BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Residents of Berkeley Heights had the opportunity to come and participate in the Republican Primary Debate for Mayor between incumbent Mayor Joe Bruno and Councilman Bob Woodruff. The debate was hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Berkeley Heights Communication's Committee.
The candidates provided opening remarks, answered four questions asked by Barbara Rybolt of the Independent Press and Bobbie Peer, Publisher and Editor of The Alternative Press of Berkeley Heights. The League of Women Voters then moderated additional questions asked by residents that are registered Republican or Independent.
Click here to view the debate in its entirety or tune into Comcast 34 and Fios 47 on Monday and Thursday at 12 p.m., Tuesday and Friday 8 p.m., Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., Saturday at 9 a.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.
Bob Woodruff opened by stating, "I know first hand the challenges facing us. That most of all, it is only if we work together that we can meet these challenges and build a future. These are exciting times with many ideas and initiatives which must be carefully examined as to benefits and costs, timeliness and impact."
He stated that the role of mayor is to serve as the "conduit between our Council and the business community, our citizens, employees, and County and State Representatives."
"We can not move forward on the backs of the taxpayers alone. Such requires a Mayor to be diligent in identifying and aggressively pursuing monies available on a County and State level, and conducting the proper oversight and requiring the appropriate accountability from those involved in the process." said Woodruff.
He looks to continue services by collaborating with public and private entities to help secure the funding necessary to continue to provide desired services.
Mayor Bruno opened with his vision and his successful track record of improving the township -- including, "hiring the best people we can find to run the township with a business like approach [zero base budget], paying for things that we need to have our township run smoothly. Apply for every available grant that we qualify for. [$753,000 in grants were awarded]," said Bruno. "Work with business communities and the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club and commercial Real Estate professionals to meet with prospective businesses."
"Being your Mayor is my primary responsibility," said Bruno. "I am available 24/7 to work for you," Bruno said. It is important to him to be visible and available on a daily basis and approachable to all.
With the opportunities of the downtown development, possible redevelopment of the municipal property and managing the municipal budget, Bruno stated that he will work with the State and County officials to "get the most bang we can in the form of grants and working to reduce the size of government in New Jersey. Working with seniors, schools, VFW, PAL and organizations to enhance our community."
The panel began with a question to Bob Woodruff regarding his vision four to five years down the road of what will be seen and the effect of the township's operation with the potential land swap and redevelopment of the municipal complex.
Woodruff would like the residents to know that the municipal complex is an inefficient unsafe facility. "It has to be understood the municipal project has to be fixed," said Woodruff. "We are placing our township in a position with a facility that would be second to none. We would continue to allow ourselves to develop an existing land situation [9+ acres of the municipal complex] that would be a taxable property. It’s a win win," said Woodruff.
"We are in the middle of doing our due diligence on each component. This is not an easy thing to put together. This is the biggest thing that will occur, in my mind, to the town within our lifetime," said Woodruff.
Bruno agreed that the Council is doing their due diligence. "Envision and see the upper level campus -- we would have everything that we want in one location," said Bruno. "A brand new library, a town hall that is functional, we have a meeting place for the seniors or community groups. Extraordinary parking lot that could house a farmers market. A place that could be a community hub. Town Pride."
The 70-80 year old municipal complex is fragmented. "We are a ways off from a finalized deal," said Bruno. "We have to do something."
The next question was directed to Mayor Bruno about improving the relationship with Union County now that the township will not secede. Bruno believes the relationship between Union County and Berkeley Heights may be a little strained, but they continue to have a good relationship. "Secession was a reaction to how the County was spending money. It was never a personal grudge." said Bruno. "It was an ideological way of spending money. We will continue to work with Union County."
The area where Bruno would like to see improvement is in the roads as well as improvement in their budgetary process. "They announced the sale of Runnells -- that helps. There is a lot more we can do in working together and letting them know what our priorities are and where to spend money. There has to be a little consolidation with what they do."
Woodruff feels it is important to sit with county reps to figure out what we are missing, what we need to do to get closer and take advantage of the $14 million we send to the County. Woodruff would begin with a closer tie to the County with information. Woodruff brought up a grant that was missed post Super Storm Sandy by the former administrator that could have brought $100,000 to the stream clean-up. "We begin with a closer tie to the County with information that was brought to prior administrator. Call for accountability to those that are supposed to do that," said Woodruff.
Woodruff agreed with Bruno that the sale of Runnells will be a good thing, but he brought up a larger question of what the County will do with the operating loss when Runnells is sold. "Question of the $15 million -- what are you [County] going to do with it -- are you going to return on a pro-rata basis," asked Woodruff. "We need to move forward in collaboration [with the County] and with the State. We are doing so."
The next question addressed to Woodruff was regarding Downtown Development and keeping the businesses in town and getting people to patronize them.
"Downtown beautification is the first and large step. An elected official can not go to a land owner and tell them what they can do with their property," said Woodruff. Making the shopping centers more pedestrian friendly by changing traffic flow of the shopping center and better pedestrian access will go a long way. "We need to make it known that we will assist, support and be there for the businesses."
Bruno believes the downtown development is doing very well. "Being available for the businesses when they are available. Please remember this is the job I do. I am the 24/7 mayor. I do it with passion," said Bruno. The Breakfast with Mayor and Council offers a networking opportunity for businesses. "I'm available to meet with businesses and Real Estate professionals," said Bruno.
"There are a lot less vacancies in town. We have three or four new restaurants, new buildings coming in town with Primrose and Chase Manhattan."
The last question asked by the panel was regarding the budget and with taxes increasing in the 2014 budget year, how can the township balance the desired needs and services of the residents within the restraints of the budget.
Bruno stated that with zero based budgeting - you start off at zero. "Knowing the amount of salt that was spent this year, if we didn't put it in the budget, it would be ridiculous. We put the bulk pick-up back -- we went out to bid twice. Pot holes, we had to go into reserve," said Bruno. "If we keep the services, we have to do it," said Bruno.
"It is a fixed cost. No salary increases and not a lot of new hires. This year we had to dip into the reserves. There really was not anything to cut that would affect the services," said Bruno.
Bruno stated that the stream remediation was necessary. "If it's there next year [referring to bulk pick-up], it would be great. Get rid of it like you are moving because it may not be there," said Bruno. "I asked for a cut, and was denied [by the Township Council]. There was very little cutting [of the budget]," said Bruno.
Woodruff didn't agree with Bruno's 'alarmist view.' "We did not have bulk pick-up last year. The contractor came in knowing they would pick up twice as much stuff. That won’t be an issue next year." Woodruff stated that the stream remediation will be in maintenance going forward. "Working with local businesses, the County and State, we need to come up with answers."
"We need to work together with those citizens and towns to cut costs. Before cutting services, let's find alternatives and options to pay. Get out to businesses and volunteer organizations to find ways to come up with the money," said Woodruff.
The Republican Mayoral Primary Vote is on Tuesday, June 3.