BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- Tuesday, October 22, the League of Women Voters' of New Providence, Berkeley Heights and Summit held the annual Candidates' Forum for candidates running for Township Council.
This year two seats are up for grabs on the council. Two candidates from each party are running for the two seats. The candidates are Republican incumbent Manuel Couto, his running mate Gentiana Brahimaj, and Democrats Julie Figlar and Rina Franchino. Franchino ran for council in 2015, while Figlar and Brahimaj are making their first runs for a council seat; Brahimaj did run for a seat on the Board of Education during the last election.
Each candidate gave opening and closing statements and answered 12 questions submitted by audience members.
Franchino, who grew up in Berkeley Heights, is an educator, mother of two and says she plans to stay in town “for the long haul.” The daughter of immigrants, she said if elected she would apply the values taught to her by her parents to “work hard, treat people the way you want to be treated and never back down from a challenge.” Franchino said she wants to serve on council to give back to the town and build on the progress made in the last year by the current council.
Brahimaj has lived in Berkeley Heights for about 20 years with her husband and three children. She described herself as “passionate about helping people," and believes “positive change starts with people, not political affiliation.” If elected, Brahimaj said she will rely upon what she learned growing up: “family values, hard work, honesty, integrity and treating people with respect.” Her diverse professional experience and her ability to bring people together will serve her well on council, she said.
Couto said he and his wife have lived here 23 years and raised their children here. He said he wants to work on maximizing the residents’ tax dollars by obtaining grants and improving shared services agreements. He knows “good, positive, balanced development” is important to the community, and council members need to be sure they adopt sound budgets to provide services to residents. Couto favors building relationships with community stakeholders, finding new revenue streams, and working together.
Figlar, a teacher and reading specialist at Mary Kay McMillin (MKM) for almost 20 years, said a question from her daughter about what would happen to the Mondelli property inspired her to run for council. She said she realized she could be part of the team that will help the community develop “in a responsible way that benefits our community.” She has volunteered with the MKM PTO, Girl Scouts, and is an active volunteer on a number of recreation sports. Figlar wants to make Berkeley Heights “a better place than when we started,” she said.
Question 1: What is your understanding of the Shared Services Agreement between Berkeley Heights and Union County for the DPW head? Do you think it is working? What additional services does Berkeley Heights get from this agreement?
Brahimaj said Berkeley Heights pays Union County about $20 million each year. “Now we are paying Union County “an additional $30,000 for eight hours a week of work by Joe Graziano in his capacity as head of the DPW . “We are not saving money ... and, as a resident, I haven’t seen any improvement,” she said
Couto said he originally voted against the shared services agreement for Graziano in January, then later “voted for it because I want to give it a chance to see if it worked.” The $30,000 being paid to Union County is for Graziano’s work in the township. “We are not getting any extra services.” he said, just the same services as other towns in Union County.”
Figlar said she has heard “residents are impressed with the accomplishments that are happening in our town in 2019” and don’t want to go back to the way things were. “The agreement allows the town to save $70,000 in the budget,” and she and other residents say they are seeing more trucks in town and more work being done.
Franchino said she would “piggyback on what” Figlar said. As they walk from door to door they are hearing “people are extremely happy” with what is happening -- ‘paving roads, fixing water basins,” etc. “It’s not that we are taking anything away,” from the residents, “we are increasing what we can do with taxpayer dollars.
Question 2: How can a public employee objectively serve as a council member? Isn’t this a conflict of interest?
Couto said, “Providing there is full disclosure” a public employee can serve. Conflict of interest has two layers, direct and perceived conflict of interest and “both must be avoided at all costs.”
Figlar, an employee of the Board of Education, said she had thought about this and confirmed, historically, there is no evidence that this would be a problem. If a conflict arises, she said she would recuse herself from voting or commenting on an issue, as have others who had conflicts of interest.
Franchino, a public educator in Rahway, said she would have to recuse herself from a vote if there were specific issues under discussion concerning the Board of Education. But would always vote in the best interests of the residents.
Brahimaj said she is not an employee of any boards of education or governmental entities and would always put Berkeley Heights first.
Question 3: With more than 1,000 new units coming online in future developments, we need to make sure our roads, recreation and services can accommodate our new residents. Would you favor a community impact fee (CIF) be imposed on developers to pay for quality of life needs?
Figlar said in terms of development it’s “important to be on the council in 2020 and years to come” ... A CIF could only benefit the town.” She said she would scrutinize every way that she can “to make this new development work with our town.”
Franchino said, “A community impact fee will benefit the residents of Berkeley Heights.” Of more importance to her is to assure developers coming in with future plans that we make sure that these decisions be in the best interest of Berkeley Heights residents and taxpayers.
Brahimaj said the CIFs are actually the same as the agreements the council signed with the developers. “It’s a different way of saying it.” Residents should know “We are not getting extra money with CIF,” instead the town is getting what was agreed upon by previously.
Couto said the Affordable Housing agreements do not allow for CIF. Instead, the town signed PILOT agreements with the developers coming into town which will result in extra sidewalks, street lights, benches and more trees, all to improve the community.
Queston 4: What ways would you most like to see town resources and facilities improved for young people and children in Berkeley Heights?
Franchino said she would like to see more and safer hiking areas, bike paths and walkways for children to use so they can get downtown and to recreation areas.
Brahimaj said she thinks the new developments will help make the downtown more walkable, so the children would be able to walk to the center of town safely. She also favors new locations or opportunities for children to gather together.
