At the event were Mayor David Roberts and his slate of incumbents (Ruben Ramos Jr., Terry LaBruno and Peter Cammarano); Councilwoman Carol Marsh and her ticket of incumbents (Tony Soares, Brian Urbano, and Inés García-Keim); and Councilman Michael Russo. According to Russo, his ticket of Genevy Dimitrion, Manuel Ortega, and Brian Keller were out campaigning.
Mayoral candidates Frank Raia and Evelyn Smith were not issued invitations to the debate. Running on Raia's ticket will be Anthony Mussara, Theresa Burns, and Ron Rosenberg. Evelyn Smith's ticket includes Elizabeth Falco, Carrie Gilliard, and Diane Nieves.
Act4Change was originally associated with the John Kerry for President Campaign, but now members take on various issues each month at their meetings.
The election is scheduled for May 10.
Question one: economic development
With more empty storefronts, especially on Washington Street, than at any time in recent memory, the candidates were asked what they would do to keep smaller, locally-owned businesses in Hoboken.
All three candidates agreed that they don't want to see "big box" types businesses, such as Target or Home Depot. They were in agreement that those types of stores are not in Hoboken's scale, would lead to major traffic concerns, and might drain business from smaller local merchants.
But each candidate expressed their ideas about how to attract and keep smaller retailers in the city. "I think small businesses are vital part of Hoboken, bring character to the community, and I think they are the basis of our economic, hopefully soon-to-be, stability," answered Russo.
Russo attributed the exodus from Washington Street on taxes and parking. He said that property taxes in the city are too high, causing the property owner to push the cost off to the retail owner. But he added that there is a second part of the tax issue. "We, right now, pay a 6 percent sales tax, like most places in New Jersey do," Russo said. "However, our surrounding communities have a 3 percent sales tax, because they are in Urban Enterprise Zones."
UEZ is a state-run program that allows municipalities to incorporate 3 percent sales tax. He said that he will push for Hoboken to be incorporated in a UEZ.
Roberts refuted Russo's claim that high property taxes are the reason that tenants have recently been moving out. Roberts said that the municipal portion of the tax bill has been stable for over a decade. Roberts added that Hoboken is a victim of its own popularity and Washington Street is suffering from escalating rents because it is a desirable location. He said that "government has to step in" and look at zoning changes that would limit the number of cell phone stores, and banks, while promoting uses such as family-owned businesses.
But Roberts said, "It is very difficult for government to step in and start regulating the commercial marketplace." Roberts supports the creation of a Special Improvement District, where local merchants collect money through a business tax, and use that money for marketing, promotions and streetscape improvements.
He also said that he is looking improve parking, developing parking at Stevens, and expanding existing parking at North Fork and Hudson United banks.
Marsh said businesses are a good thing for Hoboken because they offset the predominance of the city's residential housing.
"[Commercial businesses] bring in [tax] revenue, use fewer services than residential neighborhoods, and would provide the kind of foot traffic during the day that would allow our smaller stores to be successful," Marsh said. She also suggested hiring a person experienced in turning downtown around.
"I think would be beneficial for Hoboken, and I have talked to business owners who would be very much on board with that," Marsh said.
Question two: Environmental issues
The candidates were then asked to what extent beautification and other environmental projects will be part of their agenda.
Roberts said that he is proud that he formed a shade tree commission in Hoboken. "We planted upwards of 1,000 trees since I've been mayor," Roberts said.
Roberts also said that he has a park initiative that will create around 17 acres of new active and passive park space.
"That is going to create a ratio between open space and residents that has never been seen in Hoboken in the history of our city," Roberts said.
Answering the question for the Marsh team was Soares, who first joined the city's environment committee in 1991, which was responsible for planting hundreds of trees throughout the city. Soares added that one of the keys of beautification is having the land to plant trees. He said that Roberts' open space initiative looks good on paper but not in reality.
"The truth behind that plan is that most of that land has not yet been acquired," Soares said. "And most of it is tied to a single developer, with no guarantees that any of that park space will come if they do not get their development rights."
Soares was alluding to Roberts' plan to use a redevelopment plan to create around 6 acres of open space in the city's northwest quadrant. The city, thanks largely to Roberts' support, has entered into an exclusivity agreement with URSA Development to build parks and several mostly residential high-rises on an 11-acre swath of land.
"We should be able to get the trees without have to sacrifice everything else - traffic, dirt, noise and overdevelopment," Soares said.
Russo, who has a bachelor's degree in biology, took a different approach to the question.
"As mayor, my first initiative will be to reduce the emissions of all city vehicles," Russo said. "We will phase out over the first four years of my administration our old vehicles, and phase in vehicles of hybrid status." Hybrid cars use gasoline engines that are supplemented by electric power.
He also proposed utilizing bio-diesel fuel for the city trucks. "This is a fuel that will reduce emissions by 200 percent in the city," Russo said.
Question three: Open space
The third question asked what the candidates would do to create more open space, especially for local school-aged children.
García-Keim answered the question for the Marsh team. She said that they would act now to acquire all remaining land, about 20 acres, designated in the master plan as possible open space. "We have a viable plan, and it's not the one that the current administration is proposing," she said.
