CLARK, NJ – Republican incumbents Angel Albanese, Alvin Barr and Bill Smith sat with Democratic opponents Jerry Fogle, Michele Miller and Patrick Murphy at Candidates Night to discuss hot topics as they vie for the three open seats on Clark’s Town Council. The public event, sponsored by TAPinto Clark and moderated by Marlene Sincaglia of the League of Women Voters, was held last Wednesday evening in the auditorium of Arthur L. Johnson High School.
The Democrats' opening statements focused largely on the need for change.
“I’m not much of a talker, but our town needs more than just talk,” Murphy said. “Enough is enough, we need action.”
They claim that taxes are sky-rocketing, traffic has become dangerous and the current leadership has not taken necessary action.
“I cannot sit by any longer so I am standing for election this year to bring real change to Clark,” Miller added.
“Currently we have a mayor and council that have one opinion. They vote the way they are told instead of having an opinion of their own,” Fogle said. “We will bring new voices, new ideas. We will listen to the residents and help resolve their issues.”
In contrast, the current council members reflected on how far Clark has come under the guidance of the council and Mayor Sal Bonaccorso.
“Because of everything that Mayor Bonaccorso and his team have done since they first took office, and are continually doing, the county has Clark ranked as one of the top municipalities,” Barr said
In response to the challengers’ claims that taxes have been sky rocketing in Clark, Albanese said that Clark has had the lowest tax increase in the past 13 years.
“Have taxes gone up? Yes. But in 15 years taxes have gone up a total of 20.54%,” Albanese added. “That comes out to 1.37% per year. The next lowest town was at a 30% increase.”
“Since the citizens of Clark elected me 4 years ago, we have continued to protect your property taxes, offer you unprecedented service, we have a top notch recreation director, we have senior citizen programs and events, and we have many events and programs for our children,” Smith said, backing up claims that Clark goes above and beyond for its residents.
Sincaglia asked the six candidates questions, which were submitted to Tapinto Clark by the town’s residents. While each candidate had time to answer each question, other hot topic items were also discussed during their time at the mic.
The first question asked of the candidates was what is the biggest problem facing Clark that people may not talk about. Barr and Smith both agreed that rumors are a huge problem in Clark.
“If one person tells somebody that there is a breeze outside, by the time it gets to the tenth person, we have a category 5 hurricane,” Barr said. “Don’t listen to rumors. If you have questions, on what’s happening, call town hall. Call us. Call the Council. We do answer your questions and we will get back to you.”
Smith went on to dispel current rumors that Gran Centurions and Hyatt Hills are being redeveloped into housing. “It’s not true,” he said.
Murphy and Fogle agreed that Clark officials opting to use tax payer paid healthcare benefits was a big issue not discussed in Clark.
“I know a way we could save $176,000 right now; if elected officials didn’t take taxpayer-funded health benefits,” Fogle said. “Myself and my running mates pledge right now to you, the tax payers, that come Nov. 8 we will not take tax payer funded health benefits. Will my opponents make that same pledge to you right now?”
Murphy added that this money could be used in other places such as fixing up Westfield Avenue.
The incumbents had the opportunity to respond as the second question was on the topic of health benefits. Smith began by saying he won’t apologize for taking health benefits.
“Mr. Fogle says this is a part-time job,” Smith said. “If my opponents up here think this is a part-time job you should go look elsewhere and run for some other office.”
Barr added that $170,000 on a $22 million budget is ¾ of 1% which equals $23 per household per year. “The government says you can have [these] health benefits. Myself, I don’t take them as I get them through my union. I’m thinking some of the candidates running against us are getting the same thing.”
Candidates were also asked about Clark's fiscal challenges, and how they should be addressed.
“One of the biggest fiscal challenges is striking a good balance between how much you can charge in taxes and the services you want to provide. I’m pretty proud of what we have done with small increases,” Albanese said. She said when she began on the council, many buildings throughout the township were in dire need of repair. But buildings such as the library, the Brewer building and the schools throughout the district, were not only fixed but made better.
“I believe that providing services and dealing with the rising costs of living is a challenge. I understand that Clark has had one of the lowest tax increases,” Miller said. “My question is, why was there an increase at all? Clark Commons alone is expected to bring in $1.2 million in taxes.”
Miller went on to say, “We may need a forensic audit to help us identify wasteful spending so that we can make ends meet without putting the burden on our tax payers.”
Barr explained that years ago, other leadership would lower taxes during election years causing taxes to skyrocket the following year. By keeping tax increases to a minimum each year, the administration has been able to keep the overall taxes lower, Barr said.
Albanese swiftly countered Miller's call for a forensic accounting during her next turn at mic.
“I really don’t see when you have the lowest taxes in the county why you need a forensic audit," Albanese said. "Are you planning on hiring a consultant to come out and audit our excellent chief financial officer? To audit our auditor’s records? I don’t get it. As far as where does the money go? 51 cents of every dollar go to the schools.”
Finally, candidates were asked about their goals should they be elected. After continuing the discussion of rising taxes, Murphy replied that he would also like to see a study done of the major traffic areas within Clark to improve safety for drivers and pedestrians. He also commented that he would like to see Westfield Avenue corridor fixed up with more business brought in.
Fogle expanded on Murphy’s thought about Westfield Avenue saying, “we have to invest in it to get businesses and residents to have the buy in on it.” He added that residents need a voice.
“No one goes to township meetings anymore," Fogle said. "They are tired of being talked down to and having eyes rolled at them.”
“The Westfield Ave corridor. Back in 2006 that was rezoned as a downtown village. The mayor at the time said it’s going to take 10 to 15 years for that to be completely overhauled. We are 10 years into it,” Smith responded.
As far as taxes go, Smith said, “You have a lot of unions in town and the county. You have a lot of police. You have a lot of services. You have to pay for it. Bottom line is, taxes are going to go up. If you want them to go down, move to South Carolina.”
Closing statements following closely to the candidates' opening statements. The Democratic opponents again said it is time for a change, they want residents to be heard and want to see residents get a break financially.
“The hardworking tax-paying residents of Clark want a change,” Fogle said. “Clark residents need a mayor and council who will listen. Not ignore, belittle…every time a resident has an issue.”
“Too often I’ve heard residents express that their complaints fall on deaf ears,” Miller said. “I will take the time to listen to their issues and respond to their concerns.”
The incumbents went back, defending their work so far and reiterating their love and focus on Clark and its residents.
“The [opponents'] reoccurring theme is that this current council and administration does not listen to its citizens,” Smith said. He went on to point out scenarios in which citizens shared their comments or concerns, and the town followed through. These scenarios included: developing Clark Commons on former US Gypsum grounds after polling the town; passing a resident-parking-only ordinance by Clark Rehab to help ease parking issues for residents and changing traffic pattern on L’Oréal Way for new Woodcrest residents.
“We have a proven track record of continuous progress and as a result, the value of your properties and homes have increased,” said Albanese. “We want everybody to be happy in this town, to be proud of this town.”
“I am asking for your support of Mayor Bonaccorso, Angel, Bill and myself on election day so that we can continue to keep, what I like to call, the great state of Clark, as one of top municipalities in Union County,” Barr said.
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