SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Residents will vote Tuesday, May 14, for one of two candidates to be village president, choosing between incumbent Sheena Collum and current South Orange Trustee Deborah Davis Ford. Collum is running for her second term as village president, and Davis Ford has served on the Board of Trustees for 12 years. In sit-down interviews with the News-Record, the candidates shared their visions for South Orange and what they would do if elected to the position.
New Jersey has the highest property tax rate in the country and South Orange’s tax rate is in the top 20 in the state. Collum’s plan to continue to keep taxes under the 2-percent cap includes encouraging more entities to do business in South Orange, in order to increase commercial ratables and lower the burden on residents.
“We don’t have a Route 10 or a mall, so the way we can help that is to get commercial ratables,” Collum said May 2. “Police and fire are 80 percent of our driving costs, so when we invest in the technology that makes them more efficient that will stabilize taxes as well.”
Collum also mentioned grants as a way to stabilize taxes, referring to the Grotta Fund grant that is funding the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages senior citizen program with Maplewood.
Davis Ford said she would like to see the village’s share of the school district taxes lowered. Currently fewer South Orange students attend the South Orange-Maplewood School District than Maplewood students, but South Orange taxpayers pay a larger share to the district than their counterparts in Maplewood do.
“That’s not fair and it’s not equitable,” Davis Ford said on April 18. “We pay a high percentage of the bill when we don’t have the students. I would advocate for a change in that charter.”
The potential merging of the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments is a topic that has taken up much of the conversation surrounding the election, and Collum and Davis Ford have differing opinions on the proposal. Collum is in favor of a merger, saying that the 160-page independent report on the study conducted on the issue found that combining the departments would be beneficial for both towns.
“Of course we’re going to keep our headquarters open,” Collum said. “The service will be better with Maplewood’s firefighters, so 14 officers will be able to respond to a call now.”
Currently, South Orange Fire Department keeps a minimum of six firefighters on duty and Maplewood Fire Department keeps a minimum of eight firefighters on duty; combined, 14 would be on duty.
Collum said that while cost was not the most important part of the merger, there would be substantial savings for both towns if it is approved. With more firefighters able to be on duty at a time, there are fewer opportunities for overtime, which pays time and a half. Collum also discussed the technology in the Maplewood Fire Department, which is more advanced than South Orange’s.
“The technology in Maplewood is better, so instead of starting something new we’ll build on the system that is already working,” she said. “We would have a joint meeting structure with representatives from both towns on it, and if a tie needs to be broken then someone from outside will come in.”
If the merger is completed, it would be the first joining of a civil service department and a non-civil service department. If it happens, others in the state would likely follow, Collum said.
Davis Ford wants to look at a regional fire department model rather than a two-town merger.
“We should look at a regionalized department with Millburn, Livingston and West Orange,” she said. “This is a no-brainer, it would support joint governance and they would all be civil servants.”
She also does not want South Orange to give up any control in the merger, citing the possibility that Maplewood would be the “lead agency” on the project, though the towns are now considering the joint meeting structure.
“It’s not a matter of not doing this, it’s how,” Davis Ford said. “We should slow it down a little to get it right. At no time should the South Orange governing body give up the authority that’s so important.”
With the two towns already sharing a school district and possibly sharing a fire department, Collum said she thinks there is nothing that South Orange and Maplewood can’t share in the future. As long as an independent assessor can prove shared services would work for both towns, Collum said she wants to explore other possibilities.
“We already share a school district,” she said at a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters at the South Orange Library on May 2. “I’ve supported every measure to move forward with shared services. I think everything is always on the table.”
Davis Ford supports shared services but, as with the fire department, favors a regional model.
“Shared services is a no-brainer,” she said, repeating that she wants to look at sharing services regionally, not only with Maplewood. One service she wants to look at sharing with surrounding towns is maintenance of roadwork, as she said at the debate.
“Our roads are not all created equal and I think we can work together to improve them,” Davis Ford said.
Communication is a central issue in South Orange, and Collum prides herself on being accessible and able to answer any questions that residents ask her. Going forward, she wants to see the village hire a part-time communications director to manage the town’s website and write the Gaslight newsletter. She also wants to use technology to allow more people to be involved in committees and boards.
“For people who have mobility issues or have children at home, it can be hard to participate,” Collum said. “We have the technology to have people be able to call in and participate from somewhere else.”
In addition, Collum has a plan to build a volunteer directory so organizations can recruit volunteers from one central place and residents can learn about volunteer opportunities.
“The more we can encourage engagement, the better off we are,” she said.
Davis Ford also said the Gaslight needs to be revamped and released more frequently, and the village’s website and Facebook page should be updated more often with more information. There should be one place where residents are able to get information, she said.
“If you have people going to those places, they get the same information at the same time,” Davis Ford said, sharing her vision for how communication should be in South Orange.
Both candidates said they also want to improve communication with Seton Hall University. Collum, an SHU alumna, said student organizations are responsive when she reaches out to work with them, but the administration is not. With a new president set to take the helm at the university in August, Collum hopes to build a relationship.
She also wants to increase the amount of money the town takes in from SHU. Since village emergency services respond as necessary to 10,000 SHU students, faculty and staff, Collum said the $480,000 the university pays the town each year is too little. The university, which is not legally obligated to pay the village anything, also does not pay property taxes.
“We’re incurring a lot of cost to make sure they’re safe,” the village president said. “I would like them to agree to a public safety fee for each student. It would be $100 on tuition that would go straight to public safety and nowhere else. That is our biggest combined interest and we need more to cover it.”
Davis Ford also wants to improve South Orange’s relationship with SHU.
“It’s sad we have not done a better job,” she said. “I think we need to sit down with them and come up with ideas for them to be better integrated in the community. We need to get students downtown. I think there are opportunities to use their facilities at times. It would be a win-win for them and for us if we are a cap and gown town.”
The election is scheduled for Tuesday, May 14, with polls open in South Orange from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.