CRANFORD – Last week at the League of Women Voters Candidates Forum, four candidates running for two open seats on the township committee debated the most pressing issues affecting Cranford.
On Nov. 4, two Republican incumbents, Andy Kalnins and Lisa Adubato, will go up against Democratic challengers Brian McCarthy and Rob Salvatore. The Republicans currently maintain a majority of the township committee, and a win by both McCarthy and Salvatore would swing the power to the Democrats.
Kalnins, currently mayor, and Adubato, deputy mayor, are finishing their first three-year term on the governing body, after managing to win in 2011 over longtime governing body members and Democrats Dan Aschenbach and Tom Hannen.
At the Oct. 23 forum, Kalnins and Adubato focused their opening comments on what they accomplished since the Republican party gained back control of the governing body last year. Both stressed their motto has and continues to be “progress and continuity.”
Kalnins, a licensed professional engineer, explained the township finance department had been “rolling over year after year” and the auditors “were not happy with the township.”
“Instead of being reactive, we are being proactive and setting an actual plan to move forward,” the mayor said, explaining that hiring a full-time chief financial officer helped lay the groundwork for straightening out “the mess” in the finance department.
“For many years things were done a certain way because they said ‘that’s the way we do it,’ and the finance department stagnated,” said Adubato, an attorney with a practice in Cranford, pointing out one of the benefits of having a quality chief financial officer was taxpayers only seeing a 0.5 percent increase in taxes, or $4 per household. This was, she added, the lowest increase among all 21 towns in the county.
Newcomer McCarthy did not mince words, pointing out during his opening statement that “many people feel Cranford has lost its way.”
“We are proactive, not reactive,” he said, which directly contradicted what his Republican opponents previously said.
McCarthy, an information technology specialist, also brought up during his opening comments that the Republican incumbents outsourced the engineering department in 2014 and it was being operating on a part-time basis.
“They say it will be much cheaper to operate this way but they are financing part of this cost through the capital budget,” he added, but failed to elaborate why this was not working for the township.
Salvatore, who works for a major retail chain, explained he moved to the township in 2008 and has been very active in the community. He vowed to put “practice over politics,” and, as his running mate did, said people were not happy with how things were being operated by the Republican majority.
“After talking to people while campaigning, the disconnect seems clear. There is a lack of leadership,” he said but did not provide any examples to support this claim.
One of the first questions posed by the approximately 50 people attending the event involved taxes and what the candidates would do to reduce this strain on taxpayers.
Adubato responded first, but noted the township only controls the municipal portion of the three-part tax bill, while the school district and county control the remaining two.
“We can only control what is in our purview,” she said, adding that in 2014 the Republican majority managed to keep the tax increase at 0.5 percent, the lowest increase of all the municipalities in Union County.
McCarthy took exception to this, saying that when Hannen was mayor last year, he kicked off many of the projects the Republicans were claiming as achievements.
“My question is, how did we get there?” he added, but never provided examples to support this claim. Instead he shifted over to the topic of township surplus funds and how they are used.
At this point Adubato interjected to make a statement.
“With all due respect to Commissioner Hannen, he’s not up here tonight, you are. We should focus on us,” she said flatly.
Another question focused on how surplus, or savings, should be handled. Kalnins explained that reserve funds should only amount to 5 to 10 percent of the overall budget but the township had saved well over that amount.
“We’re on the higher side of that and that’s because of prudent planning,” the mayor said.
McCarthy, though, felt the township should be allocating surplus funds to flooding relief, specifically completing projects earmarked several years ago.
“When we take stuff from surplus to reduce the budget, that’s not good,” McCarthy said, which brought about quick response from Kalnins.
“We do a line-by-line review of the budget and start every department at zero-percent increase to keep costs under control,” the mayor responded, explaining that when the Republicans took control of the governing body in 2014, the Democrats had not been doing a line-by-line review during the budget process.
Kalnins also mentioned that in 2010 the township only had $450,000 to $500,000 in surplus or savings and now that number has increased to $4.5 million.
“We used a little over $1.4 million of surplus funds to reduce the budget this year,” he added.
“We have $200,000 on reserve for de-silting of the river. We should use the money to protect the towns against flooding,” McCarthy said.
Adubato pointed out that when she came aboard three years ago, sitting on the Finance Committee was a learning process that helped her understand the obligation governing body members have to taxpayers.
“One of the most important things is that our auditors are now happy with us. We are meeting goals and are being fiscally responsible,” said the resident who has lived in the township 25 years.
Salvatore felt the township should have a full time engineer and “there is nothing more important than flooding and roads.”
Kalnins came back at his opponents about the $200,000 they said was set aside for river desilting, noting the township did desilt a portion of the river.
