By MARK SPIVEY MyCentralJersey.com
NORTH PLAINFIELD — In Somerset County’s most densely populated municipality, Democrats may be feeling the squeeze.
A slate of four Democratic incumbents is facing a showdown with four Republican challengers for a quartet of four-year borough council seats, and enforcement of local codes prohibiting overcrowding in residential dwellings has emerged as a marquee issue. Current council representatives Mary Forbes, Larry La Ronde, Everett Merrill and Doug Singleterry are seeking to fend off Richard Blundin, Mike Haggerty, Oleh Kaniuka and Jim McGarry on Election Day, Nov. 2.
A CROWDED BOROUGHThe borough is home to more than 20,000 people packed into less than three square miles, creating a population density of nearly eight times that of the county at large. For years some residents and a long line of Republican challengers hoping to chip away at more than a decade of Democratic dominance in Borough Hall have asserted that too many homes are being illegally subdivided and overcrowded, and the current election year has been no different.
The matter dominated discussion during a recent candidates’ debate hosted by the North Plainfield Citizens for Community Rights, a self-described nonpartisan group of local residents “intent on empowering free and equal citizens to solve local problems.” Incumbents said they have done all they can to ensure that overcrowding is kept under control, while challengers —including a pair of political veterans seeking a return to power —alleged that their opponents have become complacent.
“We don’t have that right now,” McGarry, a past borough council president under Haggerty when he served as mayor from 1993 through 1996, said regarding whether he believes the current council and Mayor Michael Giordano Jr. have a strong commitment to preventing overcrowding.
“We haven’t had it for 10 years.”
“We are a fully developed borough. We need to restrict further development,” Singleterry said, agreeing with a point made by an opponent. “But there’s nothing the Republicans can do that is not already being done.”
Democrats and Republicans balked at the notion that staffing levels should be increased at the borough’s Division of Housing, the entity to which residents are advised on the municipal website to “report overcrowded housing or illegal use of property.” McGarry said his approach would be to “insist on accountability” from the existing staff, while Haggerty recommended the introduction of a resolution to set clear priorities when it comes to enforcement.
But incumbents said they already insist on accountability, noting that the division is
working hard to address the issue —Singleterry said a review of records revealed an average of more than 100 citations per month being issued since May.
“We are trying to commit to it using the resources we have. We’re going to keep enforcing that law,” La Ronde said. “But we can only address what’s reported,” Forbes added.
MONEY MATTERSThe other issue most frequently mentioned during a recent debate was a more obvious one — taxes —and once again, the incumbents found themselves on the defensive. Republicans said municipal spending has doubled during the last 15 years, although Democrats touted cost-saving measures they credited with helping keep taxes under control during recent budget cycles. The average borough homeowner paid $7,380 in 2008, a jump of more than $1,100 since 2005, but that figure actually has gone down since: the average homeowner is projected to pay a tax bill of about $7,350 this year.
Singleterry said the council has worked to downgrade some municipal positions from full time to part time, implemented a wage freeze for some nonunion workers and created a new “use it or lose it” policy on vacation and sick time for borough employees. Blundin said that even more could be done, however, suggesting that the governing body aggressively investigate possibilities to implement shared services with surrounding municipalities and perform a study to examine how much is being spent on the operation of municipal vehicles.
Singleterry blamed past tax hikes primarily on mandated increases in pension and health insurance costs, coupled with cuts to state aid. But challengers blamed incumbents for letting spending spiral out of control —a claim they denied.
“We really aren’t getting much more now than we were getting eight or nine years ago for the taxes we pay,” Blundin asserted.
Nov. 2 will mark the third consecutive even-numbered year in which at least four borough seats are up for grabs. The current Republican slate doesn’t include a single candidate from the 2008 team that suffered a narrow defeat, as Giordano, La Ronde and current councilmen Frank “Skip” Stabile, Robert Hitchcock and Frank Righetti edged out mayoral challenger Robert Gatto and fellow candidates Barbara Habeeb, Frank D’Amore, Paolo Lorenzi and Thomas Mullen.
But if last year’s election results were any indication, it could be a close one this year: with a robust 42 percent turnout, Merrill eked out a win over McGarry for a one-year unexpired council term, 2,027 votes to 1,869.
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