LAWRENCE: Candidates night debate caps campaign season

By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
It was standing room only as the four candidates for two Township Council seats fielded a range of questions — from how they would ease the property tax burden to shared services to improving the business climate — at the annual candidates debate Tuesday night.
    Nearly 60 people filled the lower level conference room at the Municipal Building to listen to Republicans Rick Miller and Ginny Bigley and Democrats Greg Puliti and James Kownacki at the event, sponsored by the Lawrence League of Women Voters.
    Mr. Miller and Mr. Puliti are seeking re-election to their fifth terms on Township Council. The terms are for four years.
    There was little disagreement among the candidates on some questions submitted by audience members, such as whether the Lawrence Hopewell Trail would be completed through the township-owned Carson Road Woods property by 2012. There were some differences of opinion in their approaches to property tax and budget issues, however.
    Asked about the “creative funding ideas” they would offer to lessen the property tax burden and how they would lower the cost of government, Mr. Kownacki suggested working with the Board of Education to see how they could share more services. He also suggested the possibility of having the township assume garbage collection responsibilities.
    “I have already challenged the administration to go back and re-look” to see where cuts might be made, Mr. Miller said. He noted that earlier this year, he and Republican Councilman Bob Bostock had asked Municipal Manager Richard Krawczun to outline “what it would look like” if the tax increase was 3 cents, 2 cents, 1 cent or even no increase at all.
    “I always viewed our jobs (on Township Council) as being policy-makers,” Mr. Miller said. The council examines the budget, which is prepared by the municipal manager, and asks questions of the manager —especially the “what-if” questions, he said.
    Mr. Puliti said the township could buy electricity and natural gas in bulk for the municipally owned buildings as a way to save money. The township could approach Ewing Township municipal government and the Lawrence Board of Education to discuss shared services, he said.
    Reviewing the municipal budget to find “wasteful spending” and inviting more businesses to locate in Lawrence would help ease the tax burden, Ms. Bigley said. She noted that 88 percent of the municipal budget is made up of nondiscretionary spending, such as salaries and benefits, but the remaining 12 percent could be reviewed with a “fine-toothed comb.”
    Another audience member asked the candidates for their views on expanding shared services with Mercer County and New Jersey.
    Mr. Puliti said the county helps out with some road projects and also handles the recycling program. The township has asked the county to send in prisoners to assist with park maintenance. He said the township should discuss possible shared services with the Ewing Lawrence Sewerage Authority.
    Ms. Bigley also said that seeking more shared services with Mercer County and New Jersey would be “fiscally sound.”
    “We are all doing the absolute best we can,” she said.
    Mr. Miller said there is a need to “look at a more regional view.” Some progress has been made, he said, citing the decision to turn over some 911 emergency services dispatching duties to Mercer County.
    “We need to explore every plausible idea,” Mr. Miller said.
    All of the candidates expressed support for completing the Lawrence Hopewell Trail — a 20-mile bicycle and pedestrian path linking Hopewell and Lawrence townships — through the township-owned Carson Road Woods property, but there was some disagreement on the type of surface for the path.
    Mr. Miller said he is opposed to putting down a layer of asphalt, but Mr. Kownacki and Mr. Puliti said the path should be accessible to the handicapped — which means using asphalt on the path.
    The candidates also were asked about their approaches to making municipal government more “transparent.”
    “Transparency is a given,” Mr. Miller said. There is a “ton” of information on the municipal Web site, he said, pointing out that residents may use the Web site to seek out information or to contact municipal officials, and they may call the municipal offices on the telephone.
    Mr. Puliti said township residents may contact Township Council members by e-mail through the Lawrence Township Web site, which is Municipal Manager Richard Krawczun posts his “manager’s report” — which explains some items on Township Council’s meeting agenda — online, he said.
    Noting that people often ask similar questions, Ms. Bigley suggested compiling a list of the most frequently asked questions and posting them online on the municipal Web site.
    And finally, asked about their goals if they were elected to Township Council, the candidates offered a range of goals.
    Ms. Bigley said her first goal would be to review the municipal budget to find a way to “hold the line on taxes as best as possible.”
    “The big one is taxes,” Mr. Kownacki said.
    Mr. Miller said he would challenge the administration to find ways to provide services without “pricing” residents out of the township. He would also push for more openness in government and encourage residents to use the Web site more frequently.
    And Mr. Puliti said he would try to keep the municipal tax rate stable, and to establish a municipal ethics advisory board.
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