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Oneonta mayoral candidates discuss issues in forum

 Common Councilors Len Carson and Mark Drnek speak in a LWV forum
Zoom/Image capture by WAMC
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Common Councilors Len Carson and Mark Drnek speak in a LWV forum

Two common councilors are seeking to become the next mayor of Oneonta.

Republican Len Carson and Democrat Mark Drnek began their terms on the Oneonta Common Council in 2020 and now both candidates are seeking to replace outgoing Democratic Mayor Gary Herzig. They met for a virtual forum Wednesday night.

Drnek, a Democrat representing the 8th Ward, said he “jumped into his leadership role with ‘both feet’” during the pandemic, developing and co-chairing the “Survive and Thrive” program to assist struggling small businesses, and developing the “Town and Gown” task force to facilitate relations with the college community after a spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall of 2020.

Carson, a Republican from the 5th Ward, is an Air Force vet and 26-year member of the Oneonta Fire Department. Carson also served as an Otsego County legislator. Carson serves as chair of the city’s Finance and Human Resource Committee, as well as airport manager.

In a wide-ranging forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Oneonta, the candidates were asked questions directly from a virtual audience about their approaches to government.

Drnek said he has a goal of attracting 1,000 new residents to the small upstate city, a goal he wants to accomplish, in part, through marketing to downstate residents.

“We actually have a marketing campaign going on right now. We talked about a few minutes ago the Neahwa Park, and the dog park, and all of these other quality of life issues. All of these things are tools to market ourselves to downstate, people who have self-identified as people who are not locked to an office cubicle, that we can bring to us with their jobs. That is going to do to bring down our tax rate individually,” said Drnek.

Carson said he wants to raise revenues and lower property taxes by looking for new revenue streams.

“So a few weeks ago at the Finance and Human Resource committee, we had a meeting that was solely designed for new revenue streams,” said Caron. “There was nine items on that agenda. A couple to highlight is that currently the City of Oneonta owns more than 90 parcels. They’re not all parks and public space. They’re not all parcels that have infrastructure such as water and sewer in them. So we need to identify them. Is there an opportunity?”

Carson pointed to the Chestnut Street School building, a property he wants the city to purchase. He says it and adjacent land can be used to create housing.

Housing and development were recurring topics in the 90-minute forum.

Oneonta’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan calls for a voluntary inclusionary zoning policy for multi-family housing.

Asked if he supports inclusionary zoning, where space is set aside for lower-income families, Drnek described it as one option of many to establish more affordable housing.

“The playing field is as open as it can be, as it should be, frankly, to every idea that we can incorporate in the solution. The key, though, is that nothing, nothing, nothing gets done unless the neighborhood is engaged in the conversation,” said Drnek.

Drnek said he wants the city to work with the local land bank, move unsafe structures to auction, and “take a closer look” at zoning.

Carson said he wants to examine strategies and programs already in place to encourage home ownership.

“There’s already existing programs that are in place and I look forward to implementing them as the mayor. There’s already a relationship between these institutions and the City of Oneonta. I’m looking forward to helping people get off they call it the hamster wheel,” said Carson.

Carson also suggested creating tax abatements and incentives for local developers to encourage them to continue to working in the city on future projects.

While the pair agreed on many of the same ideas, they did disagree somewhat on their approaches to development. Oneonta was awarded a $10 million state Downtown Revitalization Fund award in 2016, and is planning to redevelop a portion of downtown on Market Street and South Main Street, along with the creation of a new transit hub.

Carson said the city needs to “be smart” about DRI funding, and celebrated private-public partnerships to bring new development. He pointed to a $5 million investment from Springbrook to create 24 middle-income housing units in the historic Ford Block building on Main Street.

“But I think it’s creating those public-private partnerships with Springbrook and other developers, rather than kind of putting us in a pigeon hole of what we expect out of them. I think it’s a better opportunity to us to bring that opportunity, and then talk about what their vision is compared to what our vision is,” said Carson.

Drnek prefers a community-driven process and supports keeping shopping and business on Main Street and utilizing Market Street for entertainment.

“Public private partnerships I am all for, but the idea of letting the market kind of drive what the content and context of something as important as the back end of Main Street, Market Street is something that I wouldn’t leave to that kind of chances,” said Drnek.

Herzig has been mayor since 2015 but decided not to seek another two-year term.