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Montgomery Township Committee 2009

NOVEMBER 2009 MONTGOMERY TOWNSHIP
COMMITTEE CANDIDATES QUESTIONNAIRE RESPONSES

NON-PARTISAN ELECTION INFORMATION

Vote Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Polls are open in Montgomery from 6 AM to 8 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are the verbatim responses of the candidates for Montgomery Township Committee to questions presented by The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, in cooperation with The Princeton Packet. The candidates were given an equal amount of space for their answers.

Candidates – Vote for two (three-year term)

Mark Caliguire (incumbent) – Republican, Lawyer/Business Owner

Thomas “Thom” Carter – Republican, Director of Government Relations, American Red Cross

Michael Fedun – Democrat, Attorney, Partner, Singer & Fedun, L.L.C.

Keith Hovey – Democrat, Attorney, Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, P.A.

There has been discussion of whether to sell all of the former North Princeton Developmental Center property to the county or to preserve some of it for future use by the township. What is your position?

Mr. Caliguire:
I would sell all but a few acres to Somerset County for parkland and open space. Montgomery currently has over $22 million in debt from the purchase and cleanup of the former NPDC land. The County Freeholders have offered to pay more than $14 million to create a county park on that site (with the exception of a couple of acres for school use and for a home for autistic adults). They have also offered to work with Montgomery residents to determine what this park would include. This would be a great deal for Montgomery and would help us to prevent tax increases.

Last year I opposed the inclusion of high density housing on the NPDC site in our COAH plan, not only because such housing is out of character and impractical in a rural part of our town, but also because it could become a complication in a potential deal with Somerset County. It has become a complication, and we need to amend that plan and get this deal done. I am committed to meeting our COAH obligations in more appropriate parts of Montgomery and making a deal for NPDC that benefits all of our residents.

Mr. Carter:
The Township should accept the County’s offer to purchase the rural Skillman Village/NPDC site and reject the Democrats’ current plan to put high-density COAH housing there. The over $14 million in purchase monies will substantially reduce the Township debt and interest costs, and free up funds for tax relief. It is wrong to scare voters by telling them that the COAH units slated for Skillman Village cannot be relocated without “invalidating” our COAH plan and putting the town at risk for outlandish growth. This is just NOT TRUE. As acknowledged by the Township attorney, COAH’s regulations permit Montgomery to revise its COAH plan now, without “invalidating” the COAH plan. The Township should revise the COAH plan to move the 77 Skillman Village units elsewhere -- other sites have been and will be located -- and sell the Skillman Village site to the County. To use the current COAH plan as an excuse to block that sale would be a disaster. As we have learned with the failed Skillman Village, the Township Committee should not be in the real estate development business. We should work to preserve Montgomery’s open space and plan responsibly for the future.

Mr. Fedun:
The treatment of the Skillman Village property is of the highest concern to Montgomery Township. As the Committee continues its negotiations with the County regarding the sale of land for a county park, we must be farsighted and insist upon retaining some portion of the property for future use. Over the short term, it is essential to support our state-mandated affordable housing (COAH) plan by reserving about 10% of the land. According to our present plan, there would be 77 units constructed on the site. If they are not built there, applying the COAH formulae would mean, at the very least, that 462 units would be built elsewhere. If we do not have our plan certified by COAH, we would expose the township to hundreds if not thousands of additional housing units that could be forced on us by developers.

While the formulas may seem complex, the math is really simple. Fewer units means less classrooms, which means less taxpayer burden in the future. On the other hand, if we are successful in court in reducing our COAH obligations, then that same land could instead be used for future township-sponsored uses such as emergency services or recreation.

Mr. Hovey:
The township should sell the vast majority of Skillman Village to the County for a park and retain a small portion to fulfill the township’s affordable housing obligations (COAH) and other future needs -- as opposed to selling-off the entirety of Skillman Village to the County. Township staff and the majority of the township committee have challenged the State’s excessive and inaccurate growth estimates through litigation, while at the same time complying with the COAH mandates. In the event that the litigation is successful in reducing the number of affordable housing units the township must provide, we can remove units from Skillman Village.

Failure to use municipal land at Skillman Village for 77 housing units currently planned will open the township to a builder’s remedy lawsuit that, instead, would likely bring a minimum of 462 units, and possibly 3,000 more. Such a dramatic increase in population and schoolchildren will result in a net increase in property taxes over the long-term as the board of education and township accommodate this tremendous increase in population in our schools and township.  By retaining just a small portion of Skillman Village, the township can minimize such needless tax hikes and unsustainable growth.

How would you deal with the State Health Benefits Program's recent increase in rates for health benefits for Montgomery Township employees?

Mr. Caliguire:
As a small business owner, I have seen health insurance costs rise faster than any other line item in my budget. As long as township employees are enrolled in the expensive and benefit-rich state plan, we will be forced to pay ever increasing premiums. This year our premiums will increase by over 16%. The system is flawed and those flaws cost us real money. For example, a township employee whose spouse and children receive insurance coverage through the spouse’s employer can still, and almost always do, obtain taxpayer funded “family” coverage. And why wouldn’t they when the cost to them is virtually nothing? I’m currently supporting an initiative to save money by incentivizing these employees to opt out of this double coverage scheme by allowing them to keep a portion of the savings we achieve.

The long-term answer is to move aggressively toward lower cost alternatives that are more in line with trends in the private sector. Health savings accounts, self-insurance, or creating an insurance co-operative with neighboring towns or the county are options that could help us reduce our costs while still providing good health insurance to our employees.

