WESTFIELD, NJ – Mayoral candidates Michelle (Shelley) Brindle (D) and Andy Skibitsky (R) exchanged answers and rebuttals at Wednesday night’s candidate forum. The event, sponsored by The Westfield Leader and moderated by Lauren Barr, was held in the packed courtroom of the municipal building at 425 East Broad Street. Members of the public were invited to send questions for the candidates prior to the event.
Topics discussed by the mayoral candidates included:
“What we have in our downtown is not so much a parking problem or a vacancy problem, as we do a revenue problem,” Brindle said. She called for holistic new master plan.
“We need to increase the non-tax revenues in our town,” she said.
Brindle also brought up communication with residents about who participated in the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force and the parklet downtown.
“You couldn’t have actually done a worse job of communicating something that really should have been a very good idea,” she said of the parklet.
Skibitsky responded by saying that the idea that Downtown Westfield wasn’t doing well isn’t true.
“We gone from 88 percent occupancy to recently 91, 92, almost 93 occupancy,” he said. “In fact, USA Today Gannett News named Westfield its number one shopping destination in the entire state of New Jersey.”
Skibitsky said that the town has made improvements downtown, including adding 122 parking spaces since he’s been mayor and changing the liquor law.
Town Boards and Committees
“I have a talent for recognizing talent,” Skibitsky said.
“One of the most important things we do every January is appoint approximately 40 to 50 people to serve on various boards, and, you know, this idea that the people serving on our boards aren’t qualified is just absurd,” he said. “They are phenominal, talented individuals who do a wonderful job serving the town of Westfield.”
Skibitsky said he appoints people not based on party but people who he thinks will do the best for Westfield.
“Well, it will be hard to know if they’re qualified because you can’t really find out who’s on the boards or committees,” Brindle responded. She said that the only way to the list is by looking at the minutes of the town’s yearly organizational meeting.
“We actually had to search through five years of minutes to figure out who is on the boards and commissions,” she said. “And when you find out, not surprisingly, over 70 percent of those appointees are Republican, even though our town is only 24 percent Republican, so they’re clearly picking appointees based upon who you know, not what you know, and I’m going to change that.”
The Upcoming Tax Revaluation
“Thirty years is a long time to wait on a revaluation,” Brindle said. She said she was concerned about its impact on Westfield’s senior population.
“Those of them who live in older homes that haven’t done any upgrades or so forth are probably going to be at the most risk because of increase in taxes,” she said.
Skibitsky said it was a very important decision not to conduct the revaluation until the state forced the town to do so.
“The reason is, of the 21 towns in Union County, we pay the most taxes in Union County than any other town,” he said. “If we re-evaluated prior to the other towns, our taxes would go up even more.”
Funding from Union County
“Since I’ve been mayor, we’ve received more than $6 million in grants,” Skibitsky said.
“We probably asked for about $18 million in grants during that same period,” he said. “You never get what you ask for, number one. Number two, if we’re getting grants from Union County, most grants, whether from from the state or federal level, they’re matching grants, meaning they give you a million, you match with … a million dollars of taxpayer’s money. So it’s not free.”
“And if Union County does decides to become even more gracious with our tax dollars to give grants, as the number one tax-payer to Union County, who do you think is going to be funding those grants?” he asked. “The Westfield tax payer.”
In her response, Brindle said, “Last year alone in terms of grants, Cranford got 17 grants in total, Fanwood got 11, Summit got eight and Westfield got three. So something’s up.”
She said that Westfield needs to be more strategic about asking for grant money as part of a larger plan.
Overdevelopment and Affordable Housing Obligations
Brindle spoke about updating the town’s master plan.
“A master plan is about development, it is about creating somewhat of a transit village kind of thing, so we can actually drive the outcome of our affordable housing obligations and not let the private developers drive it for us, as in 333 Central,” she said. “And 333 Central is a good use of space but horrible execution. I’ve not found one person that agrees with that. It should have been a beautiful gateway to Westfield and we ended up with a building that looks somewhat industrial. And it’s a missed opportunity.”
Skibitsky said that a lot of investment is going on in downtown and within Westfield’s neighborhoods. As for tearing down buildings, he said, “If anyone … promises you they’re going to stop tear downs, it’s simply not true. You can try; you’re going to end up in court. You’re going to spend a lot of tax-payer money to attorneys and we’re going to lose.”
Skibitksy also said that the town’s master plan was last examined in 2009 and additions have been made since then.
“So the master plan is a living, breathing document,” he said.
Getting Residents More for Tax Dollars
“The average tax bill is about $17,000 in this town. We only control 16 percent,” Skibitsky said. “I believe in user fees because what it does is I don’t believe seniors or people on a fixed incomes should be paying extra taxes to use things or services that they’re not using.”
Brindle said that the downtown is where the greatest opportunity for an increase in non-tax revenue exists.
“We need to take control back and drive revenue in our town so we can actually get the services that we should all be expecting with the high property taxes that we pay,” she said.
The forum will be shown in its entirety on TV 36 and will also be available for viewing at www.GoLeader.com. The election will take place Tuesday, Nov. 7.