BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Candidates for Berkeley Heights Town Council participated in a debate on Thursday, Oct. 17. The debate was between Republican candidates Tom Pirone and Ed Delia and Democrat candidate Stephen Yellin. The three candidates are running for two open seats on the Town Council. The debate was moderated by Nick Shiavo of the Berkeley Heights Communications Committee and televised live on Comcast 34 and Fios 47, available to view on the GLTV website.
Stephen Yellin is a lifelong resident who graduated from Governor Livingston High School running for his first council term. He has his graduate degree in communications from Rutgers University. He has been active the past six years attending Berkeley Heights Town Council meetings and Budget meetings. He serves as a volunteer on the Township Communications Committee and the Berkeley Heights Historical Society. He was the Chairman of the Stop BAC Political Action Committee, formed to help residents to vote "no" for the proposal. "I will do the best I can, for all that I can," promised Yellin.
Ed Delia is running for re-election for his second term, serving three years on the Town Council. Delia is a lifelong resident of 50 years. When he first came on the council, he began walking the streams of the Passaic River. He spare headed the need for clearing and de-snagging the waterways to mitigate the flooding problem. He has served as the council liaison to the Environmental Committee that has received the Silver Certification from Sustainable Jersey. This status enables the town to obtain additional grants. He was involved with the development of the community garden at a zero cost to township. He acts as the fiscal watchdog.
Tom Pirone is running for re-election having served four years on the Town Council, four years on the Planning Board, two years for the Office of Emergency Management and two years on the Board of Health. Pirone stated that since being on the council, spending increases have been the lowest of any four year period in the past decade and a half while maintaining services. He was involved in replacing those that misappropriated tax dollars. He led the rewriting of the Master Plan focusing on downtown redevelopment.
The topics that were discussed include: land swap between the Township and Little Flower Church; priority of infrastructure maintenance; fiscal responsibility; Union County secession; and improved quality of life for senior citizens.
Land Swap Between The Township And Little Flower Properties
All three candidates agree that the township is in need for a new municipal complex. Tom Pirone stated, "If the downtown government property is replaced by additional downtown businesses it would result in a more robust downtown."
Negotiating is on-going between the town and church. After all questions are answered Pirone would be in favor IF the long term cost of maintenance are in line or are lower and a more robust downtown could be developed on the current downtown municipal property near the train station, defraying the cost of running the town and schools from the existing homeowners.
Yellin agreed that the proposal will involve the kind of property and the kind of area that could build a town center, police station, senior center, and library. "All the facilities that are needed for the kind of quality of life we want in a suburb like ours." Fiscal questions need to be resolved. He believes the swap should be looked at as a long term investment. In the short term we may pay a little more but the long term benefit is far greater than the costs. "Sale of the downtown property and the overall health of the community, we would all be better off financially becoming a diverse vibrant community that we enjoy being part of," said Yellin.
Yellin outlined the critical difference between his view and the other candidates is the fact that he wants to be honest and explain why we need to spend something. "Being in public office is about doing the right thing regardless of being re-elected or not," Yellin stated.
Yellin brought up examples of the current council not acting fiscally responsible by the abrupt firing of the town administrator costing the town $30,000 for three months salary. He also mentioned Delia voting no on all tax appeal cases.
Yellin said he looks carefully at the budget, going to township budget meetings, he has a good idea of what goes into crafting the budget. He won't exclude compassion and caring for people that are less well off. He brought up the senior citizens that routinely petition the council for a higher quality of life asking for more bus transportation. The council has to reconcile in terms of desire to help our community and help our long term financial health as well.
Delia responded to Yellin's comment stating he voted no for all tax appeals, "Values go up and down. If your value of the property goes up, we don’t charge more because it’s on a percentage basis," he explained.
Delia is involved with working on new procedures on purchasing items and saving the town money including fuel monitoring in vehicles and he hopes to get GPS systems in each vehicle. "We need to keep an eye on everything. Working with the administrator and department heads on the capital plan items." Delia concluded that he researches, scrutinizes and makes sure the town gets the best bang for their buck.
