Berkeley Heights Council Candidates Face Off During Debate
Friday, October 26, 2012 • 7:17am
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Two incumbent Republicans and one Democrat are running for two three-year seats on the Township Council. At a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters at Governor Livingston High School on Thursday, Oct. 25 the township’s infrastructure, Berkeley Aquatics and the high cost of living in Berkeley Heights were the main topics of interest to the audience.
Candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves.
Democrat Michael Simon said he and his family have been living in Berkeley Heights for four and a half years. “I gave a lot of thought to choosing a town to raise my children,” he said, and chose Berkeley Heights. He’s running to keep it a great place to live.
Simon said he is an attorney who specializes in working with small businesses. Previously he worked as a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security in customs.
Republican Craig Pastore and his family have lived in the township for 20 years. During that time he has spent a lot of time as a volunteer including coaching youth sports and chairing the Recreation Committee. He is currently vice president of the Township Council.
He said he is “dedicated to improving the quality of life” in the township. Pastore said he and Council President Kevin Hall have improved the budget process, instituted a long-term capital plan, passed ordinances to support the master plan, kept costs under control, increased the surplus and revitalized the capital fund. He also established and chairs the Communications Committee.
Republican Kevin Hall and his wife have lived in town for 16 years. He said he has been an active volunteer including on the Planning Board and Environmental Commission. He is president of the Township Council and is the council’s representative to the Planning Board. While on council he said he and Pastore adopted the administrative code, instituted a zero-based budget and promoted leaders in government. He would like to continue to help government become more efficient and increase volunteerism.
Two questions from the audience related to Berkeley Aquatics plans to move its facility to the outskirts of Berkeley Heights. The council previously objected.
Pastore said it’s a “complex question” he couldn’t answer without knowing the real issue, i.e. what it would do to the sewer plant. He said the township talked with Berkeley Aquatics about possible other locations but the company has not responded.
Hall said the issue relates “to our waste water management plan and sewer plant. He noted the town has agreements with other municipalities for waste water management and the impact on those agreements has to be considered. He noted the township is currently being sued by the company and “relocation conversations have become very formal.”
Simon said, “I’d like to keep BAC in Berkeley Heights” and suggested a traffic study be done to determine the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
The question of secession from Union County came up.
Hall explained the issue is related to “affordability.” He said the county is “the same as any other service provider” and the cost associated with being part of Union County exceeds the cost of running the town. He noted Berkeley Heights has no representation of the freeholder board. And, the county is not “open to constructive criticism.”
Simon does not agree with the concept of leaving Union County. “I feel it’s a moot point,” noting the New Jersey Legislature has to sign off on it and other towns have tried and failed in the past. “Instead of being confrontational, work with the county,” he said.
Pastore disagreed. “We have to evaluate every opportunity to try to lower the tax rate,” he said. “Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
Parking at the train station was an issue.
Simon said it was an issue for him when he moved to the town because he was commuting to New York and it was a three to three and a half year wait list. He said improvement is neded and suggested looking at King’s parking lot, neighboring streets, or to possibly build a lot and provide a shuttle.
Pastore said 50 spots were added this year. He suggested if recreation decides to move that location could become a commuter lot. But he countered that at 10 a.m. there are still spots available in the current lot.
Hall admitted commuter parking is a “chronic problem,” and noted the parking area is owned and managed by both the township and New Jersey Transit. He noted there is parking available on the other side of the road. Hall mentioned the possibility of moving town hall and making that space available for parking.
The township’s infrastructure came up more than once.
Pastore said, “We do have plans, but being on the council, I don’t know if we can discuss them. (Infrastructure) is in our budget, We have a five-year capital plan that addresses part of the infrastructure needs of the town.”
Hall said, “By instituting a formal capital plan with priorities started the process, the mayor and council are working on it to find creative ways to address the problem.”
Simon said, “It has to be a priority.”
Councilman Tom Pirone asked if over the past three years anything was underfunded or overfunded.
Hall said he is “very proud” of the budget process and feels it was managed very effectively.
Simon complained about his taxes, whish he said have gone up “almost 20 percent over the last three years.” He said he’d like to increase the tax base with a downtown development zone and bring in more business to Berkeley Heights.
Pastore countered taxes have gone up 15 percent, not 20 percent – “nine percent the first year, four percent the second year and two percent the third year.” He said the council is working in the right direction looking at third party suppliers to evaluate ways to save money. “We do have a lot of fixed costs we have to deal with,” he said.
A downtown improvement district was also of interest to the audience.
Hall discussed the CVS’s application and its request for a traffic light on Springfield Avenue and Lone Pine Brive. “The township planner feels that a light could really enhance the town.” He said the planner has been formally engaged to study the light. A Beautification Committee has also been established to increase the aesthetics of the downtown area, he said.
Simon said he would “act aggressively. More needs to be done. I would make it one of my priorities.”
Pastore mentioned the Beautification Committee and said the mayor has made the downtown business district one of his priorities.
When asked what their two top priortities would be and how they would address them, Simon said “getting more involvement” from residents would be his top priority, placing more information on the website and making it easier to communicate with council members. His second priority would be the downtown business district.
Pastore said “flooding of the river” would be his first priority, noting “we’ve spent a lot of time,” met with the Department of Environmental Protection and have had the DPW remove “snags” in the smaller streams.
He said he didn’t understand “the bit about the website” because all meetings and agendas are posted.
Hall would make “affordability” his first priority “now and forever.” He said he’ll work to manage resources “efficiently and effectively.”
What are the top qualities each would bring to the council?
Hall said being respectful of the form of government and community. “Decorum is important.” And, being objective -- he makes decisions considering both the short- and long-term.
Simon said his “abilities as a problem solver. As an attorney that’s what my job is.” He’d bring creative and new approached, he said.
Pastore said his ability to look at a problem and determine more than one way to get things done is a strength. Also, he brings an engineering background to the council which helps with the sewer department and the Department of Public works.