Chatham Borough Candidates Discuss Taxes, Downtown Development and Open Space at League of Women Voters Forum
Tuesday, October 18, 2011 • 9:10am
CHATHAM, NJ – In preparation for the Nov. 8 election, candidates for mayor Nelson Vaughan (Incumbent, D) and Councilman Bruce Harris (R) joined Council candidates Councilman James Lonergan (R) and Gerard Helfrich (R) in a candidate forum where they discussed fiscal responsibility, business development and land conservation, among other topics. Due to a personal medical emergency, council candidate Marcy Wecker (D) was not able to attend.
Event host Helena Alexrod of the Madison- Chatham League of Women Voters previewed a constitutional amendment on sports betting on the Nov. 8 ballot A “yes” vote would allow the Legislature, when permitted by federal law, to legalize the placing of bets on certain sports events at casinos, racetracks and former racetrack sites in New Jersey, including at gambling houses in Atlantic City. Currently, federal law only permits this type of betting in Nevada and Delaware.
In their opening statements, candidates focused on their commitment to the borough and its residents. 30-year borough resident Bruce Harris, who has served as councilman under both Vaughan and Dick Plambeck, hopes to serve the borough as full-time mayor. “I have worked successfully for eight years to keep Chatham a good place to live,” he said.
As mayor, Harris said he would look at zoning ordinances to make sure they preserve the character of the community. He would also work to keep taxes low. He reported the borough has achieved savings of $400,000 through shared services. “We need to deliver high quality municipal services without breaking people’s backs with taxes,” he said.
Harris was also instrumental in creating single stream recycling and textile recycling and protecting and preserving open space, he said. The open space issue is where Harris believes he differs from his opponent. In response to a question on the future of open space, Harris pointed out that Vaughan overturned the open space tax after borough residents had voted through referendum to maintain it. “Open space is my love,” Harris said. “I worked to update the open space inventory. We have lots of plans for community gardens and trails to improve the feel of our town.”
Mayor Vaughan, a lifelong borough resident, said his vision for open space is to use what the borough already has in its inventory. “We have already bought what there is to buy,” he said. As Mayor, Vaughan’s goal with open space has been to maintain it without taxpayer’s money. “I helped create the 9/11 Memorial without the use of taxpayer money,” he said. If elected to a second term, he would pursue a River Walk along the Passaic River, he said.
Vaughan also focused on low taxes, revamping recreation, sustainability and public works projects. “I want to help the community be a better place to live for future generations,” he said.
Gerry Helfrich, a 48-year resident of Chatham Borough, has served the Chatham Community in numerous volunteer efforts, most recently as a member of the Board of Education for the past nine years, two of which he served as President.
Through his work on the Board of Ed, Helfrich said the knowledge her gained with regard to budget, policy and personnel would be beneficial to the council. His main areas of focus, if elected, would be fiscal responsibility, quality of life and creating a sustainability master plan, he said.
Councilman Jim Lonergan, a 17-year borough resident, said he would continue to lead with “common sense, compassion and cooperation.” Lonergan has served as a volunteer to the borough on the Finance Committee, Department of Public Works Committee, Shared Services, Recreation, Chamber of Commerce, Local Assistance Board, Shade Tree Committee and acted as liaison to the Memorial Park & Pool committee.
In addition to keeping taxes low, Lonergan said his priorities are helping those less fortunate in the community, advancing the public-private relationship for funding in the borough and developing greater volunteerism.
Forum moderator Dawn Clarke read a statement from Marcy Wecker, who said she would use her legal, business and personal experience as a mother to make Chatham a place people want to live.
A graduate of Columbia University and Seton Hall Law, Wecker moved to Chatham nine years ago. As a mother of three, Wecker has been involved in Chatham sports and says she plans to “keep the recreation department innovative and strong.” Furthermore, she says, if elected, she would fight to keep taxes low. As Chairwoman of the Community Garden and the Open Space Committee, she would also work toward maintaining accessible open spaces.
In response to questions by audience members, the candidates also weighed in on the consequences of state and federal budget cuts, maintaining affordability for seniors and downtown development.
“We are working to get our money back from the state,” Vaughan said in response to the budget question. “We only get slightly more than $100,000 in aid.”
Harris continued: “State aid is dwindling. The Finance Committee has mapped out a plan for the council that would evaluate shared service opportunities over the next few years.”
Responding to the issue of affordability for seniors, Lonergan said that as the value of houses goes up, it becomes more difficult to keep seniors in their homes. He suggested the council look to private funding and focus on volunteerism to that end.
“Senior citizens feel they are not being listened to,” Vaughan said. “We need to improve transportation around town and consider senior citizen housing as a long-term goal for Chatham.” Vaughan said he has considered proposals for housing in the past four years, but the question has been where to put it.
“The regulations in the state are messed up,” Harris responded. “They don’t allow us to create housing just for seniors. There are lots of ideal locations for it, but laws need to change to do that.” He also said that the property tax solution must come from the state level. “We are over reliant on property tax.”
On the issue of downtown, the candidates agreed the focus should be marketing, parking and making it easier to do business with the borough. “We have a vibrant downtown,” Harris said. As mayor he said he would like to create a Guide to Doing Business in Chatham and make the borough more business-friendly.
“We need to draw people from other areas to our downtown,” Vaughan insisted. He would like to see a downtown director and a focused marketing effort theme in which “Chatham can shine as a destination.”
Helfrich mentioned that parking is difficult for seniors. Lonergan said the issue is to direct people where to go. “We need stores that attract people. Business owners struggle with those who don’t put in the effort,” he said. “There should be an incentive for shopkeepers to make improvements to facades.”
When the issue of merging the borough with the township arose, all candidates stated a resounding “NO.”
“We are a small town without a lot of bureaucracy and we want to keep it that way,” Harris said. He argued that the borough and the township are very different communities with different needs. “We like our large village,” he said.
Vaughan pointed out that any merger with a larger area would mean the borough would be the junior partner. “That doesn’t mean we can’t share services. We can continue to make tweaks to save money,” he said. Vaughan said he thought eventually the borough and township would share police.
Harris argued you could not share police departments. The borough’s downtown and the township’s sprawling suburbia have different realities, he said. “We should share what we can without losing our identity.”
The candidates also pointed the lack of support for a merger among the citizenry. “There is no appetite in town for it,” Helfrich said. “But what the State of NJ does in trying to force municipalities to do that, we don’t know.”
“If citizens came forward to say we should explore it, we would, but there is simply no interest,” Lonergan continued. “And there is no economic benefit to merging because we have shared services.”
In their closing statements, the candidates promised steadfast service and accessibility to residents. “We are a small town with a close-knit feel,” Vaughan said. “I know the challenges that face residents across generations.”
Harris spoke to the uniqueness of Chatham Borough. “People with ideas can work together,” he said, promising to lead the town in the tradition of Chatham’s first mayor Frederick Lum.
“We need to keep Chatham, Chatham,” Helfrich said. “But that doesn’t mean it will stay the same. We should not be stagnant, but move forward.”
The candidates also praised the many volunteers who keep the borough running. “I believe in volunteerism by many,” Lonergan said. “We can rebuild the state and the country one town at a time.”