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El Paso mayoral candidate profile: Oscar Leeser

Oscar-Leeser
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El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser.
  • Number-one campaign focus?

Vigilant COVID monitoring …the fact is COVID is here and will be here for a while. We have an added challenge as a border community. Until we get control of COVID, it will be difficult to satisfactorily address debt, taxes and jobs. Social distancing and masks are key to saving our economy so that El Pasoans are healthy, our businesses can fully reopen and our students can safely go back to school. The City has a responsibility to lead by example. We won’t see full economic recovery until people are comfortable that it is safe to resume activities. The state law allows for the release of statistical information about clusters including the number of infectious disease cases at a specific location (that does not identify individuals). I believe that El Pasoans have the right to make informed decisions about where they go. I support the release of cluster information.

  • What sets you apart from your opponents?

I am deeply concerned about the direction of our City. Our City budget is almost a billion dollars and we are $2 billion dollars in debt. El Paso has more Certificate of Obligation debt than any other city in Texas. Property
taxes continue to rise. Population growth is virtually stagnant. These are serious danger signs. Considering the unsustainable burden of debt that we now carry we have to be very careful moving forward. The next Mayor faces a serious fiscal crisis. Still, I believe that there are solutions for our problems. They aren’t always easy and they aren’t always popular …but together our problems can be solved with common sense and an attitude of cooperation. Together our problems are manageable. It is the job of your elected officials to manage them. Due to this unique time, we must have someone as Mayor who has demonstrated experience. I am ready to lead the City Day One. I am committed to deal head-on with our debt. I have the strength and judgment to balance pressure from investor interests with the needs of the taxpayers. I will not sacrifice your interests for special interests. I will stand up for all El Pasoans regardless of race, income or zip code. I have a deep love of all things El Paso and I believe in our future!

  • Relevant experience that qualifies you for the position you seek?

As Mayor, I took our story directly to the decision makers. El Paso has a lot to offer, but we are not the first name selection firms and Fortune 500 companies think of. During my term I created 5,365 jobs and retained another 7,730. Job retention is important because if you’re losing existing jobs, job creation numbers don’t give you a real picture. I instituted “Hire El Paso First” because we want businesses to locate within El Paso, but it is also important to our economy and work force that local companies be considered as a purchasing preference for bids and contracts. I amended and improved the zoning application process to ensure that people receive sufficient notification to respond. I prioritized lowering bridge wait times to help increase bi-national traffic and commerce. I restructured and accelerated debt service that saved millions of dollars. I created the first “no kill” animal shelter. I successfully negotiated with ballpark ownership to pay additional costs up front. It is important to have a Mayor strong enough to balance pressure from investor interests with the needs of the taxpayers.

  • If you had the chance to revoke one ordinance in El Paso immediately upon taking office, which one would it be?

In the 15 years since the City Manager position was created, City Council has continued to expand the power and scope of responsibilities of the position. The signatory authority of the City Manager has grown and grown and grown. The Police Chief reports to the City Manager. The Fire Chief reports to the City Manager. The City Manager can no longer be fired for lying to Council. It’s definitely time to review and realign City Manager responsibilities with the original intent … to provide continuity… not create a kingdom. Those changes will require conversations with Council and the community at large and, ultimately, a Charter election. I would support that. I think it’s imperative.

  • In what ways is City government on the right track, and in what ways does it need to change course?

Your next Mayor faces a ton of debt. We have a City budget that has blown up to almost a billion dollars. We are two billion dollars in debt. Your tax bill shouldn’t be the answer. We must reduce wasteful spending. Rather than arbitrary budget cuts or dire slash and burn measures, I would institute Zero Based Budgeting that focuses on current numbers instead of past budgets. Starting from a "zero base" at the beginning of every budget period every department must justify and gain approval for each expense regardless of how much money has previously been budgeted. This provides a rigorous review of every dollar in the budget instead of building a budget that starts on the bloat of every budget in previous years. People are fleeing taxes as we speak. To get control of taxes we have to get control of debt. If we don’t control our debt it won’t matter what our economic plan is. It will affect incentives to attract businesses. It will affect roads, police and fire. We can’t afford to stumble out of the block.

  • What steps can you or the city council take to increase transparency and the public's understanding about what's going on in the city?

I will not conduct public business using personal email or texts. Transparency also applies to contracts and procurement, economic development, public pensions and debt obligations. Transparency engenders trust and trust is necessary if we are to gain the necessary cooperation from the community to soldier through COVID toward financial recovery. As an example, I advocate for the release of information on COVID clusters. I think each El Pasoan should be respected to make decisions about where they go with full information.

  • Are you in favor or opposed to the construction of the downtown arena in the Duranguito District?

Back in 2012, just before my mayoral term, the citizens of El Paso voted to approve quality of life bonds. The voters approved a Multi-purpose Cultural Arts Center. We have a responsibility to provide that. The cost of construction was dramatically underestimated. Maintenance and operations were not taken into account. And COVID has changed everything. Revenues have crashed. We don’t yet know what the full impact will be on our financials. Today, our City budget is almost a billion dollars and we are $2 billion dollars in debt. El Paso has more CO debt than any other city in Texas. Considering the unsustainable burden of debt that we now carry we have to be very careful moving forward. We have to put a hold on any major capital expenditures for now. We are seeing massive cost over-runs on Quality of Life projects that the current administration has covered by sacrificing regularly budgeted items, and using that money for Quality of Life cost over-runs which is bad, but even worse, they’ve issued Certificates of Obligation (which as a taxpayer you don’t approve…but you pay for) to cover additional cost. I absolutely do not agree with the use of Certificates of Obligation for Quality of Life projects. Call it cost over-runs, poor planning or lack of accountability it still ends up on the back of the taxpayers. I believe we should be investing that QOL money in the Civic Center and the Abraham Chavez Theater – one of the jewels of our downtown. The Civic Center was built in the 70s and was supposed to be built in two phases. El Paso never did Phase 2. We need a convention center and theater that support today’s technological and technical needs so we have a high quality performing arts center that can attract first rate events and conventions. We have had major investments in hotels downtown and all over the city. That is how we fill them up.

  • Do you think local health and city officials have responded to the coronavirus pandemic properly?

There is limited benefit in looking backwards. Going forward we must dedicate ourselves to creating the healthiest community we can, so that our businesses can fully reopen and our students can safely go back to school and our families can safely gather. Your Mayor and your City must lead by example. That means aggressive COVID monitoring, wearing mask, hand-washing and social distancing. The economic impact of not doing these things can already be felt.

  • Are you in favor of diverting some police department funding, reallocating it toward local social programs?

I am not in favor of “defunding” the police. I am in favor of providing those working on the front line every day to keep our community safe the necessary tools and training to deescalate conflict whenever possible. Our law enforcement deserves continuous training to recognize hate crimes and collaborate with community organizations and educational institutions to create a climate of support and safety for those reporting hate crimes.

KVIA ABC-7

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