Amy Cunningham
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At the final forum before the election, seven of the eight candidates vying for three spots on the Gardner City Council had a chance to convince voters why they would be the right choice for the job.  Candidate Dustin Martin was unable to attend the forum due to a death in the family.
Candidates were each given three minutes at the beginning of the evening to speak to attendees on why they would be the best person to put into office.  Following opening speeches, Steve Devore, president of the Gardner  Area Chamber, presided over a question and answer period.
Candidate Chris Morrow said that he was honored to be running for the City Council and that his experience and temperament made him an ideal candidate.  He said that addressing the city’s budget shortfall would be best absorbed by making across the board cuts to different departments of 1 percent or less.
“(We) need to work with city staff and different department directors…to make cuts with a minimal amount of pain while sharing the (burden),” he explained.
Candidate Dennis Pugh said that serving on the council would be a great way for him to give back to the community.
“I have no special agenda and no outlining thoughts on any big change,” he said.
Pugh said that, while making cuts to city services and raising taxes is no fun, due to the recession our city is in a similar position to many cities across the country.
“You can’t cut police and you can’t cut fire. Where does that leave you?” he wondered.  “You may have to cut services.”
Pugh also pointed out that city staff has undergone a two year pay freeze, implemented when he served a three month stint on the council as an appointee from former mayor Carol Lehman.
Candidate Tory Roberts, currently serving on the planning commission and board of zoning appeals, said that she has loved living in Gardner for the past seven years.  She said that the city has given her a great place to live, work and play and she would like to see it return to that atmosphere.
Roberts said that the council may have to get creative when looking for areas to save money.
“We should look for creative ways to meet the shortfall without raising taxes,” she explained, suggesting a possible reduction in the city’s workforce, job furloughs, creative cross-training amongst the workforce and implementing one mandatory unpaid day off per month for employees.
Candidate Bill Sutton joked that as a member of the Knights of Columbus he had most likely made funnel cakes for everyone attending the forum.  He commended city staff for reducing the projected budget shortfall from $300,000 to $72,000 and doing so with the housing market bust in a city where 85 percent of revenues come from property taxes.
“If we did have to reduce the budget I would look at individual departments to see where we could trim the fat,” he said.
Candidate Jared Taylor said that he wanted to make Gardner a sustainable, responsible city and he hoped to bring a common sense approach to the council.
He said that, while the budget was brought under control, that the council must remain engaged to find further cuts.
“I don’t believe in sacred cows and I believe we should be doing all we can,” he explained.  “There may be additional cuts.”
Taylor also said the city should set realistic expectations and make sure everyone is informed.
“We have to be honest and open to what is going on,” he said.  “(We’re) trying to decrease expenditures, citizens have to be involved.”
Candidate Jeff Barber has spent 11 years living in Gardner and said that the city’s current debt situation spurred him to run for a seat on the council.
“I don’t feel we have a current watchdog,” he stated.
Barber said a recent ride along with the Gardner Police Department was eye opening for him, mentioning that the department relies on computer hand-me-downs from the city and that, he believes, some of the staff volunteer their time, working several hours per month for free.  He said even though the parks and recreation services received an 89 percent approval rating on a citizen survey. That is one area he would consider making cuts.
Candidate Larry Fotovitch moved his family to Gardner  in 1998 to raise his children in a small town atmosphere.  He believes his background in journalism trained him to ask important questions, his experience in finance would make him ideal for examining the city’s finances and his leadership serving in the U.S. Navy as a helicopter pilot would assist him in a role on the council.
Fotovitch explained that, in any organization employees represent around 70 percent of the overhead.  He said that in Gardner the employees represent 75 percent of the expense. One way to trim the budget, Fotovitch stated, would be to require the employees to shift from traditional insurance to health savings accounts.
“Requiring employees to use health savings accounts would save around $296,000,” Fotovitch said.
The remainder of the candidate forum was videotaped and will be viewable on the Gardner News website as soon as it is available.  The election will be held on April 5.