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Benton, Jin vying to lead Vergennes

VERGENNES — On Tuesday, Vergennes residents will choose in a two-person race for mayor between an incumbent one-term alderman and a former multi-term alderwoman and one-term mayor who has thrown her hat back in the ring after several years away from city politics.
Each, Alderman Bill Benton and former mayor April Jin, has been active in the community and is a long-time resident of Vergennes. Both are married with three grown children who have attended city schools.
Both were asked to provide basic biographical data and a brief summary of their community service, and to answer via email the same series of five questions. (The four candidates for three seats on the city council were asked the same questions; see story, Page 3A.)
Jin, a grandmother of four, has lived in Vergennes since 1980 and has degrees from West Chester State University and the University of Delaware. She lists her work experience as business owner, insurance agent, teacher, bi-lingual assistant, healthcare administrator and journalist. She has participated, by her own count, in about 40 Vergennes and Addison County organizations and has been the chairwoman of some.
Benton graduated from Vergennes Union High School in 1974 and the University of Vermont in 1978. He has operated his own real estate appraisal business since 1981 and is the Middlebury town assessor. He has served as the president of the Vergennes Partnership and the chairman of the Bixby Library Board of Trustees, and on the boards of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes and the Vergennes Opera House.
The questions they were asked and their responses are as follows:
1. Why did you choose to run, or run again?
JIN: A council member urged me to run again a few weeks ago. It seemed that no one on the council was interested in running for mayor. An international economist once told me that in order to run for office, you must love people, and I do. Time has mellowed me.
BENTON: With just one year of experience on the Vergennes City Council, I initially had no intention of running for mayor. However, with no candidates announcing to run, and with the support of citizens whom I greatly respect, I decided it would be a good opportunity to continue the agenda that has been undertaken recently by the board. With my experience on other boards and recent experience on the city council, I feel that I have many of the qualities necessary to help run the city in an efficient and positive manner.
2. Are there specific issues of concern that you would like to address? If so, what approaches would you take if elected?
BENTON: We must improve the economic and social well-being of our community through efforts to create and maintain jobs, increase our tax base, market our unique assets, and provide recreational amenities that will enhance the quality of life for all residents of Vergennes.
Attention must be given to the needs of existing businesses, while identifying complementary business that may want to locate in our area. In addition, we must be proactive in the redevelopment of underutilized properties such as the Kennedy Brothers complex.
We have made remarkable strides in the past 14 years with our downtown revitalization and streetscape improvements. We need to maintain these improvements in a systematic manner. In addition, we need to identify other areas within the city that can benefit from improvement. The North Main Gateway needs to be connected with downtown by creating attractive pedestrian options. We need to continue to promote pedestrian safety in our downtown with the selective use of traffic calming devices and signage. Falls Park, Pump House Island, and the Riverwalk can offer additional opportunities for local and tourist recreational amenities. Our pro-active recreation committee has identified numerous projects that can be completed to increase the livability of our city. With a Water Tower Fund Policy under review, a funding source for defined improvements can be used to complete many projects without increasing our annual operating budget.
Finally, we need to take stock of the assets that we have and continue to promote Vergennes as a unique and caring community.
Our history, architecture, cultural and recreational amenities, stores and restaurants all contribute to a vital community that should be experienced and shared. We need to instill a pride in our community that reflects our commitment to the city of Vergennes.
JIN: Closer review of spending of city funds, keeping taxes low within reason. There is only so much money and it must be prioritized for the good of city residents — young and old and in between, before we consider the wants of residents of other communities. We need more fundraising for specifics and more grant writing, rather than increasing property taxes.
3. Are there larger goals you would have while in office?
BENTON: As of right now, I do not have larger goals for Vergennes. We are on the right track and need to continue to identify incremental, positive changes that can continue to improve our community. We cannot afford to stand still; stagnation leads to decline. We need to continually look forward.
JIN: Of course I want to see the downtown flourish and be able to attract visitors to the city. We must look to being a draw for people to want to move in here. Positive publicity about special events and a strong school system is also needed. So far the city loan fund has just been granted twice to one business. Better communication is important so that other business can also have that opportunity.
The mayor can influence the council and be the spokesperson, but it is the council that votes on action to be taken. Sometimes there were dissenting members but I never went against the will of the council. During my term we had eliminated the Members’ Concerns and Issues from the agenda at the request of the city manager, who did not want to be blindsided before the meeting, but preferred to work on solutions ahead of time.
These are difficult economic times but I want to see Vergennes grow and prosper.
4. Resources are limited, and especially given the increase to the tax rate that would occur if the police station bond passes, what might your spending priorities be moving forward?
JIN: If the police station is not approved, we will need to scale back the plan. We are a small community of around 2,700 residents, and we don’t have a large commercial base, as does Middlebury. At the same time the police department space in city hall is much, much too small. We really need a new location. The sooner the better.
BENTON: Our departments are running smoothly and our budget is very reasonable relative to other communities of our size. We have dedicated employees who do their best to make Vergennes a special place. Our operating budget should continue to be frugal with accommodations for long-term requirements. Our city manager does a great job at keeping our finances in order and I expect that to continue in the future.
5. Simply put, why should the residents of Vergennes vote for you?
BENTON: We need to continue with the positive changes that have taken place in the past decade. My experience with taxes, budgets and downtown revitalization will offer ideas for continued success. Transparency and inclusion will be a priority as we move forward in making Vergennes an even better place to live and work.
JIN: My opponent is serving his first year on the council. I served for three years and one term as mayor. Before that I covered council meetings for many years. In Vergennes I was elected (as a) JP, lister, 15 years on VUHS board, 14 years as chair of (the Hannaford) tech center. I attended Chamber of Commerce and Partnership meetings. (A) former city manager remarked that I spent more time on the position than any other mayor he had known.
It is not just serving on boards. A mayor needs broad understanding of entire community needs, including one-on-one contact through mentoring at the shelter, one-on-one delivering meals on wheels, attending senior lunches on a regular basis, and volunteering four afternoons a week at the Boys and Girls Club. It all comes down to experience, broad-based knowledge and availability.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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