By FRED T. ROSSI
For Union County HAWK
SCOTCH PLAINS — The candidates in next month’s special election for township council squared off on Monday night as they sparred over aspects of downtown redevelopment, township finances, recreation programs, senior programs, infrastructure and the way cannabis sales were approved.
Democrat Matthew Adams, who was appointed to the council in the spring to fill a vacancy, and Republican Deanna Dell-Bene are seeking to fill out the remaining year of the four-year term originally won in 2018 by Joshua Losardo, who vacated his council seat when he was elected mayor last November.
The 45-minute debate, sponsored by Union County HAWK, opened with a series of questions pertaining to downtown redevelopment. Ms. Dell-Bene criticized what she said was a slowing of the pace of redevelopment since Democrats took control of the council in January 2019, replaced the township’s redevelopment attorney and, in June, “fired” the redeveloper it had been working with since 2019, leading that firm to file “a million-dollar lawsuit” against the township. “Every moment we are delaying downtown redevelopment,” she said, “we are losing chances on maintaining our property values” and “truly neglecting our vow” to assist lower-income veterans and families in securing affordable housing. She also said delays are affecting the construction of new facilities for first responders and resulting in less downtown foot traffic.
She said that “we were moving significantly” prior to the past two years, with “an actual plan with actual financial analyses.” But, Ms. Dell-Bene said, “what we have now is nothing but a concept. There is no plan.”
Mr. Adams countered by saying that the council had not fired the redeveloper but instead “chose not to extend [its] exclusivity” in formulating a plan for the downtown. He said the redeveloper was “advancing their own agenda to overdevelop Scotch Plains” in a way that redevelopment officials did not agree with. “The only thing that’s slowed down redevelopment is politics,” he said, adding that Mayor Losardo in the spring had telephoned former Mayor Alexander Smith and then-Republican Party Chair Paulette Coronato, a member of the downtown redevelopment committee, to tell them of the need to not renew the exclusivity arrangement with the redeveloper. “There’s a problem,” Mr. Adams recounted the mayor as telling Mr. Smith and Mrs. Coronato. And, Mr. Adams said, they replied, “We get it.” He criticized that “come election season, we’re making a political deal of it.”
Mr. Adams said he backs the plan to move first-responder headquarters to a site on Plainfield Avenue, calling the current site “a municipal junkyard” and noting that former Mayor Smith supports the move as well. Ms. Dell-Bene said she would first do her own independent analysis of that site before committing to supporting the move, but noted that the township needs to make sure that wherever the headquarters are ultimately located is “as safe as possible a location.”
Both candidates agreed that court-imposed affordable-housing mandates, another round of which is set to be released in 2025, need to be reformed. And when asked about the potential cost of redevelopment to taxpayers, Mr. Adams said he believes that when the publicly-owned downtown properties are sold, it would “raise the revenue necessary” to fund redevelopment and help reverse what he called “an upside-down tax structure” where residents pay 93 percent of municipal property taxes. He said that, “we have underutilized our commercial zones” and that once greater tax revenues are realized from businesses, it will “stabilize the residential tax rate and make it more affordable to live here.”
Ms. Dell-Bene said redevelopment must be done “fiscally responsibly” and promised she would not favor any redevelopment plan that would cause an increase in residential taxes. She said the housing developments under construction at the Bowcraft and Parker Gardens sites will bring in $1 million in tax revenue annually to the township and said future developments along East Second and Front Streets would also result in new ratables to help offset residential taxes.
Both candidates said addressing township infrastructure, especially in the wake of the September 1 flooding, was important, with Ms. Dell-Bene saying that “our infrastructure is hurting” and “overdevelopment is causing major issues.” She called for a resiliency committee to look at the state of the township’s storm-water drainage, sewage, power utilities and the like, and added that the planning and zoning boards need to be held accountable for “upholding the quality of life that we want” by making sure that new subdivisions “will not negatively impact” surrounding areas. Mr. Adams said a “major reconstruction of our infrastructure” is needed but, given the expense, it will be necessary for the Army Corps of Engineers along with federal, state and county entities to assist in alleviating the flooding risks.
