Saratoga Springs mayoral candidates County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen – a Democrat – and current deputy mayor Shuana Sutton – a Republican – squared off in a debate last night in the race to replace three-term Republican Scott Johnson on election day.
The one-hour debate between Sutton and Yepsen focused on many of the issues facing Saratoga Springs voters – including the potential impact of an expanded Saratoga Casino and Raceway, calls for more EMS and fire department service in the city, and issues with downtown traffic and parking.
In the question-and-answer style debate moderated by the Saratoga Springs League of Women Voters at Saratoga Springs High School, the candidates began trading barbs nearly immediately.
In her opening remarks, Sutton highlighted what she believed are some of the current administration’s successes. She has served as deputy mayor for the last six years. She mentioned the negotiations with the public employee unions to save money on long-term healthcare costs.
Sutton said negotiations are "saving you, the taxpayers, $32 million from long-term health insurance; $440,000 in savings last year alone."
A resident questioned Sutton on the validity of the $32 million figure. Sutton cited a fiscal audit by the New York State Comptroller’s office that identified the decrease in longtime liability after the negotiations in 2012.
In her response, Yepsen said the number assigned to Saratoga Springs is unrealized liability – which is subject to change.
"That's dynamic. That's going to change if people have babies, if people are retiring, if new hires happen," said Yepsen. "We should really realize that this is just an intangible number - this is not a cash-in-the-bank kind of savings."
Another early questioner asked Yepsen whether her endorsements from public employees unions are a conflict of interest. Yepsen said she was proud of all of her endorsements.
"I am nobody's puppet," said Yepsen. "I am not going to make decisions based on donations. I would be happy to share my donor list with my opponent's donor list for the conflict of interest test any day of the week."
Sutton, however, took the opposite position on endorsements from public employees unions.
"If they offer their endorsement, if they offer their help to you it's a conflict of interest," said Sutton. "There's no doubt in my mind."
The candidates did find some common ground on how they plan to mitigate the impacts of a planned expansion of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway on local entertainment venues, including SPAC. The $33 million plan includes the construction of a five-story hotel and a new performing arts venue whether or not the state’s casino referendum passes in November.
Yepsen responded first, outlining the steps she’s already taken as County Supervisor to get the owners of the Casino and Raceway to discuss their plans with the community.
"I've talked to them about coming to the local land-use boards and presenting their plans so that the local community can have input into this and they've agreed, and there's lots more negotiating we need to do like that so that we are not hurting from this but only gaining from it," said Yepsen.
Sutton agreed with what Yepsen deemed is necessary and also said communication with downtown businesses could prevent any negative impacts.
"It's just a question of getting the Chamber, the Downtown Business Associations back, the CIty Center and community leaders, and to sit down and talk it through," said Sutton. "I'm sure there can be situations worked out where we don't step each other's toes."
The candidates also answered questions about how they’ll make city hall more accessible to the public, how they’d approach recreation, and if they’d reinstate an administrator of parks, open spaces, and historic preservation, and shared their opinions on making downtown more accessible to pedestrians.
Outgoing Republican Mayor Scott Johnson is not seeking reelection.