CRANFORD, NJ –The four candidates for the Cranford Township Committee responded to resident questions at Thursday night’s forum.

The republican candidates for the upcoming election are Andis Kalnins, currently on the committee, and Richard Buontempo. For democrats, the candidates are Patrick Giblin, deputy mayor for the township, and Jean-Albert Maisonneuve.

The forum was hosted by the Cranford Jaycees and the Union Area League of Women Voters. 

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Christopher Lenza, the Candidates Forum Chairperson, accepted resident questions and Dawn Clarke moderated the forum.

Topics discussed by the four included:

750 Walnut Avenue

“It’s complex,” Giblin said. “Cranford is currently immune from a builder’s remedy lawsuit until Jan. 1, 2019. Lots of noise otherwise, it’s great conversation. This is Trenton’s problem. They have to fix it. In the meantime, Cranford has 14 months to firm up our affordable housing obligations, which we’ve done and are in the process of doing, and Trenton needs to fix the problem. If I’m re-elected, I’m going to make sure they work with us..”

Buontempo staunchly opposed the development.

“I’m totally against it,” Buontempo said. “I feel they should keep the direction of the commercial space as is and find another tenant. Just because Bank of America left doesn’t mean they have to lower the flag and run away. They need to redevelop the property within their own existing zone. We don’t need 900 apartment units. I’m not for it, I will never be for it. A vote for me is a vote against 750 Walnut.”

Maisonneuve emphasized the need for planning and evaluating as he answered the question.

“I think this is where strategic planning comes into play,” Maisonneuve said. “We have an opportunity here, until January 2019, to really look at the strategic plan, look at the infrastructure and see what we can handle as a community. I am not for 900 units, I want to make that clear. What I am for is working with Hartz Mountain in finding the right commercial tenant that would benefit Cranford and bring jobs to Cranford”

Kalnins agreed with maintaining the commercial zoning of the current property.

 “Very simply, I’m in favor of maintaining Cranford’s zoning and following our zones and home rule,” Kalnins said. “That’s what state law says we should have, and the reason we’re in this is because of the courts. We do have stay until the beginning of 2019, but we certainly want to work on our overall plan that we have been working on, and part of that is coming up with something that is smart - development downtown, our affordable housing, taking the overall plan and putting it into place and getting it approved by the court so there is no room for a lawsuit. That is something we can do today.”

Kalnins also said he believes in a lawsuit against the state.

“We’re looking at other properties, halfway houses that benefit disable people that give us the credit that we need,” he said. “We are looking at different things. What I would propose is that all the towns get together and have a class-action suit against the state of New Jersey that forces the legislature to do on its own. The legislature for years has talked about it and done nothing. We as towns need to do something.”

Opioid Abuse

“It’s a major problem, opiates,” Giblin said. “A small step I did was to add a prescription drop box right out here. The first pickup they took was over 25 pounds of prescription drugs down to an incinerator. I can’t say all those drugs were opioids, but it was a small step we could take and we didn’t even have to pay for it.

He also addressed the leaders in Cranford who can focus on this issue.

“Another thing that really needs to be addressed is the municipal alliance,” Giblin said. “I know that they focus on alcohol abuse and that’s an absolutely worthy fight, but they need to expand that to look at opioids and educating parents, people who do not understand what they’re getting when they get these prescriptions. They need to be aware. It’s a small group that we have that can fund things like that. We have to take a close look at how that money is being spent and if they aren’t willing to change it or look at some different opportunities, then we make some changes there.”

Buontempo focused his response on the attitude towards addiction.

“There’s a major epidemic,” Buontempo said. “My opinion is to treat is as a disease, not a crime. A lot of those drugs are laced with fentanyl now so either you get hooked on it or you die on it. Let’s save our children and save our people. Let them live and not be a memory. Treat it as a disease and get them help. I know Plainfield has an outsource program that they share to help people wean off the drug. It is a dangerous, dangerous thing, it’s bad and it’s all over New Jersey and the surrounding states.”

Maisonneuve emphasized involvement and education.

“We need boots on the ground,” Maisonneuve said. “I think we need involvement. Not only with parents, but I know we have resource officers out in the schools. I know for a fact that many people with kids think it’s really important that we don’t just talk about it, we actually do something about it. Parents, police officers, everybody in the community should be involved in having these conversations. We should have that involvement in education and schools. We should have that resource to give people the ability to have something they can reach out for.”

Kalnins addressed the need for education, enforcement and follow-up.

“It is a serious epidemic, it’s a problem that’s getting worse and it’s a problem that’s creeping into our community,” Kalnins said. “The way to stop it is really through education, enforcement and follow-up. We need to address the high school seniors because the biggest problem with opioids isn’t necessarily the kindergarten kids, it’s kids ages 18 to 25. We get those just as they leave the high school and that’s what we have to check. Right now NARCAN is a great thing, but all they do is revive them and send them on their way. We need to follow up with more programs.”

Maisonneuve rebutted, saying that the problem starts from the beginning.

“It’s not just high school kids,” he said. “It starts with kindergarteners, it starts before that. We need resource officers in there from the beginning. We need education from the beginning. Kids know more than we do about what’s going on.”

Property taxes and SALT (state and local tax) deductions

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job at the municipal level,” Kalnins said. “The key here is knowing where your money is. We’ve done that with putting a new electronic system in place. For the last six years, we’ve been well below the 2 percent cap, and that’s through smart planning and looking at a line by line budget review as to what we need, what we needed and what we want. What killed us was 10 years before where we did no investment in the town and our roads are crumbling and we kick it up with a huge investment. It’s really just looking at every single line, possibly adding shared services and taking a leadership role on that. You want to keep your taxes reasonable? Get on the county who’s raised it over 7 percent the last couple years and get on the school boards to keep it below the 2 percent cap.”

Giblin said New Jersey residents are in risk of receiving what is essentially double taxation.

“President Trump’s tax cut plan right now is talking about eliminating SALT deductions,” Giblin said. “That would enormously impact states like New Jersey and New York who pay high-level taxes, high property taxes. Something I saw said that it might impact Cranford about 40 percent. Something like eliminating that deduction is going to be very, very punishing and really exacerbate the problem. It’s going to put some very difficult decisions on local elected officials to go ahead and cut those taxes because it’s real money that is currently being deducted. If they remove that deduction it’s essentially double taxation. Governing bodies across the state are going to have to work very hard to come up with some ways to decrease the ceiling.”

Buontempo said towns need to pressure the county to reduce spending.

“Taxes are a big issue with seniors,” Buontempo said. “They want to stay in their homes but the taxes go up every year. What do you do to stabilize that? Maybe ask the county for more of an incentive. Their budget went from $300 million in the last 10 years to $800 million. When is it enough? We need to send a message to them that our towns don’t need to be taxed forever.”

Maisonneuve said Trump’s tax cut plan will kill Cranford residents, but that it's important to look at how taxes are being spent.

“From the taxes we pay today, the important way of looking at it is the proper use of the taxes. Is it handling and supporting our infrastructure? We have a great school system so I know some of the successes that go there. But we really need to plan and inform people of how their taxes are being spent. It’s easy to say we should lower taxes, but I think we need to what our taxes are being spent on.”

Other topics discussed include the Birchwood property, an in-house engineer, shared-service agreements, flood control, pedestrian safety and tax abatements for residential developments and their vision for downtown.

The full debate can be viewed on Tv35.