MAPLEWOOD, NJ — At one point during Maplewood Senior Share’s recent Township Committee candidates forum, one resident asked Republican Mike Summersgill and Democrat Frank McGehee to pledge that whoever wins will work to keep his opponent involved in local issues. Both candidates offer a lot to the town, the resident said, adding that it would be a shame to lose the talents and experience of either one after the election.
It was an easy question for the two to answer, as Summersgill and McGehee both eagerly expressed admiration for each other and promised to work together if elected to the committee. But the underlying message was clear — only one can serve in the committee’s sole open seat, and residents have a tough choice to make. As they discussed in sit-down interviews with the News-Record, both have several ideas about how to improve Maplewood, particularly in the areas of taxes, development and benefits to senior citizens.
To prevent taxes from rising, Summersgill said the Township Committee must be smarter about spending its money. For instance, the Republican candidate said he would have included the mandated tax re-evaluation in the most recent budget, although the committee members did not. According to Summersgill, the committee essentially doubled the tax increase instead. On top of that, he said he would be more selective about what items to include in the budget, pointing out that projects such as The Woodland’s kitchen renovation did not necessarily have to be accomplished this year.
“It just comes down to making those fiscal, responsible decisions,” Summersgill said in an Oct. 7 interview. “We’re all in it together, and we all have the same motivation. But I think we’ve got to really have that commitment to make those decisions that impact everybody.”
McGehee said he would look into opportunities for sharing services with other communities in order to lower costs. In particular, he said he would push to merge the Maplewood and South Orange fire departments since so much money is currently being spent on firefighter overtime. But the Democratic candidate stressed that jobs would not be lost, and that positions would be eliminated through attrition. He said response times would not be compromised as a result of a merger.
In addition to sharing services, McGehee said he would like to examine Maplewood’s contracts for outsourced services to make sure that all benchmarks are being met. He also is interested in introducing an incentives program that would give residents a property tax discount for shopping at local businesses. He said such an initiative would help Maplewood by getting residents to shop locally, thus keeping monies in town. While his opponent criticized the concept, saying it did not work in Marlboro, McGehee said the program was named one of 2015’s top 25 most innovative ideas by the Harvard Kennedy School, and that other communities have seen success with it.
Another perennial issue affecting Maplewood is the impact of development. Accordingly, the candidates each have a plan for how they would handle construction if elected.
Summersgill said he is not opposed to development, though he is leery about the effect that adding residential units will have on Maplewood’s schools and economy. Therefore, he said he would focus on commercial development. And he would like to hire an expert to market the township specifically to attract businesses for such developments. He said the town already has a strong base of shoppers — it just needs someone who could find the right businesses to tap into it.
Aside from expanding Maplewood’s commercial footprint, Summersgill is also open to exploring industrial development. The candidate said Somerville, Mass., is home to multiple breweries but is still a vibrant community. He said Maplewood could benefit from having a walkable industrial neighborhood as well.
McGehee, on the contrary, is in favor of residential development — particularly assisted living and affordable housing for existing residents. The candidate said having more places like Winchester Gardens would allow Maplewood’s elderly population to remain in the community they love instead of having to move to an outside facility that meets their needs. Meanwhile, he said the committee could look into exempting some developments from the township’s affordable housing quota. That way, he said, Maplewood residents would have a better chance of moving into affordable housing units than they would if those units were included in the state-mandated lottery.
But that does not mean McGehee is opposed to bringing in businesses to Maplewood. In fact, the candidate said he wants to examine the amenities of each business area in town to see what kinds of commercial establishments could fill any voids. He also stressed that he would focus on all sections of Maplewood so that no one is overlooked. For instance, he said he would work to drive businesses to the Hillcrest neighborhood and even would be interested in making it a special improvement district.
“We need to give some love to all of Maplewood,” McGehee said in an Oct. 21 interview. “I’m running for all of Maplewood. I don’t come with the traditional ideas and stereotypes and the things that I’ve heard in my tenure here. I come with the perspective of ‘Let’s take care of all of Maplewood.’”
Whatever the type of construction, McGehee said the Township Committee needs to professionalize its development process. Specifically, he said he would request that developers pay for a financial analyst to conduct a pro forma before committing to a project. If the township better understands the monetary implications of a development, he said it will be able to decide whether a payment in lieu of taxes program is necessary. Some of the PILOTs Maplewood has granted in the past might not have happened if the committee had done this, he said.
Any discussion on growth in the community must be followed by a discussion of maintenance — specifically maintaining Maplewood’s senior population. Despite their differences, the opponents both believe that the Township Committee should make helping seniors a priority. And each knows exactly how he plans to do so if elected.
Summersgill feels that senior citizens deserve special attention since they pay so much in taxes despite not having any children in the school district. Therefore, he said he would always be fiscally responsible with the goal of saving money for Maplewood’s elderly. After all, he said, every dollar counts for those depending on pensions and Social Security.
“For the population that’s on a fixed income, (tax increases) can be a big difference to them,” Summersgill said. “That really does strain their budgets. And so I think we can’t get distracted by it being a small percentage increase because it’s a real impact to that group.”
Maplewood can also help its seniors through the creation of a senior advocate position, Summersgill said. The Republican said such an advocate could help resident seniors navigate a range of services, from social to financial to real estate. He added that the advocate would report directly to either the township or the committee — as opposed to its current location within the recreation department — in order to better champion senior needs.
Paying the salary for such a position would likely cost the township, as would any new programs the advocate successfully brings to fruition. But Summersgill pointed out that the Township Committee could simply use the additional resources it will have from being more fiscally responsible under his watch. Maplewood’s senior population is worth every dollar spent, he said.
McGehee has plenty of ideas to benefit senior citizens as well, starting with his concept for an “age-friendly Uber.” The Democrat said Maplewood’s Dial-a-Ride service does not transport resident seniors everywhere they need to go, only certain locations within town. So he would like to pilot a program that would take them to locations outside the realm of where the senior bus travels, such as appointments with doctors.
In addition, McGehee said he is interested in furthering the Block Buddy program that encourages able-bodied community members to help elderly neighbors with household chores like mowing the lawn. The candidate recently created the initiative along with Senior Share’s Irene Dunsavage and Kurt Kiley, and said he thinks it has the potential to take off in a big way. He said communities thrive when neighbors helping one another, and Block Buddy is founded on that concept.
Lastly, McGehee said he wants to explore a shared housing model in which senior citizens can take renters into their homes as a means of offsetting their tax burden.
Beyond ideas, both candidates made it clear that they exude passion for the Maplewood community and all the benefits it has provided to their families. Both think they have what it takes to make a difference on the Township Committee.
Summersgill believes his nearly two decades of working in various operational leadership roles give him the experience necessary to be effective on the committee. It certainly has given him a good grasp on how to implement services, he said, and he looks forward to leveraging his knowledge for the good of his fellow residents.
And while some may view his Republican designation as a weakness in a town dominated by Democrats, Summersgill stressed that his loyalty is to his community and not the party. But he does feel his ideology would offer a fresh perspective to a governing body that has not welcomed a Republican in more than 20 years.
“I do think I would generate discussion, which I’m excited about because it does lead to better outcomes when you have multiple viewpoints,” Summersgill said. “Sometimes in the process of answering a question, you realize that you hadn’t thought it through all the way or there was something you didn’t think about. So I think that would be a benefit to the community.”
McGehee, too, feels that his professional experience will serve him well if elected to the committee. As an analytical marketer, he said he has the skill set to better promote Maplewood and improve communication with residents.
In addition, McGehee said he is committed to representing the underrepresented, adding that many minority groups in town do not feel their concerns are being heard by the Township Committee, even with people of color among its ranks. But he said that will change if he is elected.
“I look at myself as a fresh and individual voice for all of Maplewood. I’m my own person,” McGehee said. “If I’m going to be 4-1 on every vote, I’ll be the 1. At the end of the day, I have to think about what’s best for all our residents. That’s inclusive of party affiliation, sexual orientation, race, ethnic background — that’s what it’s all about.”
On Nov. 8, Maplewood’s registered voters will have to decide between McGehee and Summersgill, as only one one can fill the vacant seat on the Maplewood Township Committee.