Summersgill and McGehee square off

Township Committee candidates argue over development, taxes, outsourcing, state funding, more

Photo by Sean Quinn Republican Mike Summersgill, left, and Democrat Frank McGehee debate for the second time this election season on Oct. 6 at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Maplewood Memorial Library.
Photo by Sean Quinn
Republican Mike Summersgill, left, and Democrat Frank McGehee debate for the second time this election season on Oct. 6 at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Maplewood Memorial Library.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The two candidates running for the sole open seat on the Maplewood Township Committee offered differing visions of how development should be handled during the Oct. 6 forum held by the League of Women Voters of South Orange and Maplewood at the Maplewood Memorial Library.

Democrat Frank McGehee and Republican Mike Summersgill fielded a few questions regarding construction in town one year after the controversial Post House project dominated the previous election cycle’s talking points. And while that project may be well under way, the candidates had several ideas on how future development should addressed.

To McGehee, the most effective way is to focus on what structures can already be found in the township.

“The most sustainable building is the one that’s already built,” McGehee said.

McGehee said Maplewood does not have much room to build anything new at this point, so the Township Committee should leverage its existing structures by attracting strong businesses that can benefit the community. Additionally, he said he is in favor of establishing Maplewood’s downtown area as a historical district. Doing so, he said, would help properties rise in value.

Summersgill said the question of development is not one for the Township Committee to answer, but one for residents and local business owners. If elected, he said he would support their opinions without imposing any of his own. There have been times when the committee has not done that, he said, and Maplewood has not gotten the best deals as a result.

The Republican candidate also said he would always keep in mind that developers put their own interests before the township’s, and therefore the committee cannot take their promises at face value. Instead, Summersgill said the committee members must be the ones to ensure Maplewood gets the best deals possible.

In addition to concerns about which developers to bring in were concerns as to how to create incentives for those developers; specifically, the candidates addressed the issue of granting financial incentives such as payment in lieu of taxes — or PILOT — programs to attract developers. McGehee stressed that he is not a “PILOT guy,” but if the township is considering such a program, said Maplewood should be informed of all its options. To that end, McGehee said he would request that the developer provide a third-party financial analyst to look at all costs and build a pro forma, a document that would satisfy all the township’s financial questions and requirements. Then, he said, the committee could decide whether a PILOT would be best.

Summersgill said he views PILOTs as business transactions, which is why it is important that all sides of a deal are understood before the township commits to anything. He said it is most essential going forward for the committee to understand the value of Maplewood’s assets. According to Summersgill, the committee did not demonstrate this understanding when it agreed to relinquish parking spaces at the Post House site in exchange for $5,000 so the developer could add a Dumpster. According to Summersgill’s estimations, that piece of property is actually worth tens of thousands of dollars more than that.

Such dealings would not suffice on his watch, Summersgill said.

“If I’m on the Township Committee, they won’t get a rubber stamp from me,” Summersgill said. “They’ll get healthy discussion so that we can reach the best outcomes for our community.”

And development was not the only subject discussed during the forum. Judging from the back-and-forth that resulted from the extensive discussion about outsourcing, this is another issue about which both candidates feel quite strongly.

Summersgill started by pointing out that he has worked in outsourcing for the past 10 years and knows that it is not necessarily a money-saver. In fact, he said that municipalities often end up paying more for labor to cover the cost of both salaries and the outsourcing company. The candidate said he would look at outsourcing primarily for seasonal work or for jobs that require a particular expertise. In the event that outsourcing is the best option, he pointed out that he has the professional knowledge to formulate the most advantageous contracts for Maplewood.

McGehee, on the other hand, said he is a proponent of outsourcing — with two caveats: the first being that the township cannot sacrifice service for cost, and the second being that the committee should consider entering short-term contracts with benchmarks so that the town ensures it gets the quality of services it needs before entering into a long-term agreement. McGehee added that sharing fire services with South Orange would save a lot of money, especially considering that many of the Maplewood Fire Department’s calls come from outside the town.

But Summersgill argued that his opponent’s comments were “uninformed,” pointing out that the township cannot enter into an outsourcing agreement lightly.

“Outsourcing is not something you can take a little bite of,” Summersgill said. “You’re going to eliminate those positions before you start that contract. You can’t then decide six months later to bring back those employees who were impacted. So you really have to be very careful.”

In response, McGehee said many Maplewood firefighters are up for retirement. Therefore, he said their positions would be eliminated through attrition if there were a shared fire services agreement.

The two candidates also disagreed over taxes. When asked for ideas about how to reduce the financial burden on residents, McGehee answered that he would work with the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education and state legislators to push through measures that would help lower taxes and highlighted the proposed school funding formula as a way of reducing the amount residents spend for the school district.

“It’s not happening tomorrow,” McGehee said. “But that’s part of the process.”

Yet Summersgill joked that Maplewood is “in trouble” if it has to wait for Trenton politicians to help. Instead, he said the committee should control what it can locally to benefit residents. For instance, he said he would have handled approximately $675,000 in spending differently than the committee did this year. He said taxes would have gone up little more than 1 percent as a result, instead of the actual 4-percent increase.

What will not help the township, according to Summersgill, is the tax-incentive program his opponent proposed at the last debate that would give residents a property tax discount for shopping at local businesses. As evidence, the Republican candidate said most of the Marlboro businesses that participated in a similar program no longer exist. But McGehee said he believes the concept will work in Maplewood. And he also accused his opponent of not understanding how the program works.

One matter that both candidates did agree on was the need to help senior citizens remain in their homes. Summersgill said Maplewood offers great recreational programs for the elderly but, after hearing the results of the South Orange-Maplewood Age Friendly Community Survey, he said it is clear that local seniors want more. He said he would offer financial and social services as well as volunteer opportunities, and would like the senior services coordinator report to Joseph Manning, the township administrator, so Maplewood can better focus on senior needs.

McGehee lauded the Age Friendly Communities Initiative, adding that he wants to enact whatever ideas they propose. He said he is also in favor of promoting a shared housing model in which senior citizens can take renters into their homes to subsidize the tax burden. In addition, the candidate said Maplewood and South Orange should have a shared organization dedicated to serving seniors.

Another topic the two candidates agreed on was the need for political diversity — though they each viewed that idea from a different perspective. As a Republican running for a seat on a committee that has consisted solely of Democrats for more than two decades, Summersgill certainly was in favor of political diversity. But he did not emphasize his party, instead stressing that he just wants to lend his skill set to the committee and collaborate with its other members. Still, he said, after 23 straight elections in which only Democrats were elected, it may be time for a change.

“Choosing Frank is a vote for Maplewood’s Democrat,” Summersgill said. “A vote for me is a vote for Maplewood’s democracy.”

McGehee, on the other hand, did not view “political diversity” as a mixture of parties. Instead, McGehee said it was a matter of representing people of all races on the Township Committee. He said many minority residents do not feel that is currently the case, but he believes he can change that.

“I tell many residents that ‘I am going to be your voice, and you’re going to have an advocate there on TC,’” McGehee said. “I am going to be that leader — that advocate and champion — to bring the diversity that we boast about at our cocktail parties and barbecues to our local government.”

Be sure to vote for either McGehee or Summersgill for the sole open seat on the Township Committee on Nov. 8.

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