Four spots on Powell City Council will be decided by voters on Nov. 2. Three incumbents are up for reelection as Tom Counts, Frank Bertone, and Brian Lorenz each seek another term on council. Challenging them will be two newcomers in Christina Drummond and Leif Carlson, both of whom hope to have the opportunity to play a key role in shaping the city’s future.
Counts, a 26-year resident of Powell, is completing his fourth term on Powell City Council as he seeks reelection. In addition to serving on council, he has also been a member of the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals as well as the Planning and Zoning Commission.
During his 16 years on council, Counts has played a role in a number of projects in Powell, but he said none have been more important than the tax restructuring that was passed by residents in May. The restructuring was passed by 66% of residents after two previous attempts were defeated by voters in 2010 and 2018.
“When the residents passed that in May, it allowed the city to do just so many things that will make the city much better,” Counts said.
With the restructuring, Counts said upwards of $3 million could potentially be generated for capital improvements in the city that may have otherwise been neglected out of a sheer lack of available funds.
“Look at our roads and residential streets. We were behind and getting more behind in getting those repaired,” Counts said. “We had a tunnel under the railroad tracks that has been in need of repairs for about four years. There just weren’t the kinds of dollars that we needed, and we were just getting so far behind. We were going to have to dip into our general fund, and those dollars just weren’t going to get replaced.”
Asked what led to his decision to run for reelection, Counts said continuing the push for the tax restructuring was the driving force.
“I had spent so much time working for that. When it was actually passed by the residents, then there was the work of making the repairs. One of the things that I look forward to in this term is not only doing those repairs but connecting the bike paths. We have pieces and parts, but our bike paths are an essential part of keeping our biker families safe from riding on residential roads … We’re going to be able to do a lot of things in the downtown that I would call improvements, things to make the downtown more vibrant. I wanted to sort of see that through.”
Counts said the extra dollars the community has entrusted to the city is a “huge responsibility” that he wants to make sure is handled correctly
In addition to the tax restructuring, Counts said he is particularly fond of the creation of the Powell Community Infrastructure Finance Authorities (CIFA), which partnered with the Liberty CIFA to finance public improvement costs at competitive rates.
“The city has taken its credit rating and allowed those Community Infrastructure Authorities to use that to reduce the interest rate and therefore reduce the maturity date, such that those assessments will be coming off the tax records much earlier than what anybody had anticipated,” Counts said.
Bertone, an 18-year resident of Powell, has served eight years on council, and he is currently serving as the city’s mayor. During his time on council, Bertone has also been active in the city’s Development, Operations, and Finance committees.
“One of the things I most enjoyed about Powell when we came here is the quality of life that it has,” Bertone said. “But my job as I got involved in council in 2014 is to protect that quality of life and make sure that it continues for future generations. I have three young daughters, and for me, personally, I never felt that it was good to just whine and complain about things going on in the city … The older they got, they’re asking a lot of questions these days. There’s a better way to get involved. Lead by example, get in and get engaged, and try and find solutions to the problems that we face as a community.”
Bertone said he feels his longtime status as a resident in Powell gives him a solid understanding of the community’s past, as well as its present and future.
Bertone pointed to the tax restructuring passed by residents in May as a critical moment in his time on council. In addition to the tax restructuring, Bertone said the city’s grant program to help local businesses during the pandemic gives him “goosebumps” given its impact. A total of 31 businesses received grant money as a result of a program he called “monstrous” and “the right thing to do.”
“We got that CARES Act funding and you could have easily put that towards your police budget and just kind of said, ‘Hey, that’s great, we got some extra money from the government to help us offset some costs.’ We could have stopped there and kept it internal to just city coughers, but we got really smart. And we had a really great city leader like (City Manager) Andy White,” Bertone said.
Bertone feels the community as a whole has gotten stronger during the pandemic, which he said can be seen in events involving the Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area and other things downtown where businesses have remained afloat despite hard times.
“That’s what I want to see. I want to see a vibrant downtown,” Bertone said. “I want to see that area thriving to the best of our abilities because if it’s thriving, you have people who are generally interested and wanting to be here. And then you attract developers, other commercial opportunities. As they say, ‘Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.’ Even with COVID, we were able to keep those businesses afloat and keep downtown healthy and well.”
Bertone added that while he would like for himself and his peers to be able to take all the credit for the downtown’s resilience during the pandemic, he said the effort was a true collaboration between council and a city administration he said is made up of “great people.”
Bertone also pointed to the reduced taxes for many of the residents in Golf Village and Murphy Park by restructuring the debts associated with the Powell and Liberty CIFAs.
“We were able to repackage those debts, reduce the debts, and take those debts down with expiration dates of, say, 2036, all the way down to 2026,” Bertone said. “That’s 10 years of debt that people don’t have to pay. Imagine being a homeowner in Kinsale and you were paying $2,000 a year for that special assessment that was going to the CIFA to pay for your sewers, you just got $20,000 handed back to you over the course of 10 years.
“When you’re able to bring about the proper leadership and talent in the room to get that conversation moving forward, that’s huge. It really stands out as an achievement. We’re always lamenting some of the taxes we pay in this community, but there have been some of us working hard to try and find ways to reduce it.”
