UNION, NJ — It didn’t take long for a conversation about taxes to arise, and then dominate, the Union Township Committee debate held on Thursday, Oct. 24. Rising property taxes were at the heart of the first question, posed by a League of Women Voters representative, in the midst of an election season that’s put the issue in the limelight.
It had already been brought up extensively by both parties, including Democratic candidates Manny Figueiredo and Michele Delisfort, in their opening statements. Republicans Justin Verzosa and Karen Slawson, for their part, made it clear that’s what their platform is focused on.
“I’ve come here tonight to talk to you about issues that strike at the heart of Union’s future. For the last 19 years, the Democrats have had exclusive control of Union’s Township Committee,” said Slawson, an attorney who’s lived in the township for nine years. “Property taxes have gone up, each and every year. People struggle to buy or sell homes. Rents continue to skyrocket. Businesses have closed. The downtown is full of empty storefronts, because taxes are too high.”
The sentiment of a township in decline was shared by Versoza, a financial engineer. In the 20 years he’s lived in Union, said Verzosa, he’s seen “the good, bad and ugly, in that order,” and he went on to characterize Union Center as a “ghost town.”
The township has been stagnant under one-party rule, argued the Republicans, which has led to a host of problems: Too many potholes, unbearable traffic, and overdevelopment, which threatens the township’s long-term growth.
In particular, they argued, the emphasis on adding residential units to the town — 390, by Slawson’s count — will raise the tax burden on everyone else. Those families will need government services, said Verzosa, such as public schooling for children.
“I have a big problem with more families in town yet, for example, our Board of Education tax will go higher. We have to pay more fire and police to accommodate those residents,” said Verzosa. “I lived in Hoboken for four years. I lived in Jersey City for a couple of years. You see overdevelopment there, and the cons that are coming away from that. Eventually, it’s going to raise your tax bill.”
And yet, despite the influx in residents, the heart of the town has never been less popular, argued the Republicans. Verzosa, who said he loved going into Union Center as a child, pointed to the frequently out-of-business movie theater as proof that town’s business sector has been stagnant, at best.
But Delisfort, a 20-year city planner, disagreed. Among the most important issues of her campaign, she said, are to support and initiate business development along Union’s main streets, a goal which she believes the Union Township Committee is already making progress on.
“As a member of the Planning Board, I’ve witnessed the opposite,” said Delisfort, referencing an increase in business permits this year. “I don’t think we need to take a myopic approach to this. I think we need to look at establishing a business retention plan, establish a committee that would identify the real issues.”
The incoming residential units are also indicative of economic growth, rather than overdevelopment, argued the Democrats. Many of the one-bedroom units are too small for families, said Figueiredo, the township’s current mayor, and “you have to have answers, you can’t just throw disparaging remarks out there.”
For Delisfort and Figueiredo, many of those answers revolve around increasing the foot traffic around town. It’s a goal that’s highlighted by the early success of Kava Restaurant and Lounge, said Figueiredo, and the 22 rental units in place above the restaurant. Kava “has already increased the foot traffic here,” said Figueiredo, and other such projects are already being implemented.
With that kind of development, the Democrats argued, the township’s business sector can be revitalized, the government will get more ratables and there will be no added burden to traffic. And the emergence of several residential developments, such as Avalon Bay, prove that people “want to be in this town, not the other way around,” said Figueiredo.
As for ever-increasing taxes, according to the Democrats, the township has a double-A plus bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, which indicates financial efficiency. And while taxes will inevitably increase, a cost of doing business in New Jersey, they said, it’s in part due to the tremendous services the township offers — bulk pickup and recycling, for example.
“As a resident and property owner, I’ve attended the budget hearings and learned that we are receiving a lot of services that neighboring towns actually don’t pay for,” said Delisfort, in response to a question about how to keep taxes low. “As far as what I would do, I would look at the budget with a fresh set of eyes, on a line-by-line basis, to determine what are some alternative sources of revenue, reduce our dependency on using our surplus, and search for options that would not cause a reduction in services.”
Throughout the debate, though, the Republicans maintained that the Union Township Committee needs to spend more wisely, and repeatedly came back to the core issue of taxes. Verzosa said he “lost all trust in this Township Committee” when property taxes continued to rise after the 2008 recession. At one point, Slawson raised skepticism about the potential of a mixed-use strategy.
“It’s lovely that we think that they’re going to come and go up and down Union Township downtown, door-to-door, but when you go down there, there’s not much to shop for,” said Slawson. “We might want to think about having a special, incentive district, where we have lower sales taxes to bring businesses in.”
The town center needs more big-brand chains, said Verzosa, rather than smaller businesses that might flounder. It wouldn’t surprise Verzosa, he said, if Kava ended up closing its doors, just like the businesses that previously used that space.
The Democrats, though, feel that the township is moving in the right direction. Delisfort said she would be excited to “give back” as a member of the committee, a position she believes she’s been prepared for, thanks to her eight years on the Planning Board.
And Figueiredo, preaching financial stability and development, said that Union would benefit from a continued Democrat-led committee.
“Promising great change and delivering are two different things. When you sit on this dais, you need to make the tough decisions on a day-to-day basis that help our residents,” said Figueiredo. “Under our fiscally responsible administration, and with your support, I believe Union has a future. As a member of the Township Committee, I pledge to do my best to maintain the qualities that make this town great.”