UNION COUNTY, NJ — Three Republican challengers are hoping for a clean sweep of three incumbent Democrats on the freeholder board in the November election. Republicans Rene Dierkes, Richard Fortunato, and Joseph Bonilla are hoping to add some bipartisan influence to the all Democrat freeholder board.
The trio is hoping to defeat incumbents Mohamed Jalloh, Bruce Bergen and Alexander Mirabella at the polls on Nov. 3.
“I’ve gotten involved because I’ve sensed a great frustration among everyone I’ve talked to,” said Fortunato in a recent interview, “because the freeholder board under one party rule for the past 20 years has become unresponsive to the taxpayers.”
This is the first time Fortunato is running for political office. He has lived in Scotch Plains since 1991, and has spent 26 years at a major midtown Manhattan law firm, 19 of them as partner. He focuses on corporate law as well as corporate and commercial finance. For the past three years he has serves as the chairman of a small software company, and is currently on the Scotch Plains Zoning Board.
While this may be the first time he has run for office, his motives date back much further than recent events.
“Union County has some of the highest property taxes in the country,” said Fortunato. Every business and resident in the county is being taxed at a high level. It drives money away. The tax situation affects broad aspects of living and working in Union County.”
The average property owner in Union County, according to NJ.com, paid more than $10,000 in 2014. Only Essex and Bergen counties ranked higher in the state.
“We’ve seen an 11 percent increase in spending since 2009, and we have also seen a massive increase in debt,” Fortunato said. “This year’s budget has over $60 million in debt service. The freeholders are taking advantage of one of the exclusions in the two percent cap law, which excludes debt service. Borrowed money is not free money.”
Dierkes agrees wholeheartedly, but spoke on a more local level during a recent interview.
“Rich and I were out campaigning in Rahway, door-to-door, and I think the voters said it best,” said Dirkes. “I can’t tell you how many doors I knocked on where the voters were telling me how much they are paying in taxes and how it keeps going up.”
Dierkes talked about two people in particular that he says he met while campaigning. One of them, a woman who has lived in Rahway for more than 40 years, Dierkes said, is paying more than $11,000 in taxes and had to sell her “regular size home” as a result.
“‘I’m moving out, and it’s because of the taxes,’ she said,” Diekes told LocalSource.
Another resident, a woman with a small home, Dierkes said, was paying $3,000 in property taxes when she moved in and Diekes told LocalSource she said she is working real hard to pay off her mortgage “and my taxes have gone from $3,000 to $9,000. “In another year or two, her real estate taxes are going to be higher than her mortgage bill,” Dierkes said.
“And that’s why we are running,” Dierkes said. “There has been one party for 20 years, and there hasn’t been any measure to try and control spending. And that’s one of the essential reasons we are running. I moved into my house in Mountainside in 1999 and my taxes have tripled. When I see people in Rahway and their taxes have tripled, I’m saying to myself that my salary has not tripled in the last 20 years. I really feel bad for those people in Rahway.
Dierkes has been a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley for the past 25 years, and has been in the industry for almost 28 years. He has lived in Elizabeth, Westfield, Scotch Plains and now Mountainside. He has worked in Union, Mountainside, Clark, Rahway and currently in Westfield. He is a graduate of Westfield High School and has served on the Mountainside Town Council for about 2 years and has served on the Rahway Valley Sewage Authority.
“I’ve been in Union County for quite a bit of time,” he said. “I’ve always felt that Union County was a county where the regular American lived. And our taxes, you’d think people lived in Beverly Hills.”
Bonilla could not be reached for comment by press time, but a statement was received by the Republican campaign manager.
“I believe it is the responsibility of our elected officials to work closely with the community, to be representative of their constituency and to work to create a climate that encourages job growth and one that is affordable for all of our residents,” Bonilla said via the statement. “Two decades of failed leadership and management, of out of control spending and taxation is not a recipe for job growth or for lowering the cost of living here in Union County. This Nov. 3, we have the power to send that message loud and clear.”
Bonilla is a long time resident of Union, according to a biography available on the campaign’s website at www.dierkesfortunatobonilla2015.com. He is employed by the North Plainfield Police Department and assists in the training of auxiliary recruits at the John H. Stamler Academy, according to the bio.
“Joseph is running for Union County freeholder because he believes by working closely with the community it will bring back the trust in government officials,” his bio states on the website.
The biography also says that Bonilla is an active member of Calvary AG in Springfield and has worked extensively with the church’s youth groups.