Taxes and Edison Redevelopment Dominate Council Candidates Forum
Forum held at Thomas A. Edison Central Six School
Over 50 people came to the Thomas A. Edison Central Six School Thursday night for a forum featuring the seven council candidates who are running in the municipal elections on May 8, Tuesday.
Taxes and the Edison redevelopment project figured prominently during the event.
The candidates currently vying for the three four-year seats are: incumbent council members Sal Anderton, Joe Krakoviak and Patricia Spango. Jake Freivald, Jerry Guarino, Rodolfo Rodriguez and Clare Silvestri are also in the running.
Councilman Krakoviak is heading a slate of candidates with Frievald, his former campaign manager, and Silvestri, his wife. The trio are calling themselves "Team Krakoviak." The other candidates are running independently.
More information on the candidates can be found at this link.
The forum was sponsored by the West Orange African Heritage Organization and moderated by Marlene Sincaglia from League of Women Voters, the Berkeley Heights chapter.
The approximately two-hour forum started off with opening statements, a portion devoted to questions from organizers, questions from audience members, and then closing statements.
In their opening statements, Spango and Anderton touted their experience on the council and their efforts in keeping taxes down. Spango highlighted her background as owner of Starlite Restaurant and Pizzeria. Anderton pointed out his background as a lawyer, including a stint working with the township planning board.
Guarino said he believes his experience as a financial executive and analyst will be helpful for the township.
After highlighting his experience as a manager, Rodriguez emphasized his opposition to high taxes, which he went onto repeat throughout the forum.
"They are saying our signatures are worthless," he also said, referring to the petition campaign to put the Edison redevelopment project under a referendum. The petition was rejected under technical grounds but residents behind the campaign recently submitted another batch of petitions.
The Krakoviak team all stated their opposition to higher taxes and advocated transparency in making desicions. Krakoviak himself pointed out he has been out voted most of the time on council, especially on matters of finance.
"I need partners," he said, referring to his running mates.
What follows are the responses from council candidates on some of the forum questions:
Edison Redevelopment Project
The first question of the night was name three reasons why they supported or opposed the Edison redevelopment project, which calls for 333 luxury apartment units for rent and 18,500 square feet of retail space.
Anderton, Spango, and Guarino said they supported the project, which has generated much controversy in the town.
Anderton said financial risk has been minimized for the township in regards to the project, while Spango said it will increase tax ratables and will give a revitalized look to the town's Main Street.
"As goes Main Street, so goes West Orange," she said.
Guarino said, "The site is in vital need of redevelopment for too long. This will be a catalyst to the entire downtown area."
He said the project will generate new jobs and more opportunity. And the historic Edison location, where advances in audio technology were made, deserves better, he said.
"It's time to rectify this," he said, referring to the existing property, which looks old and blighted.
The Krakoviak team landed on the opposition side of the project with concerns of how much risk the township would be exposed to if the project is not successful financially.
Krakoviak called it a multi-million dollar risk, bringing up the real estate collapse a few years ago.
"I am not against redevelopment, just this current arrangement," Freivald said.
"The people don't want it," Silvestri said.
Rodriguez said he was also in favor of redevelopment, but wanted voters to decide in a referendum whether the project should go forward or not. He also opposed the residential elements of the plan.
On Controlling Spending
The Krakoviak team emphasized the need to hold the line on taxes.
"We have raised taxes plenty enough," Krakoviak said, echoing his running mates.
Guarino said the council needed to take a line item approach to spending, even making unpopular desicions. But they shouldn't cut vital services which would lead to a lower quality of life, he said.
Rodriguez focused on what he called unnecesary spending, starting with moving elections to November and have the council work for half or zero salary and no benefits.
"We should be using that money for something else," he said.
Spango, though, highlighted her experience controlling spending and balancing that with the needs of the town. Municipal spending has been decreased by $1.6 million while more than 40 employees have been removed from the work roster, she said. There has been no capital budget in the last few years, she also said.
Anderton also emphasized the fiscal conservatism the council has acted upon.
"There's no question that West Orange, during the three years I have been on council, has actually reduced spending," he said. "The fact is we are spending less."
