UNION COUNTY — Candidates vying to keep the Union County Freeholder seat they already have and those fighting to break the Democratic stronghold that has existed since 1997 faced off at a forum last week.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Union area, the candidates, incumbent Democrat freeholders Linda Carter of Plainfield, Bette Jane Kowalski of Cranford and Democrat newcomer Sergio Granados of Elizabeth, shared the stage with Republican challengers Mark Martini of Westfield and Marc Krauss of Springfield. Republican candidate Ira Gieger of Union was unable to attend the annual event.
There are three open seats on the nine member freeholder board, elected at-large for a three year term. Kowalski is seeking a fourth term, while Carter is vying for her second. Granadas, who was appointed last month to fill the remaining months of former freeholder Daniel Sullivan’s term, is seeking his first three-year term on the board. He is 26-years-old.
This year the format featured editorial staff from The Star-Ledger and Courier News posing questions to the candidates.
One particular point the Republican challengers continued to hammer home throughout the forum was that 16 years under a completely Democrat dominated board was politically unhealthy and a super majority was not in the best interest of all county residents.
The incumbents, for the most part, refused to take the bait, preferring to keep a positive spin on the forum. In
fact, they treaded very lightly in areas that brought about controversy in the last year.
When seceding from the county was brought up, the fact Berkeley Heights had been moving in that direction since last summer was not initially the focus. However, all three Democrat incumbents did mention the county has been there for this municipality.
Kowalski, though, disagreed that this municipality had reason to embark on such a rash move.
“Berkeley Heights has benefited from the county with parks, the Watchung Reservation and even when a tornado hit their town,” she said, suggesting that while some people may want to secede, she did not believe it would happen. Martini did not agree.
“The crux of the situation is they feel they are not being represented,” said the Republican candidate. His running mate agreed.
“This is not about parks. The town is what people go to first, and while secession is probably not going to happen, the freeholder board needs to pay more attention to the tax concerns of this municipality,” Krauss said.
When the topic of Runnells Specialized Hospital came up along with the fact it had lost $100 million over the last 15 years, candidates had vastly different takes on the matter. The fact the county is now attempting to either sell or lease the hospital was a sore spot with the Republican challengers, especially since at the 2010 forum when the issue was raised, Carter, running for her first term, and Kowalski, argued this facility was financially okay and selling it was not on their agenda.
At this year’s forum, Krauss did not hesitate to bring this up to the Democrat incumbents, and throw a barb about how things have changed since.
“Ironically at this very same forum in 2010 both freeholder Carter and Kowalski said Runnells was sustainable. Then the first duty of former freeholder Dan Sullivan as the head of the Union County Improvement Authority was to put out a Request For Proposals for the sale of Runnels,” the Republican candidate pointed out.
Carter responded saying Runnells was a “well run facility,” but the county had to look at all options because state and federal benefits had declined.
“The problem is that Medicare and Medicaid supplemental payments dropped off, which cut down the amount the hospital receives for each patient,” the incumbent freeholder said, adding “we’re not saying it’s going to be sold.”
Kowalski tried to clarify what she said at the 2010 forum, explaining that if she said in the past Runnels was operating fine “that was a different time.”
“Things have changed. My choice in an ideal world would be to keep Runnells but that may not be an option,” she said, explaining the problems this facility has did not involve mismanagement.
Martini suggested it was not a matter of Democrats having more compassion than the Republicans when it came to decision making.
“We spend more money on studies and taxpayers are bleeding. I think at the end of the day we need to be more proactive,” the candidate said.
When the question of what candidates would slash in the county budget came up, Kowalski made it clear the freeholder board was already looking into making cuts.
“We are currently looking at the jail and we have cut expenses there,” she said, explaining that while progress has been made, “it does cost $50 million to operate that facility.”
Martini was frustrated by this answer and said so.
“Again, I hear no sense of urgency,” the Republican candidate from Westfield said, bringing up that county employees receive $5,000 if they do not take health benefits. But Carter explained exactly why the county offers this option.
“The opt-out for health benefits has saved us $4 million,” she said, but Granados corrected her, saying the number actually was $4.7 million.
Krauss was not impressed.
“There is no mandate to participate by state law. We should do what other counties are doing and merge the jail and sheriff’s departments,” he added.
Another budget question, similar in nature, was posed about merging services. Kraus brought up the amount of money the county spends on studies, not to mention the time.
“If we ran the county like a business, everything would be different,” the GOP candidate stressed, but Kowalski argued that the Republican candidates might not understand what these two departments actually accomplish.
“The sheriff’s department is an awarding-winning department,” she argued, adding the county police were equally as important because there are over 2,000 acres of parks to oversee. However, she concurred the freeholders were “looking to make cuts wherever we can.”
Granados suggested the county police were needed for homeland security issues, while Carter said county police offer services that most local towns cannot afford. She did not go into details, though.
