Mayoral candidates debate budget and redevelopment

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Robert Parisi and Councilman Joe Krakoviak, the two West Orange mayoral candidates on the ballot Nov. 6, debated each other Oct. 14 at B’nai Shalom synagogue in an event hosted by the Pleasant Valley Civic Association and the synagogue. At the debate, the candidates fielded questions from the audience about pedestrian safety, redevelopment and budgeting. Parisi, the mayor since 2010, is running for his third term while Krakoviak has served on the Township Council for the last eight years.

The first question the candidates tackled regarded pedestrian safety. Many county roads run through West Orange that are outside the township’s jurisdiction, and several schools, such as West Orange High School and Liberty Middle School, are located near busy highways like Interstate 280 and Route 10. Each candidate was asked to share how they’d work with elected officials at the county and state levels to ensure safety in those areas.

“Things don’t always work perfectly, but I think West Orange, way longer than just eight years, has been very fortunate to have good relations with the county and the state, and especially with local legislative officers in the Senate and state Assembly,” Parisi said.

He credited former West Orange mayor and current state Assemblyman John McKeon with the progress that has been made in turning the section of Route 10 near LMS into a school zone.

“As this area of the state continues to get more densely populated, we always have to continue to count on all levels of government to make things safer,” Parisi said. “At some point, we all have to share equal responsibility. You can’t have police officers on every corner; you can’t have stoplights on every corner, as much as we’d like to. We all have to share responsibility and be responsible to our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we’re driving around, and to be respectful of school zones.”

Parisi also added that the West Orange Police Department continues to work closely with the Essex County Sheriff’s Department on the traffic issues that plague Northfield Avenue near Turtle Back Zoo, and said that ordinances would soon be introduced to the Township Council to address some of those issues.

Krakoviak said he has found it difficult to work with the county and state officials, and thinks the solution is staying persistent in asking for their help.

“I have found it really difficult to get both the state and the county on board with virtually anything we want to do here,” he said at the debate. “I don’t know what the reason is, but all I can do is continue to be persistent, professional and patient.”

Krakoviak said he has been trying to get the county and state to expand the portion of Mt. Pleasant Avenue that goes west into the intersection with Prospect Avenue into two lanes for a year, but it has been difficult to make a change there.

“What I have found is that you’ve got to be persistent, and there does not seem to be a great deal of interest from either the state or the county to help us here,” Krakoviak said. “I’m hoping that a new fresh voice and fresh eyes here in town will help move those things along.”

The budget was a topic that received much discussion at the debate, with Krakoviak and Parisi both sharing their ideas about what should and shouldn’t be included in West Orange’s annual municipal budget. Krakoviak provided several suggestions for what could be cut to save money.

“We pay someone to do the township Facebook page,” he said. “We could use talented high schoolers who could do it for free and would do it for free because it would be good experience for them. We could save $200,000 by changing the way that we employ our insurance broker. I think we could save $300,000 by introducing competition to the dozens and dozens of no-bid contracts that we give out each year. I want to implement a policy that says if we’re going to give more than $10,000, the contract needs to be competitively bid.”

Krakoviak also said he does not support salary raises for West Orange Chief Financial Officer John Gross for the last five years, adding that money could be saved if staff salaries do not rise as often. He wants to take those savings and move them into areas like traffic and public safety.

In his answer, Parisi said that he doesn’t believe there is a lot of wasteful spending in the township’s budget.

“With all due respect to our very talented high school students, I don’t believe it’s realistic to think that a high school student, maintaining a high school schedule, is going to address social media,” Parisi said. “The consultant that the councilman referenced literally works for Facebook. How much better can you have as a representative in addressing the very serious communication that we have as a community? So no, I don’t believe that’s wasteful.”

Parisi also defended Gross’ and other employees’ raises, saying that there are fewer employees working for the township than there were eight years ago and that, as a result, other people in those departments have taken on additional responsibilities.

“There are 55 less employees than there were the day I got elected,” he said. “That means we’re asking people more and more to do a lot more and a lot of those cuts have taken part in the finance department.”

The candidates discussed redevelopment at the debate, as well. Essex Green and Executive Drive, the shopping center and office complex that was bought in March 2016 for $97 million by Clarion Partners, was designated as a non-condemned area in need of redevelopment in January. At the Sept. 4 Township Council meeting, a plan to move forward with the Executive Drive portion of redevelopment was approved. Clarion said it would not seek a Payment in Lieu of Taxes in an Aug. 29 press release.

Krakoviak was adamant that Essex Green should not be a redevelopment area.

“One of the key aspects of it is it they qualify for tax abatements, meaning no taxes for 30 years and replaced by payments in little patches,” Krakoviak said, explaining why he does not support the Essex Green redevelopment project. “What that does is it saves the wealthy property owners millions of dollars on a commercial project the size of Essex Green and Executive Drive. We just can’t afford that. We’re having trouble with making our revenues as it is. Why would we want to give it away to somebody who can certainly afford any sort of improvements without any incentives?”

Krakoviak also referred to the redevelopment project taking place on Main Street, saying that the owners, Prism Capital Partners, have been delinquent on paying property taxes. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen with Essex Green.

Parisi said the township wants to be part of the planning process for Essex Green, which is why he supports the redevelopment plan currently under way at the property.

“We wanted to be part of the planning process. A property owner has a right to build what they want to build. As a redevelopment zone, the township has a right to be part of the conversation,” he said. “So yes, under the statute, tax abatements are allowed. They’re not guaranteed; they’re not a forgone conclusion. Essex Green has not asked for a tax abatement and they’re not getting a tax abatement.”

The mayor added that the process has worked for the township. West Orange officials have spent time with the owners of the property, working on a plan that will benefit both parties, he said.

“Redevelopment does work because in the months since the approval of the zone, the township has spent countless hours with the owners in developing a plan that we think works and that they think works, and they’ll be submitting that to the Planning Board for ultimate approval to renovate a very important piece of property in town,” Parisi said.

Term limits were also discussed. Both candidates support term limits, but at different levels of government. Krakoviak said that, because the council majority has voted to support many of the mayor’s initiatives in his time on the council, he supports term limits.

“I’ve already announced I’m term-limiting myself on the Town Council,” he said, adding that, should he remain on the council and not be elected mayor, he will not seek re-election in two years. “Just because we don’t have a law doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. The founders of our country envisioned people who would step out of their private lives, give some public service and go back to their private lives. We don’t have that anymore. We need new ideas, we need new blood, we need new perspectives. I think term limits are a perfect thing to do.”

Parisi agreed with Krakoviak with regard to the state and federal levels, but said he does not think local governments should enact term limits.

“We shouldn’t have people serving 40 years in the United States Congress or even in the state Senate and state Assembly. Locally, I think there’s a difference because we are more directly in contact with people, because in this town specifically we don’t run as a party and we don’t run on a line.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic