Mayoral debate hosted by Chamber; Smithgall defends crime assessment

Thursday morning, incumbent Mayor Rick Gray and contender Charlie Smithgall spoke before members of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce at the Southern Market Center. The tight discussion format, fielding audience questions and allowing a limited response time for each candidate, yielded succinct and focused comments on a variety of local issues—from crime to economic development.

The city’s crime rate, easily the most well-worn topic of discussion between the two candidates, was brought up early in the debate. “My opponent seems to think that numbers of police are the only way to solve crime,” Gray asserted, referring to Smithgall’s contention that Gray has cut police officers while crime rates have increased. Gray maintained that “crime hasn’t run rampant” to the extent that Smithgall has alleged, and called the candidates use of statistics “distorted.”

Echoing his statement to NewsLanc at this week’s City Council Meeting, Gray said that Smithgall’s assessment of crime in the city “stereotypes us in every conceivable negative way.”

During the debate, Gray maintained that the key to improving public safety in Lancaster City is fostering the efficient use of police officers. This effort, Gray said, is already well underway, with response times shortened on average by 18% since he took office. Gray also noted that the High Point Program is currently working to draw stronger community involvement in the public safety of high-crime target areas in Lancaster.

Smithgall responded that, when his administration saw crime spiking on one block of Green Street, the issue was addressed head-on, without any elaborate programs: “I don’t need a crime analysis to know that’s a problem.” Police were directed to begin networking with active neighbors and aggressively addressing crime in that area: “We have to work each block, one at a time, solving problems, and make people feel safe,” Smithgall said.

When asked about the City’s budgetary challenges, Gray noted that the City’s recently rising costs are mostly due to ballooning personnel expenses. Under State-level restrictions, Gray said, union contracts are determined by an arbiter, with little leverage on the City’s part. Gray added that, upon taking office, he faced some less-than-necessary expenses due to financial commitments made during the Smithgall administration—namely a $900,000 commitment to the Clipper Stadium and a $5 million commitment to the Lancaster County Convention Center.

The $900,000, Gray said, was ultimately plugged by State funds. Regarding the $5 million, Gray made the following observation: [The] $5 million promise to the Convention Center Hotel…was made without any public knowledge, without any input from Council….I had to deal with that; I told them we wouldn’t honor it, because it wasn’t done appropriately.”

Smithgall denied that he had ever made such a promise. “If they came to you, you were snookered,” he said.

To address the City’s current financial challenges, Smithgall said that he would “spend money like it was my money” and separate the “I wants” from the “I needs.” This quality of leadership, Smithgall asserted, has been lacking in Gray’s administration when it comes to big purchases. Smithgall cited the expenditure of $300,000 for 23 City vehicles and $175,000 for a minimally-used garbage truck examples of such excess.

In response, Gray maintained that, under his administration, the City has made a considerable number of capital expenditures to address aging equipment and infrastructure. Soliciting the business sense of those Chamber members in attendance, Gray asked, “If you just let things go, what happens?”

Updated: August 3, 2016 — 8:49 pm