Mr. Carter:
I have substantial experience in the health care industry, having worked for the Catholic Hospitals East New Jersey for three years and I can certainly appreciate the need for employees to have good health care coverage. But, in these hard economic times and given the fiscal burden imposed by the Township’s crushing debt, the Township simply must find ways to reduce costs. As with many other unfunded State mandates, this is another substantial cost burden imposed by the State on small municipalities. One problem with the current system, however, is that the employer -- here Montgomery Township -- pays the entire cost of the benefits; the employee makes no contribution at all. Therefore, a municipal employee who has duplicative benefits provided by a spouse’s employer, for example, has no incentive to refuse the free State benefits. One possibility is to offer a municipal employee who has duplicative coverage an incentive -- perhaps a small payment, or additional time off -- to decline the coverage. I would explore these an other ways to reduce the costs to the Township.

Mr. Fedun:
The Township Committee has been, and must continue to, explore a number of options to address this issue. The Committee has discussed the prospect of self-insuring, and the staff has looked in to how other towns may have found this to work out, and whether it is beneficial and cost effective. I understand that the research has not yet been completed, but certainly should be concluded so as to allow an informed answer.

The Committee has been considering the possibility of allowing persons who have insurance available through a spouse to “opt out” of the coverage offered by the Township. This, of course, would only be available to those who have insurance elsewhere, as we cannot allow individuals to have no coverage at all.

Another possibility to examine, as all avenues must be explored, would be that of requiring employees to contribute to the cost. I realize that this may not be popular, but we would be irresponsible not to explore it for that reason alone, as the overall costs must be the guide.

Mr. Hovey:
Health care is one of the largest township expenditures. As the State shifts the costs of employee health benefits to local municipalities, we must continue to explore options to minimize this increased financial imposition while allowing our township employees to receive quality, affordable health care.

To address this ever rising increased cost to local taxpayers, there are several options. First, we should provide incentives to municipal employees to decline coverage if they can instead receive health care through their spouse, reducing the number of municipal employees enrolled in the State’s plan. Also, we should explore the possibility of self-insuring municipal employees and opting out of the State’s plan as other municipalities have done, provided that the resulting cost savings is beneficial to both employees and local taxpayers.

The goal is to ensure that those serving the township still receive quality affordable health care while minimizing financial burden on taxpayers.

What strategies would you support in order to cut costs and boost revenues?

Mr. Caliguire:
I support the long-term effort to find appropriate tax ratables. But in the meantime we must find innovative cost savings. I authored the plan that gives township employees financial incentives to find ways to save taxpayers’ dollars without diminishing services. As a result, we have seen significant annualized savings. In addition, I spearheaded the effort to shift our emergency dispatch services to the Somerset County dispatch facility. That move was made this past June with no change in the level of service. And, as a result, Montgomery will save over $600,000 per year. I will continue to encourage that type of innovation.

The bottom line is that new technologies and the necessity to achieve cost savings have provided new impetus for shared and regionalized services. I will pursue those efficiencies in the areas of health services, municipal courts and some public works and code enforcement functions. I am a firm believer in home rule when it comes to land use and zoning, public health and safety and other critical municipal functions, but we need to take a much harder look at areas where there is duplication of effort with other government entities. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

Mr. Carter:
The best way to immediately reduce costs and boost revenues is for the Township to sell the Skillman Village property to the County. The over $14 million in revenues could be used to reduce our debt (and substantial interest and debt service costs). I would also cut costs by eliminating duplicative services by finding was to share services with Somerset County and our neighboring towns. As Mark Caliguire spearheaded the move of the 911 services to the County, saving the Township $600,000 annually, there are other services we can share or transfer to save tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Among other things, I will take a hard look at ways of consolidating and sharing health department, emergency management, and court services. After eight years of Democratic control of the Township Committee, our once $20 million surplus is nearly depleted, we are almost $60 million in debt and our high taxes are making Montgomery more and more unaffordable. We simply must find ways to cut costs and reduce spending. I will work hard to do that.

Mr. Fedun:
The quickest opportunity to improve our financial situation is to sell 90% of Skillman Village for a county park. This would lead immediately to close to $15 million off our debt, leading to lower annual debt payments and lower pressure on taxes. By holding on to 10% of the land to support our affordable housing plan also saves money because the cost of alternative land in town would come at higher cost. It would also reduce the number of classrooms we would have to construct to address future needs.

The second most important avenue to cost savings is through more aggressive use of shared services, such as the decision this year to shift emergency dispatch services to the county. We need to look carefully at our other big departments and consider other ways to share services with nearby towns, the county, or our own school district.

Mr. Hovey:
I propose four items to cut costs and boost revenue. First, sell the majority of Skillman Village to the County for a park and retain just a small portion to fulfill the township’s affordable housing obligations and other future needs. By selling 90% of Skillman Village, the township would reduce its current repayment obligation.

Second, implement automated computer technology to send tax and sewer bills via email to residents who wish to receive them. Also provide residents with the option of paying those bills on-line or have them automatically deducted from bank accounts or charged to credit cards. Such a service will reduce municipal overhead and residents’ taxes.

Third, allow residents to submit written proposals for possible township savings. Residents’ suggestions would then be reviewed by a volunteer, bipartisan panel which will submit those viable proposals to the township committee. Receiving ideas from local residents can only improve efficiency.

Fourth, recommend that each member of the Committee submit at least one proposal for a grant for funding. Obtaining available government or nonprofit funding for existing or future projects in Montgomery will help off-set the ever increasing mandates imposed by other levels of government.

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