Speed and spending top the list of priorities for District 3 City Council candidate Gene Leon.
The Berlin Street resident last year rallied dozens of supporters in an unsuccessful bid to have the speed limit lowered to 25 mph on the backway thoroughfare that leads from the city to Hospital Hill and the Berlin Mall. Leon pressed the city to put the proposal on the Council agenda and made sure residents were on hand at two public hearings to defend the idea.
The Councilors eventually voted to lower the 35 mph limit to 30, as recommended by former Department of Public Works director Tom McArdle, but the effort inspired Leon to seek the seat being vacated by Glen Coburn Hutcheson. If elected, Leon promised to push for a 25 mph speed limit on all but the most traveled city streets.
“I think the Council is too quick to vote sometimes,” he said. “If I’m critical it’s because I care, but they seemed to ignore all the residents who came and went with the city recommendation.”
Leon, 45, also believes property taxes are too high and the city should be more deliberate in its spending, especially in areas of the budget that he feels benefit a minority of taxpayers. He cited the Montpelier Development Corp. ($100,000), the Homelessness Task Force ($45,000), investments in the arts, money to fight the emerald ash borer, and various committees as funding that could be better scrutinized.
“You can’t just approve money,” he said. “We’re not a charity. We need to get the best bang for the buck and be cautious of where the spending is and how it impacts our taxes. People are just fed up with that.”
He said he supports economic development on both sides of the Winooski River and expanding the tax base, but worries that increasing taxes are causing residents to leave the city.
He said development plans should include areas outside the city center, such as the former Grossman’s location, private space along Northfield Street, and perhaps modernizing retail and business properties along River Street.
Leon also said he would like to see more neighborhood parks and pointed to the nine-acre Stonewall Meadows plot of city-owned land off Hebert Street in District 3 as an example of a public space that could be developed into a more formal park.
Leon said he is undecided about the proposed Recreation Center renovation, questioning the cost but supportive of the energy efficiency potential and the potential to use the building as an emergency shelter.
“Do we really want another $5 million bond,” he asked? “Can we do it for less money using local contractors?”
Leon said he is also concerned about empty storefronts, and suggested that if a location was empty for three months or six months that perhaps the city should impose a vacancy tax, designed to force landlords to cut rents.
If elected, he promised to meet regularly with constituents and represent their views, something he says wasn’t done in the speed limit debate.
“You have to put your own opinions aside and listen to the people,” he said. “You represent the 2,000 people in the district.”
Leon, whose father fled the Castro regime in Cuba, is an artist whose previous jobs include video production, carpentry, and ski tuning, among others. He grew up in Florida and has two children. He has a public event planned from 6 to 8 pm Feb. 19 at North Branch Cafe.