Council Candidates Share Views on Madison’s Challenges and Strengths
Friday, September 20, 2013 • 12:00am
MADISON, NJ – Some issues are hotter than others, but none is more so than funding for the turf fields at the Madison Recreation Complex (MRC).
Democrat candidates for borough council, Jeffrey Gertler and Maureen Byrne, take a different approach from Republicans Robert Catalanello and Patrick Rowe.
“The simplest way I can put this,” Gertler said, “ is to compare it to your child’s college education. If you were told you might receive a gift in the future, would you stop saving immediately or wait to see if that gift materialized?” Currently, bonding rates are low, the candidate said, and Madison’s rating with Standard & Poor has just risen to Triple A. “There are too many ‘ifs,’” he said of the Republican preference to count on a reduction in the electric utility or the Green Village Road sale. In addition, there could be unanticipated infrastructure needs.
Another issue dear to Gertler’s heart is maintaining a vibrant downtown. Serving on the borough’s Planning Board, Gertler said he wants to see incentives for “proper and interesting businesses in the downtown.” He said when Sages Pages moved to the shopping center, where Staples is located, it was a loss, even if it is still in Madison. . He’d like to see greater variety in the downtown, where people can shop for children’s items, ice cream, books and selections for all ages.
“When we moved from New York City 15 years ago, we looked for a downtown,” he said. Florham Park, for instance, has no center, while Madison has an ambiance similar to towns you’d find in Europe. “But we have to be realistic. The Short Hills Mall is nearby and internet sales compete with local businesses.” Still, he said, people like to walk along Main Street, greet their neighbors and have a real downtown experience. He and his family would ride their bicycles into town, he recalled, always a joyful event. “Driving to the mall just isn’t the same,” he said. To encourage downtown pedestrian traffic, he said it’s essential to have stores and destinations that people want to visit.
Gertler’s running mate, Maureen Byrne, is also a big proponent of the borough and serves on the Downtown Development Commission (DDC).” I’ve been involved with the downtown for 20 years,” she said. Over coffee at Drip, a popular local hangout, she expanded on her concerns for the future of Madison.
“When my husband finished law school at the University of Virginia, we considered staying in the Washington area,” she said. But she grew up in Jersey City and his family was from Morristown, so it made sense to come back to this area. “We looked for a rental where we could have our dog and found it at Town Gardens, across from Drew University. Then we fell in love with the town.”
Through the Downtown Development Commission, she has helped bring businesses, landlords and town government together. Each year May Day draws hundreds of volunteers who plant, weed, water and tend to plants in the downtown. “We’re trying to do more to beautify Lincoln Place,” she said and praised the active Chamber of Commerce. Both Bottle Hill Day, Oct. 5, and the Farmers Market on Thursday afternoons draw crowds to the downtown.
Byrne said the depth of volunteerism is strong in this community. She is a perfect example. Active with the Thursday Morning Club, the DDC and the Friends of the Madison Public Library, Byrne said she likes living in a college town with its cultural advantages. When she joined the Thursday Morning Club, she said she brought her fund raising skills from her work with the American Cancer Society. “Despite being in a recession, we raised $2.5 million to refurbish the Community House and make it ADA compliant,” she said.
Infrastructure is in constant need of improvement, Byrne said. She noted that Madison has shared services with Chatham for its sewers. “But they’re almost 100 years old. When they need replacing, that will be millions of dollars.” With Madison having its own electrical utility, (“We don’t generate our own” she said, but runs it with two feeder lines from JCP&L) the borough was fortunate during Hurricane Sandy to have power back sooner than many surrounding communities. “I’d like to see us purchase a generator,” she said, “so we could power the library and the YMCA.” That would give residents a source of heat or cooling, Internet and phone access and other essentials. She would also encourage reductions in utility bills if a resident saves 2 or 5% by not running appliances during peak periods.
