GENEVA — It’s not uncommon in communities the size of Geneva to find friends facing off against each other in elections.
After all, political affiliation is rarely the thing that brings people together. It’s more often school, sports, church and other community activities that unite us, not politics.
That’s the case in the race for Geneva mayor, where Democrat Steve Valentino, a longtime City Council member, is running against Mark Salvatore Pitifer, a registered independent endorsed by city Republicans, who is vying for his first elected position.
It’s no ordinary race, said Valentino, who represents the Third Ward on City Council.
“I love him like a brother,” he said in meeting with the Finger Lakes Times’ editorial board. “It makes it tough.”
Said Pitifer of his good friend and now political foe in a separate meeting with the editorial board: “I’ve got nothing bad to say about him. He’s brilliant.”
Pitifer said he “can’t possibly have the political wisdom of Steve Valentino.” However, he said, “Working with people. That’s what I think the difference is.”
Pitifer said that ability of his is demonstrated in his work as a school counselor in Waterloo and as a longtime coach in track and field and basketball at Geneva and Waterloo.
Valentino said his father, Anthony “Val” Valentino, encouraged him to get involved in public service, telling him that he couldn’t complain about how government is run if he didn’t get involved.
With an incoming Council with so many newcomers — seven of the nine current members, including two-term Mayor Ron Alcock, are not on the November ballot — Valentino believes he could provide a steadying influence as mayor.
“I thought it was critical to bring some of that experience and continuity,” he said, adding, “I think I’m poised to lead this council.”
Conversely, Pitifer is confident he can bring a new tone to Council and city government as a whole. He wants council members to “put aside differences and work on a common goal” of improving the city.
“I will be a mayor like this town has never seen, because I’m not going to stop being who I am,” Pitifer said, explaining his ability to bring people from the city’s diverse population together.
In particular, he cites his connection to the city’s minority communities, which historically have been underrepresented in the city’s government and its workforce.
“I’m the closest thing to a minority mayor this town has ever seen,” he said.
And while Pitifer is running on the Republican line, he is officially a “no-party” candidate and vowed to remain independent in his thinking.
“Nobody’s telling me what do, except maybe my mother,” he said.
Valentino sees the mayoral position as a chance to drive policy but understands the limits of the part-time job in a city manager-style government.
“Working closely with the city manager is key,” he said. “We’re policymakers. We can’t be micromanagers.”
He added that he is “not shy about putting my ideas on the table.”
As for ideas, Pitifer said Geneva’s biggest asset is its lake and protecting it must be its highest priority.
The region’s two landfills, which he described as “stinking tumors,” must close at their projected times: Seneca Meadows is slated to close at the end of 2025, per a local law enacted by the Seneca Falls Town Board, and the Ontario County Landfill is scheduled to close at the end of 2028.
If things go awry at either landfill and they pollute the lake, Pitifer said, “Geneva’s finished. The only chance Geneva has it that lake.”
The city’s position at the top of Seneca Lake puts it in an advantageous position, he said.
“Let’s make it the capital of the wine region,” Pitifer said, proposing a wine cooperative that would feature Finger Lakes Wines in the old rail station on Wadsworth Street and moving the rail yard to create high-end condominiums. He also wants to increase connectivity in that section of Geneva, part of the Sixth Ward, with a pedestrian bridge to the lake.
On taxes, Pitifer said budget cuts aren’t the answer.
“I don’t think we can cut our way to lower taxes,” he said.
Rather, he said the city needs to take on the issue of too much tax-exempt city property, and he wants to discuss with the major landowners that are not paying property taxes to “step up to the plate” by supporting the city monetarily.
Valentino’s focus includes taxes as well, and while he believes reducing expenditures to be part of the tax equation, it’s not the long-term answer.
“The way to reduce the tax rate is to create more revenue,” he said. “We need to figure out how to drive those revenues.”
He sees tourism, generated in part by the city’s lakefront and the Finger Lakes wine region, as well as new companies that are being developed at the Ag Tech Park on Pre-Emption Road, as long-term ways to increase revenue.
Additionally, he disputes the contention that the city is landlocked, and thus unable to attract development.
“There are developable lots in the city,” he said, adding, however, that the lakefront is not one of those places. Valentino said he’s “not a big fan of developing the lakefront” as a way to expand the city tax base.
He said the city’s central business district, which he noted was hardly thriving decades ago, is still a central focus of Geneva’s economy. It was the development of quality downtown housing that helped drive the central business district’s revival, he said.
“We can’t lose sight of our downtown,” he said. “It’s our nucleus.”
Both Pitifer and Valentino believe that long-term, a merging of the city and town is the best way to generate growth in the community.
“Geneva as a whole would be better off,” Valentino said.
“I think we should be working together,” added Pitifer. “We should try real hard to annex the town.”