The six candidates running for Secaucus Town Council sat down for a debate hosted by the Hudson Reporter newspaper chain on Wednesday. The full debate can be viewed on the Hudson Reporter web site (www.HudsonReporter.com), and gives Secaucus voters their only opportunity to see each council candidate debate his or her direct opponent.
The lively, 90-minute event asked some surprise questions and covered important issues such as the future of development, the recreation center, and taxes.
In the 1st Ward, Democratic Councilwoman Dawn McAdam debated Independent candidate Rob Costantino.
In the 2nd Ward, Democratic candidate Frank Trombetta debated Independent 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner.
In the 3rd Ward, and Democratic Councilman John Reilly debated Independent candidate Bill McKeever.
The debate gives Secaucus voters their only opportunity to see each council candidate debate their direct opponent.
The six council candidates were given two minutes for opening statements then addressed four issue-oriented questions, including:
• What should be done to make the Secaucus Recreation Center self-sufficient, so taxpayers do not have to pay for it?
• Council meetings have taken on a nasty tone. What would they do to improve communication and relations among the council members?
• What kind of development should be encouraged and discouraged in Secaucus?
• What steps should be taken to keep municipal spending in check?
Here’s an overview of some answers the candidates gave. To hear their responses in their entirety, please visit our web site.
Sustaining the Recreation Center
Unfortunately, none of the candidates answered the question about the Recreation Center directly, although some of the candidates spoke of ways to trim Rec Center expenses.
The center, which was pushed and approved by Elwell and his Democratic allies on the council, ended up costing an estimated $12 million to build, though it was initially estimated at about $4.5 million. It was built largely with municipal funds, with $1 million coming from a developer. That developer is expected to pay the town another $4 million, which will be put towards Recreation Center construction fees. The project was controversial because some residents believed it should been up for referendum for voters to decide. Instead, the project was approved by the Democratic controlled Town Council, led by Elwell.
Angry residents also argued that taxpayers would end up paying for the center’s operating expenses, while Elwell and his allies said it could sustain itself financially through membership dues.
So far, membership fees have not covered building or operating expenses.
As they have in the past, the three Democrats at the debate stressed the intangible benefits the Recreation Center adds to the community. McAdam and Trombetta, for example, noted that the Recreation Center’s indoor pool allows the school system to have competitive swim teams, something that wasn’t possible before. (The local school system uses the Rec Center for some of its athletic programs.)
“You have to look at the value [of the center], not just the cost,” McAdam said.
But Costantino said the center needs to be run like a business, and that wasteful spending there needs to be cut, a theme he returned to throughout the debate. He questioned whether the center was being managed efficiently, pointing to ongoing reports that some monthly membership payments have not been processed since the beginning of the year.
Trombetta chalked up such problems as “growing pains” typical of any new venture. Bueckner pointed out the he and Costantino are center members, while McAdam is not.
Realistically, the Recreation Center will likely be self-sufficient only if it gets more members, and no candidate offered suggestions on what they would do to boost membership.
Development and taxes
All six candidates made strong points regarding development. All agreed that the town is being overdeveloped. They said that after the Xchange complex is completed near Laurel Hill Park similar large-scale housing developments should be discouraged. Overcrowding in the school system was cited as a specific concern.
They all agreed that Secaucus should instead focus on attracting commercial development that can generate tax revenues without adding new students to the school system. McAdam, for example, cited Goya Foods and the Major League Baseball Network, which opened its headquarters in Secaucus earlier this year, as the types of businesses Secaucus should pursue.
The development discussion tied into the issue of rising taxes and what the council should do to avoid new avoid new increases over the next few years. After several years of no municipal tax increases, Secaucus had a small tax hike last year and another one this year.
Bueckner, McKeever, and Costantino, mentioned professional service contracts as a municipal spending area that should be drastically cut, an argument Independents on the council have often made in the past. Costantino said the Independents would implement new checks and balances in the Tax Collectors Office and would seek voter approval for all large-scale municipal projects.
McKever scored perhaps his biggest point of the debate when he said that municipal departments need better management and cost controls.
Democrats Trombetta and Reilly specifically mentioned the need to get municipal health care spending down for town employees.
Gonnelli’s one-sided ‘debate’
As the only candidate running for mayor, Gonnelli attended the forum less for himself than for his Independent ticket.
Since he is all but guaranteed a victory on Nov. 3, what’s at stake for him is the balance of power on the council. He would like to see Bueckner win reelection in the 2nd Ward, and he’d also like to pick up seats from the Democrats in the 1st and 3rd. If that happened, only one Democrat, 3rd Ward Councilman John Shinnick, would remain on the governing body.
Gonnelli was given time to make a 1-minute opening and closing statement and answered six issue-oriented questions. His answers reiterated points he has often made as a councilman, but he also began to lay out what the early days of his administration might look like.
When asked what he would do to attract a new supermarket, he said he would put together a task force to develop strategies to entice a smaller food store chain, like Trader Joe’s. Even though smaller chains were pursued in the past, he still plans to approach them again about coming to Secaucus.
He also said that he’d have a committee focus on ways to make the Recreation Center self-sufficient.
As for affordable housing, he said he would try to negotiate with the state for Secaucus to get more credits for development-based affordable housing, so the town can build fewer “growth share” affordable housing units.
A former commissioner with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), Gonnelli said the town’s tax-sharing formula – through which Secaucus contributes to a pool of money for regional programs and development in the Meadowlands – should be changed. But he also noted that, as a state agency, maintaining a cordial relationship with the NJMC is essential.
He also expressed support for establishing a two-term limit for the mayor.
To see the council debate and the candidate forum with Gonnelli in their entirety, visit www.HudsonReporter.com.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.