She also said that there are ways to pay for this acquisition that don't require redevelopment plans or "back room" developer deals. "There are Green Acres funds, and Hoboken as a density populated urban area qualifies for 75 percent grant money for the acquisition of open space," she said, adding that the county has a penny tax for the creation of open space.
Russo agreed that more needs to be done in terms of acquiring open space. "When elected, I will implement an active park initiative that will produce not only ball fields, but basketball courts, tennis courts, a recreation center, a permanent ice skating rink, and municipal swimming pool," Russo said.
He also said that much of this can be funded through Green Acres and the penny tax.
Russo said that another side of this issue is that there has to be land to build these parks. "We need to curb development and need to take that space for open space, not just for passive open space, but for active open space for children and adults," Russo said.
Roberts said that his administration has been successful in obtaining Green Acre funding for resurfacing JFK Field, the city's Little League field, and the soccer field at Sinatra Park, and will pursue additional state funding in the future.
"I have a plan that will create three baseball diamonds, two soccer fields, all added to the inventory that we are currently functioning under," Roberts said. He added that his plan also calls for a municipal swimming facility, and a permanent ice skating facility.
Question four: The budget
The candidates were asked what would be their long term revenue generating plan that would allow the city to wean itself off of non-recurring revenues. The current city budget of $72 million has several one-time revenue sources.
Russo said that the revenue situation is not so much the problem; it's the administration's spending. He pointed to the fact that in the past four years, spending has risen from $54 million to over $72 million.
"The first step is to scrutinize spending, line by line, from the first paper clip to the mayor's salary," Russo said. "But even by doing that, we don't have enough money to cover our deficit. We need to find some viable sources of revenue." He suggested reevaluating the city's contract with United Water and the North Hudson Sewerage Authority.
Roberts said that much of the increase in spending is due to rising health insurance costs, but despite these challenges, Hoboken has maintained a stable tax rate.
"Across the country, Hoboken does not stand alone when it comes to the escalation of health care costs," Roberts said. "Every municipality in the United States has had great difficulty in dealing with 30 to 40 percent increases in health care costs."
He said that, in the past four years, health care costs have risen from $5.6 to $12 million. Also, there have been increases in police, fire and municipal contracts.
Roberts said there are "fewer than 15 additional city employees work in Hoboken than four years ago." This is a number that is challenged by his opposition.
Brian Urbano answered the question for the Marsh team. He claimed that Roberts is grossly understating the number of new hires. "You create a problem when you hire 80 new employees in his administration, and really kind of sad when you are still hiring despite having a hiring freeze," Urbano said.
Urbano also question the city's continued use of tax abatements. Tax abatements are incentives for developers to build in a certain area. The developers pay a certain tax amount each year rather than the unpredictable fluctuating tax rates.
Question five: Parking and traffic
The candidates were asked how they would deal with city's parking problems and traffic congestion.
Roberts said that since becoming mayor, the city has extended Washington Street north past 14th Street and has reopened 15th Street, which has made getting out of the city to the north easier. On the south end of town, he said, there are patrol officers every morning directing traffic.
Also, he said, the city planners have been "working very hard with the county traffic engineer" to reroute traffic pattern to improve traffic flow.
García-Keim answered that there are several ways to address traffic congestion and parking. "One is to be more conscious about what kind of projects we approve," she said. "All new projects have to conform to the scale of Hoboken."
She said parking solutions should include several smaller areas in neighborhood garages, and perimeter parking with effective use of in-town shuttles.
Russo said that traffic congestion and parking are "problems that will never go away fully, but it is something that can be alleviated."
He said that even though there are currently a lot of residents in town who only use their cars when it is absolutely necessary, those residents still have to park. "We in Hoboken need a long-term parking storage facility," he said.
Russo also proposed to further reduce the legal parking distance from the curb from 16 feet to 8 feet. He added that because of the addition of traffic claming devices, such as speed humps, even at only 8 feet, there would still be enough visual space to safely cross the street. Russo added that he believes this would add about 1,500 on-street parking spaces.
Russo was critical of how Roberts has spent the Hoboken Parking Utility revenue. In 2003 the city brought the Hoboken Parking Authority in-house. In his first year in office, he used about $10 of the HPU surplus to plug a budget gap.
"Over the last four years, the parking utility created a lot of revenue, but the problem is that revenue has been used to fill budget gaps so the parking issue has been ignored," Russo said.
Question six: The biggest challenge
To conclude the debate, the candidates were asked what they think the biggest challenge facing Hoboken in the next four years is.
"I believe the number one challenge facing Hoboken has two faces," responded Marsh. "On one face, it's overdevelopment, and the other face is our budget problems."
She said that it has been a fallacy that Hoboken can build its way its way out its budget problems. She added that only through effective planning can the city solve its problems.
Russo said that that the single most important issue is the city's finances. But, he said following closely is the need to retain families by having a larger stock of affordable housing, especially "for-sale" affordable housing. "We need to develop homes that are affordable to moderate and low income families," Russo said, "so families can stay in Hoboken."
Roberts took a more upbeat approach with his answer. "I would like to think that Hoboken's greatest years are ahead of us," Roberts said. "All of this gloom and doom, and 'the sky is falling' talk is crazy. The facts are that we live in a wonderful city with boundless opportunities."
He said the city streets are clean, crime is low for an urban area, and young families are deciding to make Hoboken their home.