MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE / WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Youth Caucus and the MAPSO Youth Coalition joined forces to hold a July 1 question-and-answer session with some of the candidates who are running for the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, in advance of the primary election on July 7. The election ended after press time. Seven candidates participated in the forum: incumbents Patricia Sebold and Leonard Luciano, and challengers Simone Jelks-Bandison, Sabre Burroughs, Anthony Diaz, Adam Kraemer and Jennifer Larsen. Sebold, Burroughs, Diaz and Jelks-Bandison were running for the four open at-large seats on the board, while Larsen, Luciano and Kraemer, who all live in West Orange, were running for the District 4 seat. The event was moderated by Truman Segal and Joe Nalieth from the WOYC and Jordan Muhammad from the MAPSOYC.
A topic of much conversation during the event was the county budget. The candidates were asked how they would manage the budget in the future, especially as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt.
“The vast bulk of expenditures is public employees. I would have a serious conversation with the public employees and say, ‘You’re going to pay more for health care, you’re going to have to postpone some wages or we’re going to have to do layoffs,’” Kraemer said. “I’d hope that the county unions would vote to keep more on but perhaps give a little on their benefits. It’s not pleasant, but it may become an economic reality.”
Diaz proposed shifting money from the public safety budget into other areas that could help people who have been affected by recent job losses and lost revenue.
“I would definitely shift from policing,” he said. “I know that public safety is around the $150 (million) mark, and our public assistance funding is only $3 million. So right there you see we have our priorities messed up. Right now we’re getting towards 50 percent unemployment. People are going to need public assistance more than ever, so I definitely think that there are expenditures on the budget line.”
Larsen agreed, saying that the large line items in public safety budgets aren’t always clear and should be cut.
“There are these block numbers and it doesn’t say what it represents,” she said. “You can’t say one number without saying what it represents. So there’s no way a constituent can look and say, ‘Maybe this doesn’t make sense.’ At this point, we’ve got to pivot what we’re thinking about and really take care of people.”
Luciano said that going forward he is not supporting any capital project funding this year or next year, and he supports the hiring freeze already instituted by County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. He also said the county will not replace positions that are left open due to retirements for the time being.
Sebold, the other incumbent freeholder at the event, defended the county budget and said that, compared to other New Jersey county budgets, Essex County is in good shape. She does not want to increase taxes.
Burroughs agreed with Diaz and Larsen on moving money from public safety into other human services budgets.
“When we think about the policing that goes around homelessness and the narcotics division, it seems like there is money that can be taken from that and put into services that would help people,” she said. “Then you need less police and can put that money towards housing and social services. You can’t take police and sprinkle it over poverty and think that it’s going to change anything. Reallocating funds is a great way of cutting money in other places as well.”
Jelks-Bandison said the same thing, and added eliminating positions that are appointed.
“I would get rid of the no-show jobs, the people who are appointed by the party bosses who don’t go to work but still collect money off of tax dollars,” she said. “I would end police immunity so that they pay their own settlements, and they are not being paid out of our dollars.”
The candidates also talked about environmental issues, with Jelks-Bandison saying that development on green spaces needs to end and more sustainable initiatives need to be put in place.
“The one thing that we cannot have more of is land. If we continue to develop on it, we’ll have nothing for people to walk and breathe and enjoy. It’s up to the county to put those measures in place and not vote to continue to build on our precious resources, which is our green space, especially in light of what’s going on with the climate,” she said. “We need trees, we need grass, we need places to enjoy.”
Burroughs said that when businesses open and developers want to build in the county, they should be required to have a sustainable component to the plan. In her answer, Sebold said she would like to see all county vehicles be electric to help cut down on pollution. Luciano proposed a water recycling project that would collect rainwater to be used to water county lawns. Diaz said he would like wider recycling in the county and for wind and solar power to be more widely used. Kraemer supports a trash utility where waste is turned into electricity.
“The pandemic has stopped everything, right? And our air cleared up. All these things cleared up and people are on bikes and people are going to parks. This moment is a moment to say OK, there’s a chance to make a big shift here,” Larsen said. “Essex County has done a lot for open spaces and recycling but we have to do more. Shifting to a more environmentally friendly way across the board affects the economy, jobs and quality of life. It can’t be looked at as an isolated issue.”
The winners of the July 7 primary election will be on the ballot for all voters to consider, regardless of political affiliation, on Election Day, Nov. 3.