Lebanon’s mayoral race is heating up with early voting on the horizon, and the candidates squared off in a debate at Cumberland University on Thursday to make their cases.
Incumbent Bernie Ash is facing three challengers: Cumberland University professor Rick Bell, former city councilor Rob Cesternino and artist-actor John DeMoor. Here are some of the key takeaways from their conversation:
Flooding, finance and development take center stage
The candidates shared distinct perspectives on Lebanon’s single greatest challenge, offering a closer look at their priorities.
DeMoor wants to focus on the city’s flooding issue, while Ash sees growth management as the chief concern. Bell and Cesternino both emphasized fiscally conservative budgeting.
“Right now I think the biggest challenge that we have facing Lebanon is the flooding problem,” DeMoor said. “My solution entails, briefly, taking one of the drainage ditches now, put some concrete or composite constructed drain pipes in there — very large ones — and bury them as far as the water drainage coming in after heavy storms and the rising creeks under the city.”
DeMoor envisions those pipes running under buildings and approaching the city while making sure the water does not drain out into a neighborhood. He also wants to start a community effort to address out neighborhood drainage backups.
“Identify the areas where the water is stagnant and collecting and causing a backup, clear those areas as far as it’s going to take,” he said. “I don’t mean put pipe all the way down the Cumberland River, but pipe under the city, coming into the city, leaving the city … and then take a look at the drainage ditches to make sure the water flows away from the city and on down in areas where it will not cause flooding in other neighborhoods and residential areas.”
Ash said he identified rapid growth as the city’s largest concern when he was elected in 2016 and would continue to prioritize managing it.
“At this time, I will say that the growth is manageable, but that is probably still our greatest problem,” he said. “The first thing I did when I came into office was to introduce impact fees to developers, especially on apartments. We were having a lot of problems with apartments coming in. Almost everywhere you turn around, we were getting new apartments.”
Ash said that impact fee of $1,500 per unit has slowed apartment growth in the city and helped bring in more affordable housing options. He also cited impact fees on developers at Carver Lane used to widen roads and put up traffic signals as an example of how he would continue to address growth.
“With those improvements, things are better,” he said. “Even with the tornado and COVID, we still have growth — which is a good thing — and we’re still managing that growth.”
Bell focused on COVID-19’s potential economic impact and offered a fiscally conservative vision for the city budget.
“As we go into the future with COVID, we don’t know what the economy will be,” Bell said. “As mayor, I will go in and I will look at cuts to the budget. I won’t ask for across the board type of cuts, because some departments work more efficiently than others, but I do expect cuts in all departments.”
The county’s March sales tax increase has put those revenues at record highs, but Bell said the virus could still have a “ripple effect” on the economy. He pointed to the number of local businesses that have closed or cut costs in the months since then.
“We have small businesses, locally owned businesses who are struggling and may struggle in the future,” he said. “And we need to take as much burden off them as possible. When people have to tighten their belts, they expect the government to do it as well, and that will be my plan.”
Cesternino also looks to make budgeting a top priority, but his plan has some differences from Bell’s.
“I’m going to ask department heads every year with their budget to submit 2%, 5%, 7.5% and 10% budget cuts because we have to plan before,” he said. “When we need it, it’s too late for the planning. We have to be proactive.”
Cesternino wants to take advantage of the city’s reserve funding to pay for projects considered affordable based on those budgets. He cited a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood mitigation proposal as an example of the projects he would pursue because the city would have paid 20%, or roughly $750,000.
“When I first came in we had roughly $5 million in our reserve,” he said, referring to his time on the city council. “When I left, now we have an incredible amount of money in our reserves. We need to plan with these resources, and we need to prioritize our projects with that money.”
Battle lines drawn over taxes
The city’s decision to raise property taxes by 41% in 2019 has come to define the contours of the race’s budget discussion. Ash’s opponents have characterized the move as reckless spending, while he maintains it was a tough but necessary decision.
“During Mayor Ash’s first budget he told the city council that everything was OK, and he asked for some increases in impact fees and that was it,” Bell said. “At his next budget there was a $1.8 million shortfall and there was a 41% property tax increase … in the future, we cannot continue to have that type of mentality.”
Cesternino and DeMoor have also spoken against that tax increase throughout the campaign but did not address it at length during the debate.
Ash defended the increase by noting the city’s property tax was at 78 cents in 1992 and did not increase at all for the next 20 years. The rate instead dropped to 34 cents before a single 43% tax hike in 2013, and he said the city needed more revenue to address growth.
“You can’t run a business and you can’t run a government without some kind of increases along the way,” he said. “Instead of 41% tax hike, I want you to look at it this way. My tax hike was from 60 cents to 85 cents … do you want a mayor who will make the tough choices, or a mayor who will kick the can down the road for somebody else to take care of?”
City still grappling with growth
As Lebanon’s population continues to spike, the candidates discussed the impact on city government and offered management solutions.
“When I came into office, planning was one of the big things that I knew we had to do,” Ash said. “And I appointed the Comprehensive Plan Committee, the Hartmann Drive Committee and the Sparta Pike Committee.”
Ash sees implementing those economic studies as the best way for the city to address growth moving forward. He said last year’s property tax increase came about because of lasting budget impacts from the 2008 recession combined with the population increase.
“We were shorthanded,” he said, noting that the city added approximately 46 people to its payroll around that time. We had to buy equipment we hadn’t bought in years, we had to play catch-up. And that was one reason we were faced with the tax increase.”
DeMoor said his plans to redirect spending would be an important piece of growth management.
“(I want to) prioritize spending for essential services to the city, such as our gas system department, water treatment, et cetera,” he said. “I think if we pay close attention to our infrastructure needs as we grow, it’s kind of (going to) strike a balance.”
DeMoor also expects to see a surge in growth after COVID-19 and said that will be an important consideration.
“I suspect we’re going to have even more next year when we go through this virus situation,” he said. “I think if we pay attention to… the infrastructure needs as we grow, I think both efforts will lock hand-in-hand, I think we’ll be very successful in that regard.”
Bell believes the city should make use of guidelines like the 2040 Comprehensive Plan to stay ahead of the growth curve and speed up their development process.
“When I was on city council several years ago, we approved that plan to be studied,” he said. “It was meant to take a year, over three years later it’s still not approved. Without planning you get overwhelmed … growth doesn’t pay for itself, but all of a sudden you’re in a financial situation.”
Infrastructure is another piece of Bell’s plan, and he said the city should be mindful of it as new developments arrive.
“That’s not just roads,” he said. “I was talking to a lady the other day, and she said since some new houses have been built her water pressure’s dropped. Now I don’t know if that’s because of the new construction or not, but those are the kind of things we have to investigate.”
Cesternino emphasized using Lebanon’s existing assets to help encourage growth while working to keep the city prepared.
“We have the assets of the lake, we have the assets of the interstate, we have the assets of a secondary institution in Cumberland,” he said. “We have the assets of an airport and public transit, but we also now have an asset from the Vanderbilt health care.”
Through Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, Cesternino hopes to build communities focused on people older than 55.
“If we attract some of these over 55 communities that are going to use the advantages of the new cancer center that’s coming and the opportunities that Vanderbilt health care now offers the city of Lebanon, that would really help defer some costs,” he said. “Because that would get some money into the tax base, and over 55s — of which I will be one very soon — we put more money into the economy than we’re required to take out.”
Early voting begins on Wednesday and will run through Oct. 29. Residents who want to hear more from the candidates can view the entire debate online at https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=Zl8RxPDEwXc.