First Harrisburg mayoral debate focuses on debt, public safety

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Most of the candidates in the race for Harrisburg mayor met Thursday, debating how current Mayor Linda Thompson (D) is managing the city’s financial crisis and how to move the city forward.

Democrats Eric Papenfuse and Lewis Butts as well as Nevin Mindlin (I) squared off against Thompson, some criticizing her leadership style while calling attention to the city’s pervasive crime and financial issues.

City Controller Dan Miller (D) did not attend, citing his work schedule as a CPA during tax season.

Thompson was quick to tout her accomplishments, noting the historic nature of her win as the city’s first female and first black mayor. She repeatedly said she didn’t want voters to “change course” and defended what she described as a no-nonsense leadership style.

“And we have done one heck of a job in dealing with the monumental fiscal crisis that we’ve inherited, the worst in the city of Harrisburg,” said Thompson.

One person attending the debate questioned the ongoing feud between Thompson and Miller, including the court battle over the sale of the city’s Wild West artifacts.

“When you have someone who is reaching over to the executive branch of power, wanting to be the mayor when they’re the controller, and is absolutely disrupting the day-to-day operations of this administration, then it’s time to let a judge unfortunately settle,” said Thompson.

Miller had argued City Council hadn’t authorized the sale, and he had refused to sign off on the auction contract. Ultimately, a judge ruled in Thompson’s favor.

Though Miller did not attend the debate, he spoke with Fox43 WPMT on Monday about several of the issues discussed, including the city’s debt.

“Our financial crisis dwarfs crime, dwarfs trash, dwarfs every other issue by a magnitude of 10. We can’t balance our budget. We aren’t paying our bills. We have tremendous deficits,” said Miller.

Eric Papenfuse, owner of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, pointed to his time on the Harrisburg Authority when he questioned the financial decisions related to the incinerator project. The debt on the incinerator is now about $340 million.

“Don’t borrow the money. We can’t pay it back. I voted no. I was the first to use the term criminal,” recalled Papenfuse.

Papenfuse said he wanted a government “not based on the politics of personality.” He called for a program that would pay young people minimum wage to clean up the city. To confront crime, he also called for better lighting, a curfew, more cameras and neighborhood policing.

Nevin Mindlin, an independent who worked in state government, responded to questions about public safety by saying, among other things, that the police bureau needs a new approach.

“It is simply, from all the conversations I’ve had with professionals, not managed well. It can be managed differently. We can deploy our officers better on the streets. And then we’ll start getting some serious community policing,” said Mindlin.

Fellow Democrat Lewis Butts called for a wide range of things to produce revenue, some of which elicited laughs from the crowd. Among some ideas he proposed: a hydroelectric dam, an adventure park and tolling the city’s bridges. He one point he also talked about the city having the smartest pets in the world.

“We need an industrial revolution in Harrisburg that we can change the mentality of our people to create, to build, to build revenue,” said Butts.


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