UNION — Candidates vying for two seats on the Union Township Committee came together Monday night to voice their opinion on the issues facing the township at the annual League of Women Voters Forum. Unfortunately, one of the four candidates in the running was not able to attend.
About 50 people gathered in town hall for the forum, but the only candidates ready to spar were Democrat incumbents Anthony Terrezza and Manuel Figueiredo and lone Republican challenger Christopher Hackett.
Robert Deckert Jr. was not in attendance, but had a representative read a statement about his accomplishments while living in Union. There was no information about where he stood on issues facing the township.
The forum began with all candidates taking a few minutes to discuss their personal and professional lives, along with the reasons they were seeking votes.
Hackett, a 22-year-old graduate of Rutgers, has lived in the township his entire life, attended Union schools, and has a degree in Bio-Technology. He said if elected he intends to freeze taxes for the first time in 15 years, repeal the Special Improvement Development tax imposed on business owners in the center and expand the township’s relationship with Kean University.
Terrezza, who has served five, three-year terms on the governing body and one, one-year unexpired term, moved to Union with his wife Nancy in 1968 and immediately became involved in local government.
The incumbent, who served multiple terms as mayor during his tenure, brought up that the corporate headquarters of Bed, Bath and Beyond was encouraged to come to Union, which provided 600 new jobs this year. While Terrezza admitted the last three years have been “tough,” he said highlights such as the township’s AA credit rating and expansion of the recreation department has made Union“second to none.”
Figueiredo, an 18-year resident, has raised four children in the township and just completed his first three-year term on the governing body. He said his goals involve keeping taxes below the 2-percent state-imposed cap, pointing out that this year the township tax levy came in at 1.26 percent.
He also mentioned the importance of the township continuing to work on roads and said about 3,000 jobs were brought to union in the last three years.
One of the first questions posed by a member of the audience involved concerns about the future of the town center. Hackett was the first to respond, remarking that the retail business areas of Union needed an economic boost.
“We had a great center when I was growing up, but look at it now,” he said, adding that he wanted to repeal the SID tax for business owners and work with Kean to get a shuttle running to the center.
“It’s unbelievable that we have a university in town and we do nothing to encourage students to come to the center,” Hackett added.
Terrezza responded to Hackett later, informing him that there was a shuttle running from the new train station at Kean.
“The shuttle is free and students can come to the center if they want,” he added.
Hackett rebutted saying he “really wanted to work with Kean.” This raised Terrezza’s ire and he brought out some interesting facts.
“Kean does not pay any taxes to the township. They pay a $35,000 payment in lieu of taxes, but they haven’t paid us that money since 2000,” the former mayor explained, adding that there was something else residents needed to know.
“Kean charged us $800,000 to run a pipe through their property. We negotiated with them and they said they would buy us a fire truck. They did but only made a few payments,” the mayor said, informing the audience of another little known fact.
“You need to know they stopped paying on that fire truck. You want to know what a good neighbor Kean is? Taxpayers had to pick up the payments on that truck,” Terrezza said, adding that even though Kean pays no taxes to the township, the township police and fire departments still have to respond to emergencies there.
As for repealing the SID tax, both Terrezza and Figueiredo had something to say about the need for that rash of a move. Especially given what is taking place in the center now.
“We are giving tax incentives for business owners to improve their properties,” he said, citing, for instance, the two-stories that will shortly be built above the retail stores adjacent to the municipal parking lot and library.
The incumbents also mentioned that other business owners are jumping on the improvement bandwagon, which will bring much needed foot traffic to the center.
One question involved whether the candidates thought the township still was one of the top 100 towns in the country to live in, or if they thought this was no longer true.
Figueiredo said he has four children that are “living proof” that Union is”second to none,” when it comes to raising a family. He also brought up local events such as the annual Halloween costume parade and the thriving recreation and senior centers that provide entertainment for residents of all ages.
Terrezza responded saying a few years ago Union was named an All american city, four years ago the 75th Best Place to Live in the country and after that the 70th Safest Place to Live. All, he added, represent the Union of 2012.
“The township is a mosaic of nationalities,” the incumbent candidate said, mentioning that there are “so many things that make this the best place to live for everyone.”
Hackett said that while he would like to agree that Union is one of the best places to live in the country, “that doesn’t mean we have the 75th best government in the country.”
“Does that mean we should throw up our hands and keep electing the same people year after year?” he questioned, adding that “being the best place to live doesn’t mean our government shouldn’t be held accountable.”
In closing, the Democratic candidates again stressed the accomplishments made by the governing body the last three years, highlighting once again the 1.26-percent tax levy, among other things they previously noted. Hackett, on the other hand, had a different take on things.
“My opponents simply do not perform the way residents want them to,” the Republican challenger said, adding that voters should remember that “they work for us, not the other way around.”