. That payment should be greatly increased. Penn State, like many other universities, should provide financial incentives for faculty and staff to live in the Highlands and Holmes-Foster. Without a larger Penn State financial commitment, the borough will decline.

Lipscomb: Racial justice is my top priority. In the past, some white community members have responded to calls for justice with disdain, or accolades on how successful we are compared to other places. This dismisses people of color’s experiences and is liberal racism. From the borough to the school district to our judicial system, we see the disparities of justice on display. I will confront them head-on: integrating restorative/transformative practices locally and building an inclusive community.

My second priority is economic justice. Livable wages should be a concern for everyone. As a borough councilperson, I alone can’t increase wages. However, I can join with local wage justice coalitions to strongly advocate for state legislators to repeal preemption and raise the minimum wage. Economic justice also means affordable housing and resources for our unhoused and underrepresented populations.

Lastly, mental health murders around the nation have become a common trend. State College Borough did not escape being included in that trend with the murder of Osaze Osagie. We have an opportunity to become a leader on how to address mental health issues within Centre County. Now is the time to invest in Civilian Response Teams for individuals in crisis.

Werner: My top priorities are:

1. Controlling taxes: Calling for an audit of the borough’s authorities, boards and commissions to consider removal or consolidation and determine if use of taxpayer funds is appropriate — providing transparency on how tax funds are spent and assessed including, but not limited to, fees for services like trash/recycling. Residents must understand where their money is going and how it is being used. We need to ask the questions: What is a priority, and what can wait in order to get back on our feet from the pandemic?

2. Ensuring openness and transparency: Ensuring decisions are done with the voice of the community. All people should feel safe and welcome. There can be no animosity or divisiveness within the community, starting with Council. Everyone must have a voice. It is my mission to be the voice for all people in the community, provide feedback and gather input to ensure decisions are made with the voice of the community, for the community, by the community.

3. Promote and expand businesses: Engage business leaders to maintain vitality and foster new/developing industry partnerships while keeping the character of the borough that entices patronage of businesses.

Yeaple: I believe in sustainability and equity. Both housing (addressed in question 2) and transportation are very important priorities. I believe we need a more equitable transportation network. I will create a mobility office for our borough that balances different transportation modalities. For example, crossing Atherton Street can be extremely dangerous, especially if you are on a bike or walking. I propose we negotiate with PennDOT to have a protected right of way for any new state highway programs. We need a safer network for pedestrians and bicyclists in order to encourage this non-polluting, healthy, sustainable mode of transportation. Mobility is also an equity issue. The average cost of operating and maintaining a car is about $10,000 per annum. Transit and non-motorized infrastructure are both part of an equitable transportation system.

In addition, there is little open space left in our borough. Parks and trees are essential to our mental health and well-being. They are a teaching tool for our children (e.g. the rain gardens). The borough has a wonderful tree program here in State College.

In order to fund all of our services, the borough must find creative ways to increase its revenue base. This might include providing a warehouse in the West End area for art space and/or technology incubators. I propose we create programs with private developers with vision who want to nurture talented chefs with a restaurant incubator. State College is a great community full of energy and talent. I want to build on what we have worked so hard toward and make it even better.

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Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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