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  • Writer's picturekarenliothill

Full Responses to Valley News Questions

Today's Valley News article about the March 9 City Council election was based on responses provided by candidates to questions posed by the interviewer. Naturally, responses were summarized and excerpted to fit into the news story. Here are my full answers:

1) Can you tell me about yourself (what is your profession, how long have you lived in Lebanon and are you active in any volunteer or other city posts?)

I am a public servant and have worked to make Lebanon a more sustainable, prosperous, and inclusive community for the past 16 years on the City Council. I have lived in Lebanon since 1999, including 2 years in West Lebanon when I lived at Sachem Village as a young mother completing my undergraduate studies at Dartmouth. The Upper Valley is an incredible place to raise a family, and it was natural for me to stay in Lebanon after graduation. My older daughter graduated from Lebanon High School in 2017 and is now in her senior year of college, and my younger daughter is completing her first year remotely at Lebanon High School. I have had the privilege of serving on many boards over the years (see below), where a common theme for me has been strategic planning and succession planning. Whatever organization I am working with, I am always focused on sustainability, goal-setting, communication, and succession planning. In addition to my public service, I currently work as a paralegal, a piano teacher, and a dj on the River 93.9.

*Vital Communities - helped with succession planning, still serve on Nominating Committee

*Wise - helped transition organization from rented space to permanent facility on Bank Street

*Leadership Upper Valley - have led Government & Politics Day for 10 years

*New Hampshire Municipal Association - statewide advocacy organization for cities and towns

*Lebanon Middle School Parent Teacher Organization (LMS PTO) - past president, fostered increased coordination and collaboration between parents and admin

*First Baptist Church of Lebanon - former songleader for 15+ years

*Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee - founding member (was created as part of Lebanon's participation in US Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, which I signed as Mayor in 2009)

*Westboro Yard Committee (former City Council subcommittee)

*Lebanon Pedestrian & Bicyclist Advisory Committee - City Council representative

*Lebanon Outing Club - volunteer lift attendant and concessions for many years

*CATV - City Council representative

*Grafton County Economic Development Commission - City Council representative

*Chaired the City Task Force on the Welcoming Lebanon Ordinance to make recommendations to the City Council

*Chaired the City Task Force on Homelessness to make recommendations to the City Council

*City Council Governance Subcommittee

*Subcommittee for the Implementation of the Master Plan *Lebanon Economic Development Commission - CURRENT City Council representative *Joint City Council/School Board Task Force - CURRENT City Council representative

*Young Elected Officials Network - national organization of progressive local, county, and state leaders (honorary member, having aged out at 40 two years ago)

*Lebanon, Upper Valley, Grafton County & New Hampshire Democratic Party

2) Why did you decide to run for the City Council? What drove you to run this year?

As the healthcare, employment, and commercial hub of the region, Lebanon serves a critical role in our regional economy. This makes us special, and it also presents us with challenges, particularly in light of the fact that cities and towns in New Hampshire are forced to pay for municipal services and education with property taxes. The fact that our daytime population swells to 2-3x the size of our nighttime (and taxpaying) population compounds this challenge. For 16 years on the city council, I have focused on responding to the needs of our city without unduly burdening those who live here and encouraging responsible growth that preserves our small-town feel.

My mother died when I was six years old, and growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandfather was a World War II veteran, and they were both Rotarians. They exemplified the Rotary motto: "Service above self." They instilled in me a strong sense of civic pride and duty. When I became a mother, the call to community and public service became even stronger for me. When I first ran for city council in 2005, it was in tribute to my grandparents and out of a desire to do my part to make the world a better place for my daughter. Over the years, my appreciation for our community and my commitment to public service have only grown. I am motivated to run to continue moving Lebanon forward, and this year, in particular, my 16 years of experience, my institutional knowledge, and my consensus-building skills are important to provide steady leadership to the city during the uncertain times of covid and our economic recovery.

3) What policies and accomplishments would you pursue in office?

Continuing revitalization in our downtown areas is an important priority. We are building momentum in downtown West Lebanon, including securing the state's commitment to work with the city to tear down deteriorating buildings at the Westboro Yard and start cleaning up the site. Combined with the two acres on the north end of the Westboro Yard which the city purchased from the state ~10 years ago and cleaned up with the help of brownfields funding, the opportunity to redevelop this important piece of riverfront property in the heart of downtown West Lebanon is becoming a reality. The work of friends and residents of West Lebanon to push for the connection of the Mascoma River Greenway to downtown West Lebanon, River Park, and beyond is also very promising. I will champion these efforts at the Council table, including exploring whether a tax increment financing district may be a useful tool for the future. I will also continue pressing for discussions with the School Board about the future of the Seminary Hill School and how it can best serve the community.

The completion of the tunnel project this spring and the upcoming redevelopment of the former public works facility on Spencer Street into mixed-use and housing are continuing to revitalize downtown Lebanon. The outdoor dining spurred by the pandemic last year turned out to be a wonderful feature, bringing life to the downtown area during very uncertain times. Much-needed renovations are presently underway at the Lebanon Library. Colburn Park is a center of activity from the successful farmers market to the Food Truck Festival, movies in the park, and more. As the public health crisis is addressed and our arts organizations and restaurants resume operations in full force, we will be able to draw on the creativity spurred by the pandemic and foster even more vitality in our downtown area. The City Council created a tax increment financing (TIF) district for downtown Lebanon to continue identifying strategic improvements to the downtown area, and I will be an advocate for these efforts at the Council table.

