UNION, NJ — Of the candidates running for positions on the Union Township Committee, at least one will be a familiar face to voters.
Manny Figueiredo, a six-year member and Democrat on the committee, and the current mayor of Union, is up for re-election this November, and his running mate, veteran city planner and first-time candidate Michele Delisfort, shares a similar vision for the township’s future.
Chief among his own responsibilities, Figueiredo said, would be to continue handling taxpayers’ money with care, a task he believes the committee’s track record reflects well on.
“As I stated early this year, when I took over the mayorship, really my focus here is that I am the ‘custodian’ of the taxpayers’ money. We the committee, not just myself. And I take that very seriously. I take that just as seriously as I run my own household,” said Figueiredo, who pointed out that Union has the highest bond rating possible, double A plus. “That doesn’t happen by magic, it happens by judicious use of the taxpayer money and maintaining a surplus that the Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s looks at. Just like a family, you need to have your savings.”
That great bond rating is an important indicator in the fiscal responsibility of local government, according to Figueiredo, as is the surplus that’s maintained by the township. In an emergency situation, such as Tropical Storm Irene and superstorm Sandy, the Union Township Committee wants to be ready “both financially and personnel-wise,” said Figueiredo, so residents can be ready for anything.
Yet the all-Democrat committee manages to stay under the 2-percent tax cap, added Figueiredo, as well as maintain a superior bond rating, while continuing to invest in features such as public safety, infrastructure and economic development.
That’s where Delisfort, a lifelong resident of Union and the township’s most recent Vice Chairperson of the Planning Board, comes in. Both candidates believe the committee is in the process of improving the center of town, and without “changing the character of the community,” said Delisfort.
“I’m a city planner by trade and a business owner, and I’ve worked in a bunch of different areas — housing, redevelopment, economic development — which are near and dear to my platform and my passions,” said Delisfort. “What I bring most to the table, and what I’d really like to see happen, is the continued responsiveness to the business owners that the city has, and the residents. They’ve done a great job of not over-developing and changing the character of the community, and I want to have an active hand in maintaining that.”
The candidates, pointing to various projects around town, believe the economic sector of Union is growing at a responsible rate.
One example of that, said Figueiredo, is the committee’s strategy about “mixed-use space,” or adding residential units to commercial buildings, including in the center of town.
“We’re now working with individual landlords, and giving them options to have a mixed-use space,” said Figueiredo, who highlighted one restaurant on Stuyvesant Avenue.
“We created a small tax abatement plan,” he continued, “where anyone who wanted to build above their retail space can build apartments, and we would give them a five-year abatement on the improvements, with an increase of 20 percent each year. And the gentleman there, the owner of that particular building, was the first one. So we’re already seeing a change in town. If we have people living above, we now have people who come down and do their laundry, pick up a cup of coffee, get a bite to eat and do the same on the way home from work.”
Other examples of development, according to Figueiredo, include the Avalon Bay apartment community — a set of 202 rental units which have had more than 2,000 inquiries — added warehouse space on the old Tuscan Dairy site, and various other projects around town.
And the township’s existing businesses, including nail salons and other small shops, cater to the various demographics of the community, said Delisfort. As long as the township avoids duplicating these businesses in the future, then those stores will continue to have value in Union, according to Delisfort.
“I think when you talk about economic development, you have to understand the demographics of your community. Who lives there, who’s shopping there. And then you want to be able to understand what their needs are,” said Delisfort. “I think Union does a good job of understanding they have a cross section of different people and cultures, and they do a good job of catering to those cultures. And it’s not just the existing businesses, they’re constantly thinking of ways to bring in new businesses.”
The township’s economic strategies and problem solving abilities are part of what attracted Delisfort to the committee, she said, an opportunity that’s “a no brainer,” and in which she can “realize my civic duties in my own township.” Most towns don’t have the capacity to deal with the problems that Union is doing a great job solving, added Delisfort, including for potholes and road repair.
The township’s road repairs are never going to be satisfying for everybody, but the strategy behind road replacement is sound, said Delisfort.
Every eight years, for example, streets are milled and repaved, so “you know it’s going to be milled and repaved again,” said Delisfort, and the township puts a priority on frequent care.
“The past two winters have been brutal, and it’s really important that we maintain our roads. We went out for $3.8 million in road improvement in 2015, which is the most we’ve spent in years. The temperatures, and the cracking, some of the roads were built 30 to 40 years ago when specs were very different. Basically, they just put some pebbles down and then put blacktop on top,” said Figueiredo. “We really need to re-build our roads properly, from the base, and that costs money.”
These kinds of costs are why taxes routinely go up, added Figueiredo, who has served as the township’s Commissioner of the DPW, of Building, of Licensing, Purchasing, Fire and Police, and also Recreation and Senior Services.
“In the town’s case, it’s the continuing escalation of salaries, contracts, health benefits, costs — such as roads that will continuously need to be monitored — and the infrastructure,” said Figueiredo.
“There are some things that will go up every year,” he continued. “Salaries are contractually going to go up every year. Health benefits, it’s just a burdensome cost. We’re always looking for the least expensive contractual route that we can take to give to our employees. And then you have pensions to take into account. Nothing goes down in price.”
But rising taxes also fund the services that make the township appealing, said Figueiredo, which is the reason Union’s population has gone up by about 1,500 since the 2010 census. The committee’s method of spending enables the township to employ 135 people in its police department, 107 in its fire department, and other employees and public programs which make Union a safe, desirable community, both candidates agreed.
“We have great housing, we have a great sense of community. The other night I was driving. It was late in the evening, and it’s nice to see our residents walking along the town. You don’t see that in a lot of areas. What that tells you is everybody feels safe,” said Delisfort. “I live on the same street I was raised on, and it’s nice to see the kids I grew up with in the neighborhood are still there. And unfortunately their parents have passed on, but it’s nice they took over the properties rather than selling them. And that says a lot about Union.”