Lorenz, who is a 16-year resident of Powell, has served for 12 years on Powell City Council, including terms as both mayor and vice mayor. While on council, he has chaired the Development and Operations committees multiple times and has also served on the city’s Planning Commission.
“For me, running again, I feel that I am called to serve. This is the best way that I can fulfill that in my community,” Lorenz said. “I really, really love what I do. I enjoy trying to make a positive difference and working with our residents on their needs and the situations the city is faced with. It’s a blessing, it’s humbling, but it’s exciting work to do.”
Lorenz said one of his proudest accomplishments during his time on council has been leading the Keep Powell Moving plan.
“What you’re starting to see now, and it’s exciting, is you’re seeing little pieces of it come out in other little plans that we’re doing, like our capital improvement plan,” Lorenz said. “Taking that big, giant plan and breaking it down, and then we’re going to start implementing pieces of that (plan). That’s one of the pieces that I want to continue working on … We’re in the execution phase of that now.”
Lorenz said of his work on the CIFAs, alongside his fellow council members, “We worked really hard to mitigate that cost to our taxpayers … We’re going to save some people a lot of money just by taking advantage of the market and being really fiscally savvy with the city’s money. I was really pumped about that.”
Among the top challenges Lorenz hopes to have a hand in attacking in the years to come is prioritizing and repairing the existing infrastructure. He added that getting the community better connected is also a priority to him.
“I’ve been working on broadband solutions here for five years now and that’s one of the things that I’m really going to bring to the forefront, getting some sort of better digital connection, and possibly even opening up our own utility because that helps drive other things,” he said.
Lorenz went on to say it will be important for Powell to understand how to retain a viable commercial tax base moving forward.
“I sit on the Community Improvement Corporation (CIC) as well, which is great because the CIC is that economic development link of council,” Lorenz said. “It’s not a challenge so much as it is an opportunity, strategizing and investing in property and tangible assets. Just retaining development and bringing in sound commercial development. That’s always going to be a challenge for us and where we put that kind of stuff.”
Lorenz said he will be rewriting the comprehensive land-use plan “to address some directional issues and just development in general.” Lorenz added that he would like to streamline the process applicants go through with the development process in the city to make it easier to navigate while retaining the same amount of transparency with proposals.
Hopeful the voters will allow him another opportunity to do so, Lorenz said he is “ready to go” on the considerable work ahead for the city in making these plans a reality.
Drummond moved to Powell in 2015 after growing up just south of the city in the Worthington Hills neighborhood. Drummond said she is a “longtime believer in engaged volunteering in the local community,” having jumped into her local home owners association and parent teacher organization after settling in Powell.
In 2018, Drummond served on the Citizens Financial Review Task Force Committee that played an integral role in stating the city’s case for the tax restructuring that was approved by residents in May.
“As my kids have grown, I’ve been looking for ways to use my professional expertise, which is in public policy and policy in particular, in my local community,” Drummond told The Gazette. “Powell City Council provides me with the opportunity to take the work I do by day and use it in a civil service, volunteering kind of way around my day job.”
Asked about the challenges facing Powell in the years to come, Drummond pointed to what she described as an “almost adversarial and competitive” relationship between the city and Liberty Township over the past decade despite the Cooperative Economic Development Agreement in place between the two governments.
“A lot of development has been going forward without planning being done in conjunction between the two parties,” Drummond said. “The city and the township haven’t been working together, and they have been working at odds with each other. That has resulted in some very interesting patterns in development and some situations where our city services —everything from snow plowing to our bike connections — are not ideal.”
Drummond said that moving forward, the biggest opportunity where she hopes to use her background in coalition and relationship building is to build the bridges between the two entities and “negotiate a new master plan for what development should look like across both Liberty Township and the city of Powell.
“Right now, these two entities have sort of a jigsaw puzzle, overlapping relationship, and there are just so many ways we can identify areas where it is beneficial for us city residents who are also part of the township,” she said.
Drummond pointed to the nonprofit Olentangy Powell and Liberty Trails citizens group that was formed in 2014, which promotes bike trail connectivity throughout the city and township, and said similar groups could happen for arts programs as well as road maintenance and public service between the two communities.
Drummond went on to say that some of the assets she can bring to the city are her background and relationships that have been formed with other jurisdictions and agencies in the area throughout her time on the Regional Data Advisory Committee through the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
“In that capacity, I have a number of colleagues who I work with both in the working groups and the committee itself from nearby areas,” Drummond said. “That gives us an opportunity to learn how they’re making their government agency more effective, more efficient, and how they really use the data in their organization to influence their policymaking. I think that expertise is something that I can bring, along with those relationships.”
With the tax restructuring set to provide the city with the dollars needed to catch up on a backlog in maintenance projects, Drummond said there are capital improvements that are envisioned in the city’s Comprehensive Plan where funding “needs to be fought for and coordinated with other entities, especially if we want to go after grants and find ways to supplement what the city would have to pay to make these things happen.
“Working on that vision and finding ways to implement those capital improvements is something on my list, and it builds into my background with fundraising and working with nonprofit grant writing,” Drummond said.
Drummond went on to say the city has an opportunity in front of it to build out “diverse cultural programming” with activities for different age groups, and broaden what recreation means to the region, something she said is “near and dear” to her.
Editor’s note: The Gazette reached out to Carlson for this story, but as of press time, comments on his campaign had yet to be received.