The council has kept costs down by shopping around for better, cost-effective health benefits, which he said is one of the biggest expenditures that the township shoulders.
Anderton said they have also reorganized the workforce through attrition.
Strengths and Weaknesses of West Orange
All the candidates touted the passion and diversity of the community, while there were some discussions on the lack of civility in debates on the Internet and during council meetings.
"One of the weaknesses of West Orange is the element of civility," Spango said. "We don't always have to agree and that's okay. There just doesn't seem to be the respect we used to have."
Krakoviak agreed with her.
"We need to remember we are all in this together," he said.
"Sometimes it's hard for us to see what the other side actually thinks," Frievald also said.
On Residents' Concerns of Crime
On questions on residents' perceptions of increased crime, Spango and Anderton pointed out that crime has actually been trending downwards overall with some categories that have spiked.
"Perception may seem that way," Anderton said about crime. "Residents simply are more aware. It's good thing. It's a positive thing."
Guarino said crime is down 13.5 percent but social media has fueled speculation that crime is up.
"Barrage of information skews overall reality," he said.
Silvestri said perception is reality and that a proactive communications plan needs to be in place to address residents' concerns. Freivald called it a question of transparency.
"I trust the people of West Orange to make a judgement," he said about giving crime date to residents. "For me, show the data and the rest will follow."
Krakoviak and Rodriguez both said the town needs to hire more police officers.
On Stabilizing Taxes
Spango and Anderton both repeated their experience of holding the line on taxes while they have been on council and renewed their commitment to keep them down through various means.
"We have done it," Anderton said.
The Krakoviak team said more needed to be done.
Krakoviak said the town should get rid of its current branding effort, not hire a full-time plumbling expert, and other measures.
"We haven't been putting contracts out for professional services for competitive bidding and that has changed thanks to Councilman Krakoviak," Silvestri said.
She called for more competitive bidding and prevent costs overruns by holding department heads more accountable.
Frievald said the town needed to increase ratables and have less emphasis on bringing families with small school-age children into town, which would drive up taxes.
"Not reduce the appeal but specifically stop the demographic changes that would work against us in a certain sense," he said.
Rodriguez, again, repeated his lines of cutting spending, moving the election to November, and halving or doing away with the council's salaries.
"Every penny counts," he said about the May election costs.
Guarino said the town needed more commercial revenues and have the town run like a business. Also when it comes to cutting expenses, Guarino said they need to make smart desicions on cuts that will not impact services and quality of life.
He again repeated that controlled spending needed to go hand in hand with increased commercial ratables.
Most candidates pointed out that there isn't much open space left in West Orange, but the town needed to maintain the ones they have.
Silvestri said that if elected, she hopes that a piece of township property on Ridgeway Avenue, next to a monastery, could be turned into an arboretum and have a non-profit run it.
"I promise to work towards a public/private, non-profit group to run that and create a beautiful open space there," she said.
Silvestri claimed that she brought the idea up to Mayor Robert Parisi but the plans stalled.
On questions of how to increase revenue for the township, Rodriguez said more commercial development needs to come to town. He also brought up the Edison redevelopment project and said it should be solely commercial with no apartments.
"That would bring a lot of people," he said.
Guarino echoed Rodriguez's comments by saying commerical ratables need to be brought into town.
He called the Edison project a commerical ratable and that foot traffic at the project will show businesses that there will be people there who will shop.
Frievald emphasied his previous point on the demographic issue of families with children, whose education needs to be subsidized, he said. He did bring up that he has nine kids of his own and loves children.
Krakoviak and Silvestri said they needed to make the town more business friendly and reduce property taxes.
Silvestri also brought up a move by council, which did not bid out a recycling contract last summer to another company - a move that could have saved money.
Spango rebutted her comment, saying that the other company had a lower price but offered less services.
"We cannot jeopardize the services," she said.
Anderton also said they have done many cuts to the budget but they need to balance that with maintaining quality town services.
Another way they can increase revenue is privatize some services, which the town has already done, he said. That has saved money.
"A penny saved is a penny earned," he said.