FARRELL — The five candidates running for three Democratic nominations for Sharon’s city council agree on at least one thing — blight has been, and continues to be, the city’s biggest obstacle.
Each candidate was given a brief window to give opening and closing remarks, and an opportunity to answer questions from the audience at a forum Tuesday at Second Missionary Baptist Church in Farrell.
Incumbents Molly Bundrant and Courtney Saylor, and challengers Sharronda Faber, Carl Aaron Sizer and Christopher Ford are running for the three Democratic nominations. No Republicans filed for the May 21 primary.
“The great thing about tonight is that we have five people who are running for council and all in agreement that the biggest problem is blight,” said Sizer, a certified public accountant at a New Castle accounting firm and president of the Penn State Shenango alumni society. “We don’t have an agenda or personal bias, we’re just running on behalf of the city.”
Saylor said the city is making progress on some of the projects it has started during the 18 months she has been a council member. She cited Sharon’s GIS mapping initiative. Thanks to the initiative last fall, Saylor said the city is better able to identify which areas are in the most dire straits, and which properties most in need of demolition.
“We have too many of what we call ‘zombie properties’ sitting around with no one to take care of them,” said Saylor, who is also the chair of the city’s blight task force. “We have plenty of space for housing if we knock the zombie properties down. But we need grants for that, and I think think the mapping initiative will help with that.”
When fielding audience questions about blight, Bundrant, who was elected to council in 2015, said Sharon’s code enforcement department is successfully spearheading an effort to clear up the issue.
“Right now they are working on targeted cleanups,” she said. “They are finding areas that are really blighted and cleaning them up.”
Bundrant also named a high number of Sharon rental properties as the main culprits adding to the deterioration of the city’s neighborhoods.
“Unfortunately, when people come and go they don’t put the time and effort into the home that an owner-occupied home does,” she said. “We spend a lot of time updating our ordinances to hold (tenants and landlords) accountable.”
Saylor said there is a “54-step process” to demolish a home from the time it is identified as blighted to the time it can be demolished. However, Sizer and Faber expressed optimism that the process could be streamlined through collaboration with other organizations and municipalities.
“We have to sit down at the table, have conversations and develop a plan and work together,” said Faber, who has worked with the city within the police department and as a city council clerk. “That’s what you have to do when you live in a small community.”
Faber said she plans to use her background in social services to help set the table.
“Change will not happen overnight,” she said. “I know that blight is a priority, and it will take collaboration to solve it.”
Ford, a 17-year Sharon resident, earned a round of applause from the audience when asked about what he proposed to be done with properties once they are torn down.
“I want to partner with people outside of the community to come in and build different housing as Mercer County Housing Authority has done in Farrell,” he said. “We have to make sure we aren’t just a ghost town and that we are building up as fast as we are tearing down.”
Ford added that he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in order to accomplish his goals.
“We have to put our hands where our mouth is,” he said. “Not just talking about it, but picking up garbage, boarding a house — what ever we need to do to fight blight.”
Each candidate mentioned grants and seeking potential revenue streams Wednesday, but Sizer was the only candidate to specifically mention the city budget.
“My finance background, the accounting background and the knowledge of budgets, and a knowledge of a lot of the programs that fund the city are some of my strong points,” he said. “Like Penn State Shenango, Sharon is a small campus with a big heart. I want to give back to Sharon because it helped make me who I am.”