Lebanon has been a longstanding leader on energy issues and the fight against climate change since we first signed on to the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2009 and created our Energy Committee. With a majority in control of the state legislature that is actively working against net-metering, community power, and other efforts, our leadership at the local level is more important than ever. In the past couple of years, we have invested significantly in solar power, and the landfill gas-to-energy project is nearing fruition. We must continue fighting for these initiatives, identify further opportunities to save money for Lebanon taxpayers, and build on the good work being done by the Lebanon Energy Committee and Sustainable Lebanon.

The Lebanon Municipal Airport has long presented a challenge for Lebanon taxpayers. Although the decision of a prior city council was well-motivated to turn the Lebanon Airport from a regional organization to a municipal one and thereby exert more control over its operations, the results have proven difficult for Lebanon taxpayers. When air traffic was booming, this was not an issue. But with the decline of air traffic, Lebanon taxpayers have had to pay the price for many years. The city council has worked hard to reduce the ongoing airport deficit. The tax increment financing district at the airport is an important next step in generating development that will close the airport deficit for good. As a city councilor, I will continue pushing to take this burden off the backs of Lebanon taxpayers.

How the City does our work is as important as what we do. I helped to draft the Inclusiveness Resolution together with Councilor Karen Zook, in response to hate speech that appeared in flyers around the city in 2018. I was also proud to vote to extend protections to transgender city employees. Over the past year, I have chaired the Welcoming Lebanon/Fair & Impartial Policing Task Force and worked hard to build consensus among task force members. One idea that has grown from this work is the creation of a Commission on Diversity and Inclusiveness for the City of Lebanon, and I am committed to moving this forward as a city councilor. Making Lebanon an even more welcoming and inclusive community is an important priority to me.

4) Tell me your thoughts about this year’s city budget-making process and the calls to both trim overall spending and spending within the police department. What would you like to see prioritized in future budgets and where would you like to see changes in the future?

We saw more people than ever tune in to the city budget this season, which was a wonderful development. Democracy works best when people are active and engaged. Whenever anyone has come forward to offer a suggestion to the city council, I have always helped them navigate the process, regardless of my personal opinion about their initiative. I believe one of my roles as a city councilor is to help people understand how their government operates. Although I did not agree personally with the petition to cut the police department budget by 50%, I thought it was important to help supporters of this initiative to understand how the city council budget process works.

Addressing deteriorating infrastructure has been the overarching theme of budgets since my first city council budget season in 2005. With the City under a federal mandate to separate our combined stormwater and sewer systems (the CSO project) to eliminate the possibility of raw sewage flowing into our rivers, the city budget has become increasingly squeezed by debt service as we paid for this major capital project. Lebanon taxpayers and water and sewer ratepayers have had to foot the ~$70M CSO bill entirely on our own, due to the refusal of former city councils to comply when matching funds were available. We have made progress in some other areas, including contributing funds for construction of the Kilton Library, extending the life of the Lebanon landfill, supporting the Mascoma River Greenway, and using the CSO project to make streetscape and pedestrian improvements while roads in affected neighborhoods were torn up. But we have not been able to keep up with other areas. Our road conditions have continued to deteriorate at a rate much faster than we can keep up with. Residents of neighborhoods that were not touched by the CSO project are very aware of deteriorating road conditions throughout the city. Our fire stations in downtown Lebanon and West Lebanon are also in need of serious attention.

City staff are constantly being asked to do more with less. Our fire/ems and police departments are among the busiest in the entire state, and the rate of growth in calls for emergency services has increased exponentially over the past 16 years. Staffing levels, however, have not seen significant increases. Cutting the police department budget by 50% is not realistic given the public safety needs of our community, particularly in light of our status as a regional hub. Even the proposal from a group of city taxpayers to cut the city budget by 20% over 5 years would mean cutting nearly $1.5M from the budget each year. This would require massive layoffs to departments that are already understaffed. Identifying efficiencies in how we do our work is always important. However, there are not $1.5M of efficiencies to be found in the city budget five years in a row. And the types of cuts required by that target would be intolerable to the residents of our community. While we heard from concerned taxpayers during the past budget season, we heard from just as many people who were concerned with the closure of the Lebanon pool, the potential layoff of the city's Energy & Facilities Manager, and the need to support funding for renovations to the Lebanon Library.

The most promising source of taxpayer relief is to continue supporting initiatives to lower costs and generate non-property tax revenue, which we are doing through investments in energy efficiency, solar power, group purchasing agreements, and the landfill gas conversion project. We must continue closing the deficit at the Lebanon airport and remove that burden from the taxpayers. And we must leverage all grant opportunities at the state and federal level for infrastructure, public health, and affordable housing. It is vitally important for Lebanon to continue raising our voice in Concord and demanding long-term solutions to education funding - the biggest burden on Lebanon property taxpayers.

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