“Can we look for efficiencies – absolutely,” the freeholder board chairman said. Martini, though, was not satisfied with their responses.
“We just had three Democrat freeholders say what they would cut. That’s why we need new blood on the board,” the Westfield resident said.
Although Kowalski responded saying “we work as a team,” Krauss felt that had not helped. He brought up that both incumbents kept talking about cutting but Kowalski had been on the board nine years and Carter three without any major cuts or changes being made.
When a question was posed regarding any accomplishment, other than fiscal progress, that the candidates would like to achieve if elected, answers varied.
Martini said he would like to serve on the freeholder board in a bi-partisan way. Krauss said the same thing but also felt that for the first time in 15 years he would like to see the county taxes cut, not increase them.
Carter responded on the defensive, pointing out that the freeholders “represent all citizens in the county,” but it was Granados who responded directly to Krauss’s statement.
“It’s funny how Republicans want to cut county taxes, but while on the Springfield Township Committee you, Mr. Krauss, raised taxes, not cut them,” the newly appointed freeholder said.
Krauss shot back that they had received a difficult budget and made “a lot of cuts while making hard choices.”
Martini chimed back in pointing out that this was not about action but rather everyone working together in a bi-partisan way. Kowalski tried to neutralize the question by explaining what it is like to sit on a county board.
“This is the freeholder board with experience. Because we get handed down cuts from the state, we make hard decisions, but none of them are easy,” said the incumbent who has served three terms on the board. The Cranford resident also noted that she would like to see Runnells Hospital “back on solid footing because it serves so many residents.”
When a question came up about where the candidates could find possible revenue sources, the incumbents skirted the issue, while Krauss and Martini had plenty to say on the topic.
“It’s the other drivers behind the budget that need to be cut,” he said, mentioning, for example, that the more than several hundred thousand dollars the county handed over to one non-profit should stop.
“The Union County Alliance. We don’t need it, and merging the sheriff’s department and county police can save millions,” said the former Army Officer who served two tours in Iraq.
Carter felt the board needed to ensure the county was “running effectively, and residents were getting something back for their tax dollars,” while Granados brought up that the county was running studies to determine this very issue.
Martini cut to the chase, bringing up the new Galloping Hill Golf Course clubhouse, which was recently completed and also is being sought after for wedding receptions.
“This is county government. We should not be in the catering business,” he said. Kowalski did not agree.
“We have looked everywhere for cuts, but as far as the new golf club, it created 130 new jobs,” she stressed.
Another question surfaced on the issue of abandoning the “at large” election of board members for a “ward system” where towns could be represented by a board member. Neither Carter nor Kowalski were in favor of this, though.
“When you go to wards you are pitting one town against the other,” said Carter, but Krauss zinged the incumbent back by pointing out that he found her statement ironic because she came from Plainfield where they elect by ward.
Kowalski came back with a zing of her own.
“Maybe you don’t think you are being represented by Freeholder Bruce Bergen, but I think he does a great job,” she retorted.
Martini felt the real issue was “not having a rubber stamp on everything.”
“Having new blood, a bi-partisan board, would help. If we had that in Washington, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in,” the Republican candidate said, referring to the federal government shutdown that was still going on at the time.
Krauss preferred looking at Kowalski’s election record.
“It’s ironic that in your own town of Cranford, you lost the vote of residents the last time you ran for re-election,” said the Springfield candidate.
According to information obtained by LocalSource, in her hometown of Cranford, the two Republican candidates came in first and second with voters, with Kowalski coming in third.
Kowalski, caving to the need for “new blood” on the board that kept coming up throughout the forum, responded.
“We do have some new blood – Sergio Granados,” she said, which brought about laughter from the audience of 75 to 100.
Martini felt the freeholder board had to work harder, longer and, again, in a bi-partisan manner, in order to make headway.
Carter felt the challengers had one train of thought.
“One thing the Republicans want to do is cut, cut, cut. We need to make sure services are there to train residents for the jobs of tomorrow, not yesterday,” she said.
Granados also felt the challengers did not have a handle on things, pointing out that the Galloping Hill club house “brings in $6 million.” This raised the ire of Martini, who shot back once again, “It’s not the job of the county to be in the catering business. This is an expensive way to do business.”
In the end, as all five candidates had the opportunity to make a closing statement, Carter seemed to hit the nail on the head with one of her comments.
“I think we have seen two very different versions of government,” the one-term incumbent noted, adding that while their challengers seemed to think because it was an all Democrat board they were always in agreement.
“I continue to support my colleagues, not for a 9-0 vote, because many times we are not in agreement. It’s important that all voices be heard, not just our own,” Carter said.
Granados felt there was “a clear difference in ideology” between the Democrat and Republican candidates, while Krauss felt 16 continuous years of one party serving on the freeholder board was enough.
“You need new voices on there,” he said.
Martini agreed, pointing out that after 16 years the all Democratic board “had an outstanding run, but we really need new blood, new vision.”