BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – The six candidates running for council in Berkeley Heights all say that although there are many important issues facing the township, the one at the forefront of everyone’s mind is taxes.
Edward Delia, John McDermid, Thomas Pirone, James Riley, Linda Weber and Stephen Yellin are all seeking the two seats on the township council.
Delia, a Republican, is a life-long resident of Berkeley Heights.
“I care about this town deeply, and I feel it is not going in the right direction,” Delia said. “I’ve been involved in local politics for awhile now, but I no longer feel I’m getting anywhere just by speaking up at council meetings. It’s time for me to be on the council so I can help bring about the change we so badly need.”
Delia said one of the major issues facing Berkeley Heights are the high taxes that are the main cause of so many vacant stores downtown.
“The higher the taxes, the higher the rent,” he said. “The way taxes are going up is ridiculous. This year, the municipal portion was 9.1 percent and that is not acceptable. I would never approve that, it’s a disgrace.”
Other towns, Delia said, have not had such a significant tax increase.
“The current council has made many excuses for our large increase, but other towns are in the same situation and had either no increase in taxes or a small percentage,” he said. “It can be done.”
The other part of the problem with downtown Berkeley Heights, Delia said, is the lack of parking.
“This is the easiest issue to address,” he said. “We need to change the ordinances to have more parking for all new construction. No business will rent a store that has insufficient parking.”
Delia added that although the height limits of downtown buildings have been reduced, he still feels they should be lower.
“Three story buildings are not necessary downtown,” he said.
Tom Pirone, a Republican, said the most important issue facing Berkeley Heights is how to maintain the township’s infrastructure “without taking bigger portions of our family’s income.”
“It is the most important issue because maintaining it keeps Berkeley Heights a desirable place to live, attracting families and keeping it a vibrant community,” he said. “As a former councilman in 2007, I kept the municipal property tax increase to 2.8 percent, which was slightly lower than the inflation rate that year.”
That year, Pirone said, operating expenses were kept as low as possible without damaging the town’s infrastructure: roads were still repaired and repaved, worn police cars were replaced, parks and shared spaces were maintained.
“This was accomplished by shopping for insurance, keeping the costs as low as possible while continuing to provide the same level of coverage, reducing expenses for some items, sharing services where they had not been shared before such as computer services,” he said. “I conducted a thorough investigation of capital expenses before making decisions that would affect future budgets, always with an eye on maintaining the township infrastructure.”
He said he also helped to grow revenue by voting in favor of the construction of commercial buildings that don't stress the infrastructure of town services but rather help fund the existing services.
“I was and still am a proponent for applying for grants,” Pirone said.
In order to keep his record of maintaining the township’s infrastructure without taking more taxes from residents, in spite of the state’s new property tax cap, Pirone said he would stop non-essential spending, enact controls governing spending reserves, establish debt ceilings, and ensure revenue forecasting is conservative.
James Riley, an Independent, also said taxes and township spending are concerns.
“We need to work on the 2011 budget starting now,” Riley said. “All discretionary spending will need to be examined carefully, and we need to identify what township services may need to be suspended or eliminated.”
Riley said he is concerned about the reassessment of the Connell property’s taxes.
“Why didn’t the former mayor or our tax assessor inform the township council before the re-assessment was performed?” he said. “I’m very concerned we will be flooded with appeals from our commercial properties, which will bring a further burden to our residents.”
Riley said he is also concerned about the cost of the park on Stanford Park Drive.
“Why can’t we get an answer as to how much the park will cost the township on a yearly basis?” he asked. “Where is the money allocated in the budget if the park is opening in October? We need to be creative and investigate partnering with a not for profit organization to help us with the building and maintenance of a recreation/senior center.”
It’s issues like these that Riley said are the reasons he is running for council.
“If I’m elected, I will end the lack of communication with our residents and keep them informed,” he said. “I believe I know the right questions to ask and promise to work in the residents’ best interest. I’m not happy with the lack of accountability in our current leaders.”
Linda Weber, a Democrat, said she believes that although the current council did a “reasonable” job at cutting the current budget, they cannot keep cutting because at some point, “We might as well shut the town down.”
“Taxes and the budget are our biggest issues,” Weber said. “Everybody loves living here – it’s a great town in a terrific location. But everybody’s personal budget is tight, and no one wants their taxes to go up.”
She also questioned the equity regarding some of the residents’ expenses. For example, she said, it isn’t fair that a household of one or two people is paying the same for sewer system usage as a family of four or five.
“We need to bill for that service on a much fairer basis,” she said. “When we have difficult financial times, we need to look at how can we be more fair. I look around, and there are folks who want to keep things the way they are, but these are tough times. Things are difficult, things are changing. We need to look at creative, innovative solutions. We need to look at them and we need to act on them.”
Weber added that the other part of the issue that needs to be considered are the town’s potential revenues.
“There are two sides to every budget: expenses and revenue,” Weber said. “The current council has done a pretty good job of cutting the current budget, but there are steps we can take to increase our revenue.”
Weber said the town needs to look at how to best leverage its assets.
“Our wastewater treatment plant has been upgraded recently, and we need to continue to build on that,” she said. “We have the opportunity to bring in waste from other facilities for an energy co-generation facility that would save expenses for us. We would be able to provide energy to buildings in our town, and if it produces enough energy, we can sell it on the market.”
Weber said the council should also consider a downtown improvement district.
“We haven’t give our business owners the opportunity to work with the council and the residents to develop a plan for downtown, and we need that,” Weber said. “We have lovely buildings here but they’re empty. And if they’re empty, they are not generating incremental tax revenue for the town. We need to work together and look at putting a plan in place to move businesses to town and fill those buildings.”
Although shared services is another issue that has been seriously discussed among area towns, Weber said a comprehensive review of all services is needed to best decide where sharing could occur.
“We need to go through the list of all services and look at how we may be able to share any of them,” she said. “Let’s see how we can expand and leverage.”
Steve Yellin, a Democrat, said the number one issue facing the township is property taxes.
“Our town is essentially close to bankruptcy,” Yellin said. “Our police chief retired and we don’t have the money to hire a new one. The previous council increased spending and drained our surplus in order to increase spending and cut taxes. The current council has raised taxes nine percent. As a result, we as a town have to dig ourselves out of this fiscal hole.”
But that should not be done, Yellin said, by raising taxes.
“We can’t tax residents to this degree anymore,” he said. “They can’t take it. We are driving people out of our town. We as a town have to figure out how we can generate non-property tax revenue. How do we share services? What other areas can we cut in our budget without breaking the back of the town's services?”
Yellin, who agrees with running mate Weber on downtown development and potential revenue with the town’s wastewater treatment plant, said he believes many of the town’s issues would be better addressed with improved communication between the town government and its residents.
“We need transparency and better communication,” Yellin said. “A lot of residents don’t know what’s going on, and when they do they don’t like what they hear. I think we need to hold quarterly town hall meetings and have a question and answer session with residents. We need to have suggestion boxes in easy to access locations. We need to revamp the township’s website to make it more user-friendly, and we should post the budget and other key documents there. The people need to know what’s going on in their town.”
McDermid, an Independent, did not return calls to The Alternative Press before deadline.