Councilwoman still has passion for town

Pauline Smith wants careful review of municipal spending in Howell this year


Pauline Smith Pauline Smith HOWELL — Even though Republican Pauline Smith was sworn in to office as a member of the Howell Township Council a mere two months ago, the town’s newest councilwoman already knows a few things about sitting on the dais.

Smith and fellow Republican William Gotto won unexpired one-year terms in the November election. Voters elected Smith and Gotto to the council with 9,028 and 8,812 votes, respectively, a final count that surprised Smith at the time.

“I’m not a politician. I don’t worry about votes, but look at all the votes I did get,” said Smith, who triumphed by more than 6,000 votes against Democratic and independent candidates. “The only surprise in the election was that I did not expect there to be such a margin.”

But the newly elected official should not be too shocked — she is nowhere near green to township government. Smith, who has lived in Howell for 46 years, is equipped with years of experience in municipal affairs, including two years as a councilwoman during the township’s most tumultuous times.

Smith was first elected to the governing body in November 1992 to serve a two-year term. She was part of an alternative slate known as the Howell Republicans.

“We were the second Republican organization. We were the renegades,” she said. “We were a group of not-very-political people, but we felt that we needed to do something to change Howell. And we did; it was very successful.”

She said the township was undergoing considerable financial hardship at that time, and the newly elected administration, which also included Democrat Pat Bennett, comprised the first dais to be considered a Township Council rather than a Township Committee.

“We were in such debt that the state threatened to come in and take over. Their usual plan of action in this type of circumstance would be to raise taxes tremendously, but they gave us a trial period on the condition that we switch our form of government,” Smith said.

Upon the advent of the 1993 Township Council, the municipality had a poor bond rating, no surplus and a substantial amount of debt. But Smith, along with the rest of the governing body, worked from an economic ground zero to establish Howell as a financially viable municipality once again.

According to Smith, the council took many weighty measures to rectify Howell’s situation, including a notable raise in tax rates for one year, a halt on bonding, a salary freeze, a hiring freeze and a substantial tightening of the budget.

“We had a good turnaround. We didn’t bond much, we didn’t put any money into recreation, and we tightened the budget. You would be astounded at how we made do,” she said. “We went through a line-by-line budgeting process and whittled all department budgets down as much as possible.”

In addition to those efforts, the council also found there was an exorbitant amount of uncollected taxes, a majority of which were property taxes. Smith said research into the nonpayment of taxes was conducted immediately, and officials quickly collected what was due to the township, thus ameliorating some financial burden.

During that time, Smith said, she also helped to avert further financial losses for the municipality. The township-owned utility authority was in extensive debt, and according to Smith, an option being considered by the council was to buy the Adelphia water and sewer company which was owned by K. Hovnanian.

“The idea was to buy that franchise and spread water and sewer around to more people so we could collect more money and ultimately climb out of debt,” she said. “But the contract was horrendous. We would have been buying nothing and putting ourselves in a worse position.”

Smith said the contract called for $1,500 per unit hookup for 500 homes that were not built yet, and an estimate that valued everything as though it was new. In order to buy Adelphia water and sewer, she said, Howell would have had to borrow money from a Swiss bank. Smith said she fought against it, and with the support of Councilman Aaron Smith (no relation), the contract was turned down.

Though Smith weathered an economic storm during her time on the governing body, she initially ran for council due to perceived conflicts between the township zoning plan and the master plan.

“When the township deviated from the master plan, especially when it came to the Council on Affordable Housing [COAH] requirements, they did so without the taking the proper measures. Unbeknownst to many residents, there were zoning changes,” Smith said. “The first round of COAH units were all a part of settlements. The developers were building in wetlands with no buffers and no limitations. COAH was entitled to do what they wanted.”

Smith said she educated herself on the issue and took college courses in planning, zoning and COAH in order to rectify the problems. She pushed for an ordinance that mandated that people who may be affected by certain zoning changes be notified of the proposed changes — a document that was in turn adopted by the state a year after Smith’s term ended.

In addition, Smith helped put another ordinance in place that charged a developer a fee that would go to an affordable housing trust fund that could be used by Howell to meet its state-mandated obligation to provide opportunities for the development of affordable housing.

During that time, Smith also advocated for the rehabilitation of housing in surrounding municipalities. The measure, which is illegal now, would count toward Howell’s affordable housing requirements. She believed it was in Howell’s best interest to take advantage of this law in order to preserve its rural landscape while still satisfying COAH mandates.

“The most important consideration was the damage to natural resources, but what most people saw was money going to other towns. I believe in paying for certain things that will benefit us in the long term. Freehold Borough had some property that needed to be refurbished and paid for, but it counted for us [Howell’s affordable housing obligation],” Smith said. “There are city people and country people. Why pull either of those people out of their environment?”

Smith has carried that sense of conservation with her throughout her years between council seats. She is still very much an ally of open space and farmland preservation, and feels that she can represent this portion of the township’s population.

“The township seems to be run by professionals, not the people we elected. I have not felt, as a rural resident, that we have been represented in any which way,” she said. “But I feel as though I can represent rural people. Our needs should be considered when the council makes decisions.”

According to Smith, rural roads need to be considered when making development decisions, along with the fact that farms are ratables in and of themselves.

“Farmland and open space are ratables. That land doesn’t require the amount of services that a commercial development would, and it ultimately saves the township money,” she said.

Smith also noted that there has been significant damage to Howell’s potable water system, on which many residents rely, due to what she called overdevelopment.

“Each of us lives in a little bit of a different way and has different needs. Potable water is just one example of that, but we need large-lot zoning to protect our water and air, which we need as much as space to exist,” Smith said. “If we don’t preserve it now, our grandchildren won’t have anything.”

The new councilwoman also noted that there are some parallels that can be drawn from the economic situation of 1993 to the current strain on township finances, although the 2010 outlook is not as severe.

“The pendulum has come back with a very similar financial situation; however, this time it’s just as much politics as it is economics. Decisions were made without realizing the consequences,” Smith said. “We are not going into it as badly as we did in the early 1990s, but we need to make sure it doesn’t get that bad.”

Smith said she would like to make sure this year’s municipal budget goes through a line-by-line analysis as it did in 1993, and to make sure that necessities are taken care of before other expenditures are made.

“Being conservative is the best bet. Basics come first. We are not in a position to spend money on extras, we really have to look at our priorities,” she said.

Smith said municipal officials should keep an eye on the school board in order to reduce property taxes, and said officials should stay away from excessive recreation and development funding. She also advises residents to be prepared if officials need to take extensive measures to save money.

“People will have to understand. Most residents don’t consider when they move in that Howell is a very large municipality and it takes more tax dollars to run. If you’re not trained, you don’t realize it,” she said. “But it’s a miracle that we pull off what we do.”

The councilwoman hopes her experience and passion will shine through enough to make a difference in Howell over the course of the year.

“I’m only one person, and I can only hope the rest of the council picks up on it,” Smith said. “But I really hear the citizens. I know what they are saying and I don’t just pass it off. They know that what I say, they can trust. And hopefully the other members of the council will trust it, too.

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