The candidate emphasized the importance of long-term goals. “I’m a planner,” she said. In her Wall Street days at Paine Weber, she recalled, if she didn’t have a plan she would spend every day ‘fighting fires.’ “We need to prioritize projects and put those plans n the budget. Everybody should know this is what we’re taking care of.” She said transparency is key, with open discussions at council meetings.
The Byrnes have raised three children in the borough. She wants to spread the word on all that’s positive about Madison. “The more people know, the more they can get involved,” she said.
Republican Council Candidates Incumbent Robert Catalanello and Board of Education Vice President Patrick Rowe
On an issue where they differ from the Democrats running for office, both men addressed how to pay for the turf fields at the Madison Recreation Complex. The original idea, Catalanello said, was to pay for those fields through the sale of a borough building at Cook and Central avenues, funds from the Board of Education and fund raising by organizations such as the Madison Athletic Foundation. “The council voted to handle it that way, but didn’t follow through with the three-way split,” he said.
Rowe said that, in the meantime, the borough decided to purchase another 50 acres. Funding would also come from user fees and the Open Space tax rate. The Board of Education expected to receive funds by selling the Green Village Road property. Rowe noted that one reason the turf fields have been so badly need is because of the increase in girls’ sports. “The fund balance is not self generating,” Catalanello said. “Funds from capital projects were never used. That should be tapped rather than issuing long-term debt. We should use it to fulfill a commitment. Those fields are used by the thousands every week. It’s been good for the community.”
Catalanello said that Madison’s electric and water utilities require constant oversight. “I’d like to see Jim Burnet (the boroughs’ assistant administrator) in charge of dealing with that. It should be run like a business for both owners and users,” he said. Fewer than 10 communities throughout New Jersey have their own utilities, they said.
A primary goal for both candidates is transparency, especially regarding the budget. Rowe has worked with the Board of Education on budget matters, as well as being instrumental with shared services between the school district and the borough. The operating budget should not be used for infrastructure, he said.
“Both of us bring a financial perspective,” Catalanello said. He said there are ways of measuring utility costs and profits as well as projecting infrastructure needs. “A few years ago, taxes were going up and our electric rates went through the roof. We were spending down surplus and saw deep tax increases. They have come up with a ‘pay as you go scheme.’
Rowe said the borough is looking at wholesale prices, which means buying electricity at a much reduced price. “If we see a 10% rate cut in electricity,” Catalanello said, “those savings should go back to the shareholders, our residents.”
Rowe said his term ends in January on the Board of Education and, under state law; he would not be able to hold office with both that organization and the council.
“The great thing about Madison,” Rowe said, “is that it’s a tremendous volunteer community.” Other towns, he said, often pay a part-time Recreation Director, while Madison’s volunteer spirit makes that unnecessary.
“But what you see at council and other organization meetings is just the tip of the iceberg,” Catalanello said, referring to committees, sub-committees and all the behind-the-scenes work that goes toward keeping Madison the appealing community that it is today. Even more important, he said, are the police, firefighters, Department of Public Works staff and other borough employees. “They deserve the credit,” he said. “We provide the guidelines, but they deliver the results.”
The Open Space funding also applies to the Early Trades and Crafts building at the corner of Green Village Road. At one time the borough’s library, the building is now used for a variety of purposes, including children’s crafts projects. Catalanello said it’s an important part of Madison’s history, but the volunteers there need to face some hard questions. There’s no guarantee that the council will award funds, he said. “I was surprised at the last council meeting when the council was thanked for its $2 million commitment.”
“There should be private fundraising, but there is none.” He said that everyone needs to be treated in a fair way. If one organization can raise funds, so can another.
Catalanello said residents should be treated like adults and given the information they need. Prioritizing is essential, both men agreed. “The council is like a Board of Directors and we’re the proper people to do it,” they both said of their financial experience. Nothing should be done in secret. “We want all our taxpayers and homeowners to have all the information they need and get as much involved as they want,” Catalanello said.