9 candidates seek 3 open seats on BOT

BOT candidates discuss taxes, fire department and more

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Residents will vote for three new members of the Board of Trustees on Tuesday, May 14, choosing from nine candidates. The candidates are running on three slates: “SO Forward” with Matt Wonski, Stacey Trimble Borden and Ed Grossi; “Your Voice, Our Village” with Bob Zuckerman, Donna Coallier and Summer Jones; and “Think Work Thrive Together” with Bobby Brown, Toshie Davis and Ed Moore. Each candidate shared their ideas for what they want to accomplish if elected to the BOT in sit-down interviews with the News-Record.

South Orange’s taxes are ranked in the top 20 highest in New Jersey — the state with the highest taxes in the country. Zuckerman wants to keep taxes at the 2-percent cap and said mixed-use development is the way to achieve that.

“Property taxes are not going to go down, but they do need to be stabilized,” he said in an interview on April 18. “You have to encourage smart, mixed-use development. We don’t have enough commercial property, so 90 percent of the tax burden falls on our residents. We have to find ways to do that and find efficiencies in the budget.”

Borden said she also wants to bring more commercial property to South Orange to help stabilize taxes and she wants to stop awarding Payments in Lieu of Taxes for developers.

“If we bring ratables in and stop with PILOTS I think it will help,” she said in an interview on April 18. “And South Orange pays 33 percent of taxes to the school district when we have less students so I think that’s something to look at. We should have a conversation with the freeholders about the county taxes as well.”

Moore also said that bringing development into the village is the best way to stabilize taxes.

“There can be more development that will bring money into the town,” he said in an interview on April 26. “I think we need to manage expenses and increase revenue through development.”

Coallier agreed in her April 18 interview that yearly tax increases should not exceed the 2-percent cap. She wants to look at the municipal budget’s line items and see where money can be saved.

“You have to be diligent about cost containment,” Coallier said.

Wonski said he thinks the village could do a better job of staffing departments, which will bring outside costs down and have a ripple effect on the budget and taxes.

“Instead of outsourcing, things can be brought back in house, like in Public Works” he said in an interview on April 18. “I think we’re repetitive and if we cut back on that it will help.”

Davis thinks the way to stabilize taxes is to look at shared services, as she said in an interview on April 26.

“The way to do that is shared services and public and private partnerships,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to take advantage there and conserve more.”

Jones also wants to stabilize taxes through shared services. In an interview on April 25, she said South Orange should have more purchasing power when looking to buy.

“Services can be consolidated,” Jones said. “And I think we can look at the budget and see how things are spent and where to share them.”

Grossi said that if he is elected, he will bring a fresh perspective and way to look at the budget to find where South Orange could save money.

“You have to find when you don’t have to spend money,” he said. “I think we can look at professional fees and consultants where we don’t necessarily need to be spending all of this money. Is it an effective use of resources to do a new master plan while we’re working on redevelopment projects?”

According to Brown, residents need to have a better understanding of how their tax dollars are spent; he believes many people are dissatisfied because they think they are not getting what they pay for with their taxes.

“We can use recreation as a revenue-generating opportunity,” he said in an interview on April 26. “What have other cities that look like ours done to create tax offsets? So we need to come up with those services that match people’s expectations, because a lot of people are not getting what they expect.”

The potential merging of the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments has been discussed for the past two years. A 160-page independent report found that combining the departments would be beneficial for both towns. Zuckerman supports the merger.

“I think it’s clear as day we should merge,” he said. “It will increase efficiency, increase safety and save money. South Orange residents and businesses will benefit and it will help us sell businesses, which I think is something that’s been overlooked.”

There was an initial possibility that if the merger were to happen, Maplewood would be the lead agency. Now the towns are considering a joint meeting structure, which would allow the towns to hold equal representation in the merged department. Regardless, Zuckerman said the safety of residents is more relevant than the lead agency.

Coallier also supports the merger, saying that the departments would operate better if they are joined.

“I wouldn’t do it if we weren’t going to get better safety,” she said. “There are all kinds of merger tools that could be very effective for the fire department. That said, I would like to see joint control.”

