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Vol. LXIV, No. 41
 
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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Township Candidates Debate Spending, Revaluation

Ellen Gilbert

Incumbent Democrats Lance Liverman spoke of his humanist values and Liz Lempert radiated equanimity, while Republican challengers Douglas Miles was the financial pragmatist and Stuart Duncan provided the comic relief at Monday evening’s forum for the four Township Committee candidates.

“I’m not running for anything,” joked Mr. Duncan. “At my age, I’m just striding.”

Sponsored by The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, the hour-long Q&A (Question and Answer) session was broadcast on Channel 30. League moderator Barbara Trought, who hails from Medford (“so I cannot vote in Princeton Township and I’m impartial”), asked a series of questions that had been submitted by residents and sorted “to provide a range of topics” for the candidates, who were seated in alphabetical order by last name.

“Let’s meet and greet the 900 pound gorilla in the room, which at the moment gives small money to the Borough and none to the Township,” said Mr. Duncan, referring to Princeton University in response to the first question, which was about potential spending cuts or revenue options. Abruptly turning to the subject of revaluation, he noted that there is “a tremendous amount of confusion about it. I don’t have a problem with the revaluation itself; I have a problem with the communication of it.”

“This year we were very successful in making a lot of budget cuts,” said Ms. Lempert in her response. “We go through the budget each year, sharpening our pencils, to see what we can cut.” She cited salary freezes, job furloughs, negotiations with the University for “a shared contribution,” and working on consolidation as ongoing efforts that would hopefully lead to improved fiscal health.

Mr. Liverman pointed to the work of the Citizens Finance Committee, which is looking at current budget concerns as well as long term goals for bringing in more revenue.

“We have to be very careful in the pursuit of ratables,” countered Mr. Miles. “We’re driving costs up.” He pointed to the nearby Township of Montgomery as an example of a successful operation running on less money. “We need more efficiency,” he added.

Budgetary concerns were referred to once again when the candidates answered a question about consolidation and the need to “study it one more time with another consultant.”

“Given the economic situation, it’s focused everyone’s attention on seeing if we can find efficiencies wherever they may lie — including what more we can share with the Borough,” said Ms. Lempert. She noted that “things are different” this time around, as a result of new state laws that “give us a lot more flexibility.”

“I think everyone up here will agree that it’s impossible to combine two major corporations without looking at the facts and the figures,” observed Mr. Liverman. He cited the importance of being “transparent so that voters can be as well informed as we are.”

Merging two governments “could be daunting and might not bring economic gains,” observed Mr. Miles. Pointing to the efficacy of shared services, however, he noted that they “must include the consolidation of the Police Departments. Judiciary and police must be boiled down to one entity, otherwise we’re fooling ourselves.”

“I don’t think we need a commission,” asserted Mr. Duncan, noting that he has lived in both the Borough and the Township during his 60 years in Princeton. “The time to have done this was in 1977,” he suggested. “If I were in the Borough now I’d be dead against it. If the University was part of the discussion, maybe the two could be brought together.”

Responding to a subsequent question regarding shared services, Mr. Liverman said that while the two entities already enjoy several shared services, he is “a little hesitant to merge the Police and Public Works Departments without studying the outcome. It’s more important to have overall consolidation than do it piecemeal”.

“Consolidation is about controlling costs,” said Mr. Miles. He noted that current labor contracts — especially their “retirement aspects” — have “gotten out of control.” He suggested that residents are paying higher taxes and “not getting anything more for their money,” and that renegotiating labor contracts would result in “tremendous multi-year savings.”

“I don’t think bigger government is ever any cheaper,” said Mr. Duncan. “I agree with Doug; it would be hard to combine the two Police Departments. There’s no one on either force who wants to be merged out.”

“The Consolidation Commission will come out with a plan that’s not obvious to any of us here,” said Ms. Lempert. Expressing concern about focusing on police consolidation alone, she said that she worried about “the chain of command, and reductions in service.”

Mr. Liverman noted the importance of taking contracts “very seriously. When we say we want to change contracts it sends a bad signal.” He pointed to the importance of “negotiating with each department,” and responding “in good faith, using consensus building.”

Revaluation

Not surprisingly, a question regarding revaluation elicited varying responses from the candidates. Both Ms. Lempert and Mr. Liverman said that while Township Committee did not anticipate the outcome of the process, they were moving quickly to “work on solutions.”

“Real estate people knew it was going to be an accordion effect,” said Mr. Duncan. “Some people are moving out of state to Pennsylvania and the Carolinas.”

In response to Mr. Miles’s suggestion that a “pilot” effort should have preceded the actual revaluation, Mr. Liverman pointed out that since revaluation was under the purview of the County, initiating a local level poll would have been inappropriate.

Asked about the “use of new technology to communicate with constituents,” Ms. Lempert described herself as “a child of the internet” who loves Facebook, cell phones, and any way of being in touch. Both she and Mr. Liverman cited the Township’s new emergency call system as a good use of technology that was very useful during several severe storms last year.

Calling for “a broader, bolder application of technology,” Mr. Miles suggested that online postings should include not just the minutes of municipal meetings, but “the additional comments” from members of the audience, as an assist to seniors and others who might not be able to leave their homes to attend meetings.

“I cringe when I hear my opponent talk about wi-fi for the entire Township,” added Mr. Miles, referring to an earlier comment by Mr. Liverman about expressions of interest in having wi-fi for the entire community. “There we go spending money. Government does not need to be a communications giant,” said Mr. Miles, although Mr. Liverman had acknowledged that at this point the cost was probably too steep.

“Look at my age,” quipped Mr. Duncan. “To me, a laptop is dinner. Whatever happened to the telephone tree that told us that school was closed?” 

Corner House

“I recently spent an hour with Kathy Monzo,” said Mr. Miles referring to the Township’s Chief Financial Officer. “I was very surprised to see the consistent use of state grants going 100 percent to a program called Corner House. It’s very noble,” he said of the non-profit, “but government shouldn’t be in that business. The costs approach $2 million a year.”

“That’s totally incorrect,” responded Mr. Liverman. “We do not subsidize or pay for Corner House.” Noting that he has been on the Corner House Board since its creation, Mr. Liverman explained that “the joint agency is a public and private foundation,” for which grant money from the state comes into the Township earmarked for Corner House, “one of the best agencies we have.”

Summing it up

“I’m running for this office because people have come to me in my ten years here and shared comments and frustrations, like the fact that for 17 years there have been never-ending increases,” said Mr. Miles. Suggesting that visitors to the Township Municipal complex may have observed “workers who are not very busy,” he cited the importance of asking “tough questions about how we’re going to spend money” in his concluding comments.

“I’m not here to add a new chapter to my resume,” observed Mr. Liverman “I’ve been here for six years and can continue to work hard for Princeton. I’m socially progressive and financially conservative, but I’m not running on one issue.” Mr. Liverman cited “hard work, responsibility, honesty, and fairness” as the keys to success.

“One of the key questions here is what kind of town do we want?” said Ms. Lempert in her concluding comments. “It’s easy to say, ‘let’s just cut across the board,’ but this is exactly the time when we need to stand up for our values. Let’s cut, but let’s do it responsibly,” added the two-year veteran of Township Committee.

“We’ve been under the one party system for much too long,” said Mr. Duncan.

To learn more about candidates, visit Mr. Miles’s website at www.vote4miles.org; Mr. Duncan’s at www.vote4miles.org; Ms. Lempert’s at www.lizlempert.com; and Mr. Liverman’s at www.lanceliverman.com.

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