October 24, 2011 | last updated May 21, 2012 1:08 pm

The Politics Of Business | Tax rate, jobs, growth grab the attention of Worcester's mayoral candidates

The four candidates for mayor in the Nov. 8 city election, clockwise from upper left, are, Konstantina Lukes, William Coleman, Carman Carmona and Joseph Petty.

A few weeks before the city election, mayoral candidate and seven-term City Councilor Joseph Petty called a news conference in front of City Hall on a blustery October day to tout his jobs plan should he become the city's next mayor.

Afterwards, when asked about engaging the business community in local government, Petty gave a straightforward answer: Sometimes, he said, the relationship between the council and city businesses can be a struggle.

Some businesses owners, he said, are turned off by what they see as an unfair tax rate that in some years requires businesses to pay nearly double the tax rate of homeowners.

Other businesspeople, he said, may not realize all the work the council does that can impact businesses. From zoning regulations to street and sidewalk repairs to courting new businesses to move to the city, there's plenty of work the council does that impacts businesses, he said.

"For us to prosper as a city, we need everyone's input on these issues," Petty said. "That's why businesses should care."

But do they?

As the city prepares for the Nov. 8 election, all four mayoral hopefuls have focused on economic development and job creation in their talking points. Some, like Petty and City Councilor Konstantina Lukes, have even outlined jobs plans. The other two, community activists William Coleman and Carman Carmona, have spoken about how they would bring in new business. But one common theme among the four is that they'd like to see more engagement between City Hall and the business community.

Lukes: Not Just The Tax Rate

Lukes, the former mayor and an 11-term councilor, said business leaders are engaged to a "limited extent." Many businesspeople galvanize around the tax rate issue, but not much else.

The tax rate "is a good start, but it's not adequate to deal with all the other issues in the city," she said.

Plans for downtown business development, supporting local businesses through community development corporations and neighborhood groups, and increased input on zoning and regulatory changes are all important issues for the business community, she said.

But some businesspeople in the city would challenge the notion that leaders from the private sector are apathetic.

A few years back, Diane Mohieldin, chief financial officer of the Harr Motor Management Group in Worcester, got frustrated enough about city planning that she decided to speak up.

She's been pleasantly surprised about the response.

"Sometimes it can be difficult to do business in the city," she said, referring specifically to the maze of permits and documents a company must file to build or do a construction expansion.

Mohieldin teamed up with other business owners that are part of the Worcester Citizens For Business Group, and started airing some of her concerns.

"I think the city really has been trying to pay attention to the issues we've raised," she said.

She specifically pointed to plans the city has put into place to install an online permit tracking system, and she mentioned a task force Mayor Joseph O'Brien — who is running for re-election to the City Council but not for another term as mayor — created last year.

Beth Proko, one of the founders of Worcester Citizens For Business, said she helped create the organization to give a voice to city businesses.

"Some things need to be done differently, and to get those done we need to speak up," she said.

Other business groups seem to have an open dialogue with the city.

Jim Finnegan, of Finnegan Photographers, is president of the Webster Square Business Association, which in the past few years has begun meeting monthly with O'Brien.

"I think there are a lot of businesses that are interested in where the dollars are spent and want to see this city improve," he said.

He said the biggest thing the city can do to improve business is equalize the tax rates. But, he said, engagement by the business community is equally important to make sure the concerns of businesspeople are on the minds of elected officials.

While some businesses may think the work of the council has little impact on their day-to-day operations, Michael Lanava, director of government affairs for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, begs to differ.

"It's important," he said. "It's at the local level that the work really impacts residents and businesses the most."

Local regulations, zoning, permitting, taxes, water and sewer rates are all set by the City Council and can have a direct impact on a business's operations, he said.

Coleman: Widen The Process

Coleman and Carmona said they too would like to see more engagement from the business community. Coleman, who has run for political office since the late 1970s but never won, said he would consider expanding the criteria for members of boards and commissions to include not just people who live in Worcester, but people who work in the city yet live elsewhere. He also said he would continue the mayor's task force and engagement meetings, and said having a more transparent government will encourage businesspeople to participate.

Carmona: Help City Firms

Carmona, who has worked in human services in downtown Worcester since 1988, said she'd like to see the city spend more on Worcester businesses and people. For example, she said construction projects city-sponsored should be given to local contractors, if all else is equal. She also said spreading out tax incentive financing plans from five to seven years could make them even more attractive to new businesses. The longer businesses can take advantage of the tax credits, she added, the more attractive they are as a recruiting tool.

While business advocates in the city and many of the candidates agree there should be more engagement from the city, some people feel it's just plain hard to get people involved. Dan Benoit of Benoit & Reardon Architects in downtown Worcester said it's not a matter of apathy from business owners, it's a matter of time.

"My sense is that everybody's busy just trying to keep their business afloat," said Benoit, who sits on the steering committee for Worcester Citizens for Business. "Everyone's putting in long hours, trying to help our businesses grow; we all have families. I wish there was more business engagement, but I understand there's just not enough time in the day for everything you want to do."


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