Because the Maplewood Fire Department is not currently a civil service department like South Orange’s department, Wonski said he would support a regionalized merger rather than one with just the two towns. His running mates, Borden and Grossi, also believe a regional fire department is the best path forward for South Orange.

“Regionally, they work better,” Wonski said. “The South Orange firefighters feel that they’ve been left out and it should be joint control.”

Davis said the merger should happen if it makes sense, and added that she supports shared services in general, specifically shared services that go beyond just the two towns.

Jones believes the departments should merge as long as South Orange continues to receive the same amount of attention as it has all along.

“As long as our services don’t change, I’m all for it,” she said. “If that remains the same, it makes a lot of sense.”

Moore said the concept of the merger is a good one, but wants further study to decide if the departments should join forces to serve both towns.

Brown thinks the idea of merging the department is a good idea that is worth considering, but thinks the plan could still use some work.

“It doesn’t seem like there are integrated costs,” he said. “We need to go through the plan with a comb and put leaders in charge who know how to negotiate. I think it’s a great idea on paper and could be great for South Orange in practice.”

With an active Environmental Commission and environmentally conscious residents, the candidates also shared their ideas about how to improve sustainability and green practices in the village. An ordinance that would ban plastic bags and potentially charge for paper bags at South Orange businesses is on the horizon, and Zuckerman said he would support this measure.

“I’d like to see it statewide, because that would eliminate competition,” he said. “I’d also like to see straws banned and more initiative like River Day. We should be building with sustainability goals and having LEED-certified buildings is critically important.”

LEED certification is a nationwide system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to encourage the construction of energy-efficient and healthy buildings. Zuckerman added that he would also like to see South Orange become more walkable, so residents could use cars less often. A bike-sharing program is something he would like to see, as well as charging stations for electric cars.

Like Zuckerman, Moore is in favor of a plastic ban by the state and would also like to advance green technology, as the recycling contract will be up for renewal soon. Because the market for recyclables is falling apart, new approaches could help South Orange become more sustainable, he said.

Coallier thinks the village should disclose more information about the sustainable practices that are being put into effect.

“When more is done, the snowball effect happens,” she said. “You encourage the small steps and that makes things happen. If we can get people thinking like that it will make a difference.”

Wonski said there are several areas in which South Orange could be more sustainable. According to the proposed bag ordinance, the business would keep the fee collected for paper bags sold, but Wonski said that money should go to a recycling fund or other green cause. He would also like to see straws banned, as well as Styrofoam containers.

Wonski said some of the equipment the DPW uses should be more sustainable and that solar panels can be more widely used, as well as cutting down on the number of cars used by encouraging police officers to ride bicycles while on patrol.

Borden said banning plastic materials in the village will lead to widespread change and create a greener town.

Davis would like to encourage residents to make their homes greener, including solar panels that could bring energy costs down.

“We could have a positive impact on bills and on their house,” she said. “I also want to start thinking about waste, we still have old pipes and we need to make sure we have clean water. If we engage with them on simple things we can be sustainable and save money.”

Jones would like to see more solar panels in South Orange as well, saying that small changes will make it greener.

“We have to make sure there are options for people who can’t afford things like that as well,” Jones said. “I also would like to see solar panels on development projects and in parking garages.”

Grossi thinks the village should move toward having 100-percent green energy and charging stations for electric cars. He would like to incorporate plastic straws and foam into the bag ordinance, which he has not supported because he feels businesses were left out of the planning process; he is, however, in favor of the general idea.

Encouraging public transportation is one way Brown said the village could become more sustainable, saying that fewer cars on the road would decrease the town’s carbon footprint.

“The master plan has to have clear ideas for sustainability,” he said. “It expands beyond the plastic bag ban. We need ideas for sustainability for the short term and for the longterm.”

The Board of Trustees election will be Tuesday, May 14, with polls open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Residents are encouraged to cast their votes for the three candidates they feel would be best for the village.

Debate Photo by Amanda Valentovic