UNION, NJ — Property taxes, development and the committee system of government were top of mind at the Union Township Committee debates on Monday, Oct. 23, in the Municipal Building at an event organized by the Union Area League of Women Voters.
Three candidates are vying for one three-year seat on the five-member committee this year: Deputy Mayor Joseph Florio, the Democratic incumbent; Jason Krychiw, who is unaffiliated; and Republican Justin Verzosa.
Ann Armstrong moderated the debate, asking the candidates about a series of issues from questions proposed by an audience of about 50 people.
“I have to admit, just going through the questions that were submitted, there are a whole boatload on taxes,” Armstrong said.
Florio noted that only one-third of the average Union homeowner’s tax bill goes to the municipality, with the town accounting for 36 percent; the school board getting 46 percent; 17 percent going to the county, and 1 percent going to the library. The average property tax bill is $8,743, according to Florio.
Krychiw said he wants to put a stop to “opened-ended” tax breaks for developers since “tax breaks for large companies become tax burdens for the residents.” He proposed investing in newer equipment for road paving and snow removal, saying this would ultimately save the township money in a few years.
Verzosa pointed out waste in municipal employees’ raises, and repeatedly said he’d not only keep the annual municipal tax increase under the 2-percent state restriction, but would even save money by using his insurance and Wall Street experience.
According to the deputy mayor, one of the biggest drivers of the municipal budget is the cost of first responders, something he said he would never cut and would use grants to help pay for. If the other two candidates want to lower municipal taxes in Union, they’d have to make cuts there, he said.
In addition, Florio stated that he would use payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT programs, to lure developers to Union.
One question from a resident asked about a property tax reassessment, which has not been done in Union for many years. Krychiw said he would support a revaluation in Union, nothing that a reassessment of an older house could lead to higher property taxes, but that those taxes wouldn’t “triple.” He said he was in favor of an accurate assessment of the properties in town, especially since new developments should be increasing the values of homes.
“It’s about time we saw that number on paper,” Krychiw said.
Florio noted that a property tax revaluation would cost the township approximately $2 million, adding, “If we’re ordered by the county, we’ll do it. No one can tell really, until the whole reassessment is done, if your taxes will go up or down.”
Verzosa said he wouldn’t reassess the property in town and that $2 million “is not worth it,” and he’d prefer putting that money toward roads or economic development in the center of town.
To improve the town’s economic development, all three candidates addressed the necessity for parking that comes along with new businesses.
“We’ve long known that the problem with the (Union Center) is less and less foot traffic,” Florio said.
To get more foot traffic, he said he has worked with the Township Committee to obtain more streetscaping, and residential and retail developments in town, adding, “Now we’re putting people in the center.”
Verzosa contended that Florio is concerned with “overdevelopment” and emphasized that there are not enough parking spots planned for the Union Center. The new developments also only cater to younger people with higher salaries, he said.
Krychiw pointed out that Florio has been on the Union Township Committee for years, but hasn’t yet fully addressed the issue of parking. He said he would make sure that residents and visitors are more aware of the parking areas “hidden behind stores” in the center of town.
“I am for development, I’m not for poorly planned development,” Krychiw said, referring to the parking situation.
Florio, in a rebuttal, said residents of other towns often have to park three or four blocks away from businesses, adding, “We have a walking problem rather than a parking problem.”
Issues facing seniors also came up in the debate. One question asked how seniors might be able to sell their homes and move into more affordable housing in town. With “only luxury apartments” available, that leaves few options for older residents.
Krychiw responded that rent for new apartments in town cost between $2,000 to $2,400, and planned developments will have similar costs. He said seniors are “forced out” of their homes because of high property taxes.
“We need to stop developing for only one type of clientele in mind,” he said, referring to younger residents.
Florio pointed out that seniors with a combined income of less than $85,000 have frozen property taxes, making it easier to stay in their homes. He briefly spoke about Mount Laurel housing requirements, and how those regulations will soon require developers to build affordable housing units, too.
Verzosa recognized that seniors “cannot simply afford to live in Union anymore. For the town and developers to invest in younger people with higher salaries is completely wrong,” he said.
Union, like several other municipalities in the state, is governed according to the township form of government, which consists of five at-large elected members on a committee who select a mayor from amongst themselves each year. The current Union Township Committee is entirely made up of Democrats. At the debate, the candidates addressed concerns about the current system of government. Florio, the Democratic incumbent, said the committee had formed a commission several years ago that did a study about the current system.
“After about two or three months of studying, with public input, with input from other towns and communities … they came back and said they could not see any reason why our government should be changed,” he said.
Florio added that he’s been accountable to all sections of the town as an elected, at-large committeeman.
Krychiw said he is “100 percent” for a direct election of a mayor and it would be one of the first issues he’d tackle if elected. He’d generate a petition, which would need 25 percent of registered voters in town to sign, to get it as a ballot question. He said it’s not practical for a town of about 56,000 residents to have at-large committee members select the mayor each year. He’d specifically want a strong mayoral system with at-large councilmembers and a directly-elected mayor. He said the commission Florio spoke of was politically connected.
Verzosa, like Krychiw, is a proponent for a direct election of mayor and stated that the commissioner who led the study Florio mentioned was linked to the Democratic party.
“Union is so large and so diverse, that Union has 20 neighborhoods that are underrepresented,” Verzosa said.
One resident at the event asked what the candidates would do to bridge the relationship between the Township Committee and local school board.
“If I was mayor, I would make sure that somebody from the board of (education), or some other representative from the board of (education), should be on the Township Committee,” Verzosa said.
Krychiw said he already gets along “pretty well” with all the Union Board of Education members, which would help to create better lines of communication between the two agencies. He added that the meeting schedules of the school board or the Township Committee should be changed — since there’s overlap at least once a month — allowing residents to attend both meetings.
Florio said he has a “good relationship” with the school board, but would never “tell anyone on the Board of Education how to run the schools,” saying, “They run their own business, and we run our business.”