In May, the council passed an ordinance permitting the sale of cannabis for recreational use as well as its growing for commercial distribution. Ms. Dell-Bene said on Monday that instead of “a single council meeting at 6 p.m. when no one can attend,” there should have been multiple town-hall meetings to discuss the ordinance, more public input and more open discussions instead of what she said was approval “behind closed doors.” Mr. Adams said the council’s approval was the “right move,” noting that last year’s ballot referendum was approved by a 70-percent-to-30-percent margin.
Speaking about township finances, Ms. Dell-Bene noted that this year’s municipal tax-rate increase was higher than the average of recent years and said she did not feel like the budget “is being balanced correctly,” pointing to the practice of purchasing new police vehicles via bonds rather than through the operating budget. She called for a review of all township spending and bonding expenditures and said additional tax revenues from new housing developments should be used for pension and insurance payments. Mr. Adams, meanwhile, called attention to the township’s AAA bond rating and said the municipal government is “operating at maximum efficiency.” As the downtown is redeveloped, he said, new revenues will help to “flatten the minuscule increases [in taxes].”
Responding to a question about parks and recreation, Mr. Adams said he had “led the charge” to have new turf installed at the south-side soccer field. He added that he and the mayor had met recently with officials from the various sports leagues about their needs and he urged the board of education, in collaboration with the municipal government, to develop undeveloped plots of land behind the two middle schools into state-of-the-art recreation facilities. Ms. Dell-Bene, a member of the recreation commission, criticized Mr. Adams for minimizing the work of the commission and for trying to claim credit for projects like the south-side soccer field returfing. She also noted that the recently-issued master plan for parks and recreation calls for exploring a partnership between the local government and the board of education and the leagues. That plan also calls for establishment of a foundation to raise outside funds to help finance recreation initiatives, and she cited the numerous upgrades to the existing parks in town in the past few years.
Mayor Losardo has urged that Scotch Hills Country Club be renamed Shady Rest Country Club, and the recreation commission last week was split on the question, with Ms. Dell-Bene voting no. On Monday, she said she was “all for changing the name if that is what helps this town progress and move forward in preserving our rich and diverse history.” She said she favored getting input from the community first before any formal action is taken. Mr. Adams said he was “disappointed” by Ms. Dell-Bene’s vote and said that, “we should restore Shady Rest. It is a national treasure.”
A question about a senior citizen center elicited differing viewpoints, with Mr. Adams saying that, “the idea of shipping senior citizens to a senior center is so 20 years ago.” He said the current thinking is for multiple generations of residents to gather, interact and learn from each other in a more collaborative way. The proposed new library, he noted, includes a large multi-purpose room where multi-generational gatherings can take place. Ms. Dell-Bene said she favored exploring a shared-service arrangement with Fanwood to share public works, a move that could conceivably free up the present public works facility on Plainfield Avenue and, she said, allow a senior and community center to be built there.
Both candidates praised the township’s diversity and inclusivity, with Mr. Adams stating that it was the reason he moved to Scotch Plains. Ms. Dell-Bene said she supports more community policing and public interactions with the police department while also staying mindful of other people’s experiences with law enforcement. “Race relations is a hot topic,” she said. “It will forever be.” She called on everyone to help ease racial tensions, “not just by talking the talk but walking the walk.”
A final question about the council starting its meetings at 6 p.m. led to the evening’s final area of disagreement, with Mr. Adams backing the new time because “some meetings could drag well into the evening, past people’s tolerance” if they began later. Ms. Dell-Bene said no other surrounding towns start their governing bodies’ meetings at 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. She said the earlier hour means residents just getting home from work and feeding their families do not have an opportunity to watch or attend meetings.
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