There were few surprises at Thursday night's Maplewood Township Committee debate, and on the majority of issues the three candidates seemed to find more points of agreement than contention.
The forum, which attracted a crowd of roughly fifty people, was sponsored by The Hilton Neighborhood Association (HNA) at the DeHart Community Center in Maplewood.
(Editor's note: Patch recorded the debate and the videos are attached to this article in 8-15 minute increments. The question on programs candidates would propose for seniors did NOT make it into the video; apologies for that.)
Democratic incumbents Kathy Leventhal and Jerry Ryan, and Republican Art Gartenlaub are running for two seats on the committee on Nov. 6. The term for each position is three years. This is Gartenlaub's second attempt at a Township Committee seat.
The first question was on housing in town and how the township will absorb new residents with regard to school space, traffic and parking. Leventhal said by the end of 2013, 130 units of housing will be built in developments on Dunnell Road, Burnett Avenue and Boyden Avenue, but at a net estimated gain of only 10 schoolchildren as most are smaller apartments geared toward seniors or empty nesters.
Ryan said the development in town is "exciting" and will generate more customers for local businesses. He said the township committee always looks very carefully at how development impacts parking.
Gartenlaub cautioned that the developments might impact the township more than anticipated. He noted that there might be an effect on sewer and water usage.
On crime, all three candidates agreed the Maplewood Police Department does an outstanding job. "We have an exemplary police force," said Ryan, who said the township should continue to spend resources on strong, proactive policing.
Leventhal mentioned the recently formed East Hilton neighborhood crime watch program. Gartenlaub suggested the township provide the department with better technology such as license plate recognition.
Regarding the Maplewood Post Office, , Ryan said it was "the most important thing in Maplewood that will affect the community for generations to come." He said would like to see Kings Market move into the space.
Leventhal agreed and noted that the township had been working with planners and holding community meetings. Gartenlaub worried the residential part of the project might threaten the Village's "Rockwellian feel," which is a draw to homebuyers.
As for the arts in Maplewood, Ryan said he had helped establish the Maplewood Arts Council, which helps to promote the arts and the business community. Gartenlaub said he would like to appoint an arts liasion to the township committee. Leventhal mentioned the Maplewood Art Walk and other events.
All three candidates heartily agreed that the Hilton Library was vital to the town. "Its loss would be great," said Gartenlaub. Leventhal and Ryan noted that the library is very popular and should remain open. Leventhal said it was an "anchor" to the neighborhood.
The final question was, "Besides our high taxes, what do you think is Maplewood's most pressing problem?
Leventhal singled out the need to maintain quality of life; specifically, she mentioned the recent crime in the East Hilton area. She also mentioned traffic safety, including recently added speed humps and a traffic circle to Plymouth Road.
Ryan said the challenge is how to maintain a high level of services and continue to invest in our community's future in cash-strapped times. It's "easy to say, why are you spending ... or a few thousand dollars on (lighting for Memorial Park), but it's those little things...that represent the quality of life for people in this community."
Gartenlaub turned the question to the audience. When no one spoke, he mentioned that he will post a survey to find out about the most pressing problem Maplewoodians face.
The candidates then took questions from the audience. Bernie Crystal asked how they plan to address the Village's parking problems, especially given the new planned development. Gartenlaub wondered why the township turned down the chance to build a NJ Transit tiered parking deck several years ago. "We should revisit that," he said.
Ryan said the parking deck was "shot down" by the community because of cost, scale and security concerns. He noted that the township was working to incrementally improve parking; for instance, the committee is speaking with the Bank of America on Maplewood Avenue about expanding its lot for public parking. Leventhal said the township would ensure with the Post Office development that there was ample parking necessary to accommodate the influx of residents.
Candace Davenport asked What are your ideas for making Springfield Avenue a retail destination? Ryan said the township had hired a marketing consultant who would help to attract more businesses, including franchises and small chains. Leventhal noted the work the township had done to improve the lighting and streetscaping.
Connie Cosgrove asked what candidates would do to increase code enforcement responses, saying it was "backed up." Ryan vehemently disagreed, noting that residents in the Hilton Neighborhood Association and the Jacoby Street association were "very happy with the responsiveness of the code enforcement department."
She also asked how much the township would gain in taxes from new residential developments, not counting PILOT agreements. Ryan said the Universal Chain development will bring the town several hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue in lieu of taxes, and the properties on Dunnell Road and Boyden Avenue also will bring extra revenue. "We won't be able to build our way out of increased costs but having those extra properties come on line is going to help us."
In their closing statements, Leventhal reminded the audience about the accomplishments of the Township Committee. Gartenlaub said he would work to increase the tax base by making the town more business-friendly and to increase shared services.
Ryan asked residents to re-elect him and Leventhal based on their records of controlling spending, keeping tax increases low, and investing in the community's future. He noted that the first time he was elected to the township committee, he won by four votes.
"Every single vote counts," said Ryan.
Read Patch profiles on each candidate here (listed in alphabetical order):
- Arthur Gartenlaub
- Kathy Leventhal
- Jerry Ryan