NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – Three candidates vying for two seats on the New Providence Borough Council answered questions from the public at a Candidates Forum Wednesday night. Republicans Robert Munoz and Michele Matsikoudis as well as Democrat John FX Keane fielded questions at the event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Berkeley Heights, New Providence, and Summit.
Who are the Candidates?
The incumbent Munoz has lived in New Providence since 2002 and has been a council member since 2010. He currently chairs the council’s Planning Development and Communications committees, and is a member of several other committees.
“I got elected to the borough council, and I believe that made New Providence a better place. Not just for my family, but for yours as well,” Munoz said. “I hope you agree with me that New Providence is a special place to live in and to work. And I hope you agree with the work that I’ve done to help make new providence a better place.”
Matsikoudis, who moved to New Providence over 20 years ago, has previously served as PTA President at Salt Brook Elementary and New Providence Middle School. She has also been a member of the New Providence Education Foundation, and is currently a member of the borough’s Economic Development Committee and Board of Health.
“I do have an agenda, and that is to maintain the character and the heart of this town that I love so much,” Matsikoudis said. “A town is a reflection of the people that live in it … you are the heartbeat of this community.”
“I want to help ensure that your families continue to get the best: that’s the character that I’m talking about,” she added.
Keane has lived in New Providence for 35 years. He is currently the Vice Chairman of the Planning Board, of which he has been a member for 10 years, and has been treasurer of the Downtown Improvement Association since 2006. He is also a member of the borough’s Economic Development Committee. He spent 15 years working on the borough’s Recreation Commission.
“My background is pretty strong, both in financial [work] and in working in this town. So, I want to continue to work in this town, and use my experience to do this,” Keane said. “When you’re thinking about the community, I think of our three kids. And they’re a reflection of this community.”
In February, the borough council approved the borough’s affordable housing settlement, which requires 316 affordable units to be built. The council then zoned an industrial area of the borough to be used for affordable housing in September.
Though he was not in favor of affordable housing, Munoz said he agrees with both of these decisions. “Ideally, we wouldn’t have had to build all of that affordable housing in New Providence,” he said. “We took the more prudent approach. We negotiated with fair share housing … and we reached what we thought was a fair number.”
Echoing Munoz, Matsikoudis said the council took the best action possible. “I really feel that our borough council was prudent, thoughtful, and considerate in the approach that they took with this,” she said. “They put it in an area to make things easy for the residents that live there. It’s walkable, it’s livable, it’s close to the trains.”
Keane said the borough has been working on the issue of affordable housing for decades, but expressed doubts that the borough would meet the terms of the settlement. “We’ve been doing it since I’ve been on the planning board. This goes back 25 years,” he said. “I think the borough has been doing everything it’s supposed to do. We were told at one point we were the gold standard of planning boards in the state, because we were so far ahead of this, and yet, we are not going to meet this.”
Keane said that 57% of the borough’s taxes go to the Board of Education, while 20% go to the county and 20% go to the borough. He said he would look closely at how the borough is using its share. “I was in business for 43 years,” he said. “I know how budgets work. So yes, everything is going to be questioned.”
Munoz noted the borough’s low tax increase this year. “Our tax rate [increase] is 0.58%, which is one of the lowest in this whole area” and amounts to about $17 a home, Munoz said. “With the addition of Lantern Hill … that is bringing in additional tax revenue to the borough.” The borough currently has a surplus of about $3.5 million, he added.
Matsikoudis said both increasing revenue and decreasing spending would benefit the borough. She said adding shared services and recruiting new businesses to the borough are some of the best ways to do this. “If I’m elected, I’m happy to try to uncover more ways,” she added.
Matsikoudis said the number of traffic accidents in the borough has gone down over the last few years. “Our downtown accidents have decreased since 2017,” she said, from 19 accidents in 2017, to four each in 2018 and 2019.
Both Munoz and Keane cited traffic as a major local issue affecting the borough.
“My proposal would be right turn only out of every place,” Keane said. “Yes, you’re going to change behavior, but we need to do this because I think it’s safer.” Keane said he has reviewed several of the borough’s traffic studies as a member of the Planning Board.
Munoz said the borough engineer has completed a study to address the need for traffic lights at various intersections, and that the borough has worked to introduce traffic calming measures. Keane disagreed, saying the borough engineer was not the driving force behind the study.
“The borough engineer did not put this together. This was done by the economic development committee,” Keane said. “This was not done by the borough.”
“John [Keane] is absolutely incorrect,” Munoz replied. “The borough engineer did the traffic study.”
Candidates’ Top Priorities
“My top priority would be to work with the existing council to achieve what I think are some things that we need to do for the borough,” Keane said. “That’s inclusiveness, it’s diversity, it’s getting everybody involved in the borough, which, we seem to think they are, but I’m just not convinced.”
Munoz said that most residents are concerned about affordable housing and taxes. “You’re already seeing some relief now, and I think you’re going to keep on seeing relief in the future,” he said. “We’re doing our best we can to manage and mitigate any affordable housing that we’ll be building … We’re going to work hard to help New Providence maintain its character.”
Matsikoudis echoed Munoz, saying affordable housing and taxes would be two of her top priorities. “There’s just so many things that I see that I want to either continue or help improve,” she said. “I probably would want to start with lower taxes as well as the affordable housing issue. And the reason for that is because that’s what you’re concerned about.”
What Happens Next?
Residents will vote for borough council, as well as several other state and local positions, on Election Day November 5. Voters will also weigh in on a public question, which asks whether the constitution should be amended to give certain veterans’ benefits to residents of continuing care retirement communities.
The League of Women Voters encourages anyone seeking more information about the election to visit Vote411.org.