WEST ORANGE, NJ - Keeping West Orange municipal taxes in check while still providing services that will keep home values up and attract new buyers was the most commonly expressed issue among community members at the West Orange Mayoral Candidates’ Forum hosted by the Pleasant Valley Civic Association and B’nai Shalom on Sunday.
The two candidates running for the position—Mayor Robert Parisi and Councilman Joe Krakoviak—had very different takes on tax issues as they debated in front of a large crowd at B’nai Shalom.
Krakoviak claimed that West Orange property values have not kept pace with most neighboring towns due “primarily to extraordinarily high property taxes.”
“The mayor has raised our municipal property taxes by the maximum allowed, 2 percent, in each of the last four years," said Krakoviak. "He also says we can’t cut taxes. But 67 New Jersey municipalities reduced taxes in 2017, including two in Essex County.
“With a common sense budget that sets priorities and cuts wasteful spending, we can cut taxes too.”
Parisi retorted that he has stabilized taxes over the past eight years, and that West Orange has had the lowest municipal tax increase of any Essex County municipality over the last 10 years. The mayor added that, under his administration, West Orange is doing more with less.
“We’ve reduced the size of the municipal workforce by 55 full-time employees over the past eight years,” said Parisi, who said the increased taxes were needed to invest in infrastructure, improve security around schools and build recreational facilities.
Krakoviak said that West Orange’s high taxes are particularly difficult on seniors, who make up 20 percent of the community.
“Seniors want to age in place, and many of them can’t do so due to taxes,” said Krakoviak.
One of the areas Krakoviak cited as “wasteful spending” was accepting a one-bid garbage/recycling contract that raises the annual cost by 61 percent, or nearly $1.1 million, with no additional features or services. Krakoviak added that he was the only member of the council to take the one-year version of this contract at a lower cost instead of the five-year version that was passed by a 3-1 council vote. (Both the mayor and Council President Susan McCartney recused themselves from this discussion because their brothers work for the vendor.)
Parisi said that one of the reasons there was only one bid on this job is because West Orange requires the garbage trucks to be run by natural gas, which many companies don’t provide. He added that additional challenges to get competitive bids on the township’s garbage/recycling work is the large amount of services now offered to approximately 16,000 homes, the tough topography and the recycling market now decreasing financially.
“We chose the five-year contract because the professionals in this field felt we could see a worse contract if we sent it out to bid again,” said Parisi, explaining why he did not want to ask for rebidding this year or select a shorter contract. “It is naïve to think that the contractors didn’t know the bids were out. The rebidding would be even more expensive."
Krakoviak said this garbage/recycling contract issue is symptomatic of the current process where there is “no competitive bidding on hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts annually.” He said the town’s insurance broker has held the contract, valued at between $400,000 and $500,000 since the 1990s without competitive bidding.
Parisi said the insurance broker well earns this money because of the many services he provides, including administering a township website for employees, providing wellness coaches, and overseeing a Medicare B program for seniors.
Krakoviak said that he wants to expand competitive bidding on all contracts of more than $10,000, adding that he believes "the savings will be substantial."
As an example of previous savings, Krakoviak cited a time when the mayor proposed that the council approve a $97,300 no-bid engineering contract.
“After I objected, the town got another bid that reduced the cost more than $50,000,” said Krakoviak.
Another area of contention among those at Sunday's event was whether the Essex Green Shopping Center should be considered an area in need of redevelopment—an ongoing discussion that Parisi was openly in favor of and Krakoviak was against.
Parisi said he favored this approach because it enabled the township to have a say in the development plan for this site. He noted that the owners of the complex “have sat down with us during the last three months to come up with a plan.” Based on these meetings, Parisi also believes it will be an exciting plan that will improve Essex Green for the next generation.
Krakoviak said that this was not the route to take, stating that it opened the door to 30-year tax abatements. He said that Essex Green’s owner has recently abandoned the redevelopment process, choosing instead to file an application for improvements with the West Orange Planning Board.
“The mayor says redevelopment worked, when the opposite is true,” said Krakoviak.
Parisi noted that redevelopment has gone particularly well on Main Street with the Edison Battery Factory condos, which he said has brought in 50 residents that now live somewhere people had little interest in residing for years. He said the same thing will happen in the Valley District on Central Avenue, where housing will be replace commercial properties abandoned since the 1970s.
Krakoviak, on the other hand, was critical of the Downtown West Orange Alliance’s efforts to revitalize the downtown area.
“In the past 10 years, not much has improved," he said. "Retail space is empty month after month…Let’s try something different.”
He recommended hiring a full-time planner with economic development experience to develop an overall plan to bring more businesses to West Orange.
Krakoviak announced that he will not run again for township council if he loses this election.