Couto said he has worked with various groups, including the Peppertown Park, Downtown Beautification and Safe Routes to School committees to improve the downtown area and make more recreation activities available for children.
Figlar said she hopes to help develop the trails behind Mount Carmel near the Passaic River for hiking, walking and jogging. She also wants to work with the new development in Connell and write grants for kids recreational needs.
Question 5: When the cost of the municipal complex went from $28 to $ 32 million, the ability to pay back this debt became extremely important. How can we make sure revenue from future development projects is realized in a timely manner to pay back our debt payments?
Brahimaj said, “We need that building. We needed it for years,” she said. She recommended looking for more “creative revenues,” and consider repurposing “some of the old furniture, technology, whatever we can save.”
Couto described the new complex and said to pay down the debt, the council “dedicated the sale of the Hamilton Terrace property” directly to pay down the bond debt. The rest of the debt will be paid off with revenues from the PILOT programs.
Figlar said as a town, “we are $63 million in debt,” and this debt has been refinanced to a smart option with zero percent financing, so we can continue to improve paved roads,” and fix potholes.
Franchino suggested developing penalty fees to management companies that build these complexes and, if they aren’t done within a specific amount of time, impose the fees.
Couto interjected that it’s too late to change the contracts, they are all part of the affordable housing settlement agreements, and there is a profit-sharing agreement with the town hall building construction people, where if they finish early or on time, 70 percent goes to the township and 30 percent to the builder.
Question 6: Do you think the public should vote on a bond referendum?
Each candidate agreed it depended upon what the bond was for.
Couto pointed out that the financing of the municipal complex was done under the redevelopment law, which does not permit a referendum. It does, however, give the town more control over hiring a developer, setting specifications for the project and allows the money to be borrowed without a downpayment.
Question 7: “What would you do to support senior citizens?”
Franchino said she wants to see classes and workshops designed for seniors, and supports applying for senior grants that will give access to special programs.
Brahimaj said she wants to see a better way to connect with seniors, many of whom are not on social media.
Couto reminded everyone that the new municipal complex will give seniors a dedicated space, which will allow the town to apply for senior grants. He also said seniors can still apply for a senior tax break which will freeze their property taxes.
Figlar said she and Franchino have suggested a wellness check, a type of phone chain, that can be used to contact seniors during storms. There is also a new senior advisory board, which still needs more volunteers.
Question 8: Over the past years, businesses in town continue struggled to succeed. What can the council do to help businesses survive?
Figlar listed some of the cons, few parking places, not a walkable downtown and few places for tweens and teens to hang out. She suggested that promoting “the Shop Local initiative” to encourage residents to stay in town and shop here.
Franchino said a “shop small” program would help small businesses and could provide a tax abatement for shoppers. The proposed Connell Center could hurt small businesses in town, so she proposed building a relationship with Connell to make sure it doesn’t hurt them.
Brahimaj said a number of initiatives, including Restaurant Week, Winter Walk, the June Block Party have boosted business in the downtown area. She suggested collaborating with New Providence so the two towns could run consecutive Restaurant Week events or other events in each town to support both towns’ businesses.
Couto said the design standards set by the DDC plus the new town hall and other developments will make a walkable downtown and contribute to boosting the local businesses.
Question 9: Would you take action to hold the Berkeley Heights budget flat for one year?
Couto said he would, but to do so takes a lot of work and would require the cooperation of the entire council. Later he said that the council should be proactive and be looking for grants now, to help keep the budget down. Two grants totalling not quite $1 million this year kept the municipal budget in check.
Figlar said she would love the opportunity to keep the budget flat, but knows there are things that happen unexpectedly, such as what happened this year, as the cost of recycling increased 142 percent.
Brahimaj said, “We always start with a zero budget,” but there is very little flexibility, since “75 percent of the cost in our budget goes to administration.” She suggested coming up with creative ways to raise revenue and look at other ways to do recycling.
Franchino said she would look at creative ways to balance the budget, but it would have to depend upon the situation.
Question 10 concerned climate change and asked candidates “What concrete actions will you sponsor on council to protect our community and reduce these environmental impacts?”
Brahimaj said the town should have dedicated money on the side. She favors restoring the six year capital road repaving plan.
Couto said you plan for as many unforeseen circumstances as possible, and the town has aggressively applied for grants.
Figlar said she favors a complete drainage study to deal with the overall water problems in the town, so the town can finally address and solve the flooding problems and not just put a bandaid on them.
Franchino said some of the problems with drainage in the streets is that the systems are not being updated. As new developments or homes are built, the drainage system should be revised. Delaying that will just cost more money.
Question 11 involved Class 3 officers at schools. The decision to hire a Class 3 officer is made by the autonomous Board of Education, which also pays the salary. The decision does not fall under the jurisdiction of the council.
Question 12: What are your top three priorities in your first year in office:
Establish a joint task force to work with both the council and recreation department
Develop additional spaces for walking and biking
Continue the open communication and transparency that was instituted this year.
Continue the Shared Service agreements and see if there are other ways services can be shared.
Hold a Shared Services Summit with other towns to see if there are ways to share with other towns.
Continue to work with seniors, who have been neglected, to incorporate new programs.
Taxes, Roads and Fields are the top concern of residents
Restore the six-year road paving plan
Put a stop to all shared services agreements until a cost-analysis has been done.
Cost Review, controlling costs is essential
Community Outreach to the seniors and others
System Analysis of the roads, and infrastructure, which requires giving the workers the right tools to do their job.
Each candidate gave a two-minute final statement. The entire forum can be seen on YouTube. The closing statements can be seen on YouTube here, beginning at 1:01.