UNION, NJ — In her nine years living in the township of Union, Republican Karen Slawson has enjoyed the diversity in local cultures and views. The township has got “a kind of vibrancy to it,” said Slawson, “and I want it to succeed.”
But that sense of diversity has been missing from the five-person Township Committee, according to Slawson and running mate Justin Verzosa, who are running for political office for the first time this November.
Among the reasons for wanting to get more involved, they said, is a chronic lack of economic development in the township.
“I kept complaining, and the party said either shut up or put up. But I had already wanted to run. We’ve had 19 years of Democrats in power. We haven’t elected a Republican since then. I think we need another point of view on the committee,” said Slawson. “I moved into Union Township in 2007, and I’ve watched the downtown lose a lot of stores. And I’m really concerned. I want to know why the businesses are moving out of Union County, and I think I do know why — it’s because of the taxes.”
Taxes, commercial and residential, are at the heart of this season’s Republican platform. Slawson, who works as a lawyer in New York, and Verzosa, who manages multi-million dollar projects with an insurance firm in Morristown, believe that taxpayers’ money is being inefficiently spent.
Slawson says there are job redundancies in Union’s government, which is why the township pays more in salaries than it needs to. Public works employees use township equipment and vehicles for their own personal use, said Verzosa, just one example of an unnecessary burden on the township. And both candidates believe that government spending is higher, or less cost-effective, than it should be.
“After doing a little research and figuring out things, I do think our taxes are not being well spent. We all understand that taxes are going up, all taxes in towns are going up, but I do feel that other towns are using them more appropriately. And I think that the quality of life in Union has been going sour,” said Verzosa. “Because of a lot of things in town, the budget is going over. For me, at my job, I don’t have a tax increase to increase budgets for the projects that I’m running.”
In particular, the candidates believe property taxes are the “number one concern” and source of stress for people living in the township, said Slawson. In her experience, many residents are worried they may have to move if they can’t keep up with rising property taxes.
“They go up each year. Some people have problems selling their house, because they can’t find a buyer since their taxes are too high. And that’s a concern,” said Slawson, who added that her experience as a lawyer has prepared her for a committee position. “I worked as a court lawyer in the New York State Supreme Court. I wrote the judge’s decisions on a lot of different cases with commercial and civil law. It’s not really a huge leap to sit in on committee meetings and to understand what’s going on, in my opinion.”
The issue of rising property taxes is what convinced Verzosa, whose family moved to Union in 1992, to become more involved in township politics. After graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in 2010, and then working at “a few financial Wall Street firms,” Verzosa moved back to Union to pursue another job opportunity.
When he moved back, Verzosa says he was shocked by the township’s property taxes.
“I always knew that Union was changing, but growing up as a teenager I didn’t really notice it,” said Verzosa. “When I got home and started actually paying my parents’ property taxes, I started realizing the amount of property taxes we’re paying is actually really high.”
Among the reasons for that, the candidates believes, is a lackluster level of economic development, especially in the center of town.
Verzosa says that the kind of businesses which are in town, including “a lot of nail salons and barber shops,” aren’t suited to attract the many people passing through the township, and that the business community needs a shot in the arm. Thousands of people pass through Union on major roads, such as I-78, but don’t stop and spend their money in the township, said Verzosa.
These are issues, the candidates believe, which should be on the agenda for the Township Committee, as well as improving traffic in hotspots around town, conducting an audit of “what’s going on in our township,” said Slawson, and improving transparency in local government. At committee meetings, for example, government officials rush through proposals without informing people of what they are, said Slawson.
That’s part of why these two candidates, who have never run for public office, are putting their hats in the ring for this year’s election. And they do have some experience in local politics, including Versoza, who was involved with his father’s elections in 2009 and 2010, he said.
In those years, his father related to Filipino and undecided voters — Verzosa and his family are Filipino-American — nearly winning the election as a Republican, according to Verzosa, at a time when the Republican platform revolved around pot holes.
“My father was able to reach out to the Filipino community, and not just tap into that, but to tap into the soft Democrats and unaffiliated voters who were sick of the quality of town,” said Verzosa. “I guess the big takeaway here is that the biggest issue he was able to bring up was pot holes. And for me, potholes are just one narrow thing that I’m talking about. I’m picturing the general quality of life in town.”
Aside from the political issues, the other reasons the candidates are running, they said, is because they believe in Union. They feel confident in the school system, police and fire departments, the recreational sports leagues — Verzosa was a longtime member of Union soccer teams — and the people, which is why they’re out on the streets every day to campaign.
“Me and my family have been going door-to-door almost every day, since the summer. Me, personally, I’m doing a lot of data analysis. Obviously, we don’t have the biggest budget in the world, and obviously we don’t have the most manpower in the world, so we have to really know who we target and how we target them,” said Verzosa. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but either way it’s been a great experience.”