“That money was allocated years ago,” he added, mentioning that as the township finances are getting straightened out, allocations like this have surfaced.
A question from the audience was submitted about the dire problem of flooding in the township with each candidate asked to explain what plan they would initiate to alleviate the problem.
McCarthy said he would continue to work with the Mayor’s Council on Flooding, but lamented over the fact the mayor recently said publicly “we are not prepared,” in case of another flooding event.
Kalnins, though, did not back peddle on this, pointing out “we haven’t put a shovel in the ground since Irene.”
“We have already spent 12 years on this but the last two we have done more than the previous ten,” he said, adding “we can only do what is within our power.”
Adubato bristled at the notion the township was not doing anything about flooding.
“Mr. McCarthy was insinuating we have been sitting back but former mayor Dan Aschenbach has taken the lead on this through the mayor’s council on flooding. Cranford has always taken the lead on flooding and we are not sitting back. This is not something Cranford can do alone,” the republican candidate said, adding that the mayor’s council on flooding is addressing the matter regionally.
Salvatore said the township should continue working with the mayor’s council on flooding and also stop a proposed sports complex from being built at Union County College.
This particular issue was brought up multiple times during the forum by the Democratic challengers as a problem that is not being addressed by the governing body. However, in late spring the college board of trustees voted to work with the county to find another location for this project.
In turn, months ago the county offered the college space for this complex at the former Oak Ridge Golf course in Clark. It is unclear whether a meeting of the minds has occurred on the matter, but county sources continue to maintain “things are being worked out.”
A question about what the township planned to do about the aging condition of township roads also surfaced, bringing about interesting responses.
Adubato explained the township issued a $4 million bond for a comprehensive paving project.
“Some of our roads have not been touched since the 1960s,” she said, pointing out there have been many road projects funded but never moved forward. “Now our engineer is doing that.”
Adubato brought up a controversial topic by mentioning the township engineer, which was outsourced earlier this year. The in-house engineering department was disbanded once it became apparent many projects had been funded over the last several years but few were getting done.
McCarthy did not seem to understand this, saying “we can look into the funding for roads.” He also brought up the issue of why the township outsourced engineering and the fact it was now a part-time position. He did not provide any examples of how this was causing a problem, or explain how this was a hardship to taxpayers.
Kalnins explained why the township made this move, and how successful it has been.
“A lot of the success we have had is just clearing up the log-jam of road projects. This year is kick starting road repair,” he explained, adding “state aid has dried up for road repair.”
Salvatore once again expressed his opinion that the township needed a full time engineer because “that does not waste taxpayer’s money.”
Another question from the audience involved sharing of services with nearby municipalities, such as police and fire.
McCarthy was against sharing any public safety services, while Adubato mentioned the township currently shares health department services with Westfield and police and EMS dispatch services with Winfield Park.
Salvatore said that the township needed to share extermination services. He also felt sharing police and fire with other municipalities was not a good idea.
Kalnins said he was in favor of sharing dispatch and health department services but brought up an important factor that is costing the township and taxpayers money.
“Mutual aid is killing us. Every time another town has a fire they call Cranford and that means we are required to bring in firemen on overtime to round out the shift,” he said, but added that the township could share more department of public works services.
One of the last questions brought up was about the Birchwood Development of 361 apartments in the northeast section of the township which Cranford and a contingent of residents have been trying to stop for years. Legal issues involving this have cost taxpayers in excess of $1 million and the tab is still running.
The resident asked what each of the candidates would do about this project, but it was Adubato who did not hesitate to mention how the entire project came about.
“I would have made sure the township was certified and not open to a lawsuit, but that was allowed to happen under Democrat control,” she said cryptically.
“We now are doing what we can under the law,” Adubato said, adding “sometimes we get beat up and sometimes we deserve it.”
Kalnins said the township was “fighting this hard,” and everyone was committed to stopping “this ridiculous project” that has no sewer support and is being constructed in an environmentally sensitive area.
McCarthy felt the township needed to stay focused and maintain the same legal teams “all the way to the Supreme Court.”
When it came to curbing overdevelopment, each of the candidates had a chance to present their views.
Salvatore pointed out that the township could not have any more overcrowding, but failed to provide any measures or ideas that he would initiate to ensure this did not happen.
Adubato pointed out that the township was a proponent of smart development but explained it’s not always in the township’s hands.
“It’s different when you have private owners who don’t care,” she added, noting that the township is introducing a uniform code that would circumvent overdevelopment.
McCarthy felt that the new South Avenue Riverside development was “beautiful,” but added “it’s the big things you have to keep an eye on.” He also felt the downtown did not have a problem in this area, which Kalnins did not agree with at all.
“I would never say development in downtown is not a concern,” the mayor shot back, adding “Riverfront should have never had an extra floor added to it.”
The General Election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.