The subject of “political elites” became a hot button topic at Wednesday’s Waterville mayoral debate when moderator Steve Crate asked candidates Phil Bofia and Jay Coelho to state 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 both Hilary Koch, 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 that when it comes to endorsements, he doesn’t have many — the only endorsement he seeks is that of the people.
“Let me tell you, I do not seek endorsements from the political elites,” Bofia said.
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 that he is not really sure what a political elite is — that his campaign is endorsed by many average people. Coelho said his goal is to listen to ideas and build consensus.
“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 political elite issue, they were respectful of each other and amiable, unlike Tuesday night’s presidential debate.
Bofia and Coelho seek to replace Nick Isgro, who served two, 3-year terms as Waterville mayor and decided not to seek reelection. Whoever wins the election Nov. 3 would be inaugurated in January.
Bofia was appointed to the City Council in January 2019 as a Republican representing Ward 2 and 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 a largely ceremonial, though the mayor is expected to preside over City Council meetings and may cast tie-breaking votes, veto council actions and issue memorandums and proclamations. The mayor also may make appointments, with consent of the 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 think 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 worth of assessed property valuation.
“I definitely think that our taxes are too high,” Bofia said.
He said the tax issue was one of the recurring questions he heard while knocking on 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,” he 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 worth 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 — the only thing in years that the state has helped property owners with.
“The biggest issue we are faced with is revenue sharing,” Coelho said.
Asked if they would be able to work on a committee with individuals who disagree with their positions on a topic, both candidates said they would.
They differed when it came to 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 thinks 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, the chairman of the city’s solar committee, said the city requires the developers 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 the taxpayer, he said.
“In short, our deal is a deal that is tremendous for the city,” he said.
Regarding tax increment financing, both candidates said they are beneficial if they make a difference to the taxpayer and can be a tool to bring business into the city.
Crate asked if they feel Waterville education is properly funded on both the state and city level.
“The real question to me is, 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 knocked on 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 more than they were, now having to provide mental health support to children, more specialized attention and other needs. Teachers do not get paid enough, especially when they take money out of their own pockets to support students, he said.
“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, new leadership to the city and said several times that he plans 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 believes the city, and officials, should focus on humanity and compassion.
“I lead with kindness and compassion and a heck of a lot of common sense,” he said.