Pirone responded to the suspension of bulk pick up, "We had to make a choice, address flooding issues that hadn't’t been looked at in 20 years or more." The suspension is for just this one year.
Pirone addressed how the council analyzed and looked into a tri-town dispatch service system. Saw it would cost $100,000 a year in operating cost every year going forward to be part of the tri-town, so the council decided to spend money on the Berkeley Heights' dispatch equipment and bring it up to speed.
Pirone added that the council replaced people that misallocated and misappropriated tax dollars . "No tolerance of mismanagement of our finances or our audits," Pirone said.
Union County Secession
Pirone stated that Union County taxes are rising faster than town taxes. The council has done their part to keep taxes as low as possible. "We can not compensate for the mismanagement of the county." The freeholders do not want to hear from the town. Pirone said that when the state steps in, they will have a higher level of scrutiny over the Union County budget. Pirone believes Union County doesn't do as good of a job managing their money as Morris and Somerset Counties. Depending on home value, the annual savings would be between $1,000-$2,000.
Yellin will not vote on this issue because the issue is a dead end. He believes the State legislature will not accept the secession even if the residents approve the referendum. He would work with Union County to bring back more of the tax dollars.
Delia approves the thought to secede from the county. "We would be foolish not to try. Doing nothing will get us no where," said Delia. He stated examples of Union County's wasted spending: $18M on Galloping Hills Golf Course, $20M of loss to run Runnels Hospital, 580 non-union employees have lifetime healthcare.
Delia stated the County does not have a 2% cap, they can raise taxes when they need money. Many states have eliminated county government because it is a waste. "County takes our money and gives it to their voters. They don’t give it back to us. Doing nothing will not fix the problem," Delia said.
Improving Quality Of Life For Berkeley Heights Senior Citizens
Yellin said there is a lot more to help senior citizens quality of life. His ideas include extending the bus so the seniors can go to Town Council meetings on Tuesday evenings, have council members go and listen to the seniors. He believes communication is a key part through newsletters and email. He would hold monthly open office hour sessions so seniors can come to town hall to find out what is going on in town and offer their feedback. "Quality of life, we need to embrace, we need to spend the money to have that," said Yellin.
Delia said seniors are part of the fabric of Berkeley Heights. He stated that the town benefits to have the seniors stay as long as possible. Seniors use the least amount of our tax dollars. They are actually saving the tax payers money said Delia.
Pirone stated three improvements that have been implemented while on council: 1. Senior bus to take all seniors to shopping and places around town; 2. Housing money that has been collected to be used for repair for people on fixed income; 3. The township has entered a lease with the YMCA for a new building with part of the agreement is to make things accessible to seniors including a meeting room.
Pirone listed his proven track record for serving the residents: protected the value of Berkeley Heights homes; keeping the town a great place to live; ordinance to prevent builders from decreasing buildable lot size on lots that they do not own encroaching on residents property; pushed for 35 more train station parking spots; preserved sewer treatment capacity for businesses and residents in town against encroachment of businesses outside of town; stopped the expansion of exit 43 at 78 by appealing to the Dept. of Transportation which would have taken away many front lawns on Diamond Hill Road.
In addition, he organized residents to fight against a State bill that would have taken decision rights out of local school board hands and given them to an appointed Union County School Superintendent. Pirone was the leader to a State program to give volunteer fire fighters and rescue personal community college tuition assistance for themselves and their family.
Pirone in closing stated that the fiscal house is in order.
Delia will continue to work with Pirone and the rest of the council. He won’t let the township waste any of the residents money. His goal with the town budget is to achieve a zero or negative increase in taxes, constantly making progress.
Yellin concluded that people’s lives are not getting better. Taxes go up but the quality of life is stagnant or in some cases not improving. He will be the watchdog, play devils advocate to make sure the best possible decisions are being made. He pledged to have a better Berkeley Heights and a quality of life that matters to each and everyone, budget to receive the most bang for the buck, repair our roads and keep bulk pick up. He will make common sense decisions, doing the right thing by the community. "We, as citizens, deserve better in many areas than we have now. I can make a positive difference," said Yellin.