MONTGOMERY: Four vie for two Township Committee seats

There are four choices on the ballot for the two Township Committee seats up for election on Nov. 5.

By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Staff Writer
   MONTGOMERY — There are four choices on the ballot for the two Township Committee seats up for election on Nov. 5.
   Incumbent Mayor Ed Trzaska and incumbent Deputy Mayor Patricia Graham face newcomers Ernie Willson and Sarah Roberts.
   If reelected, Mr. Trzaska said his top priority would be to continue to adhere to the township’s core governing principles — do more with less, protect public health and safety services, and preserve Montgomery’s rural character by increasing the township’s open space portfolio.
   ”These principles have guided us well over the past few years and will ensure success in the future,” Mr. Trzaska said. “During my eight ‘Meet the Mayor’ town hall meetings this year, I spoke to over 300 residents about my vision and plans for Montgomery. The response was remarkably positive because most residents believe in the same principles for our town. When elected officials and residents are so well aligned, a community can truly improve and grow.”
   If elected, Ms. Roberts said she would like to preserve more open space while it’s still available, and open some land for community gardens for residents.
   ”Open space offers many benefits, including reducing flooding, cleaning our air and water, and providing our water supply,” Ms. Roberts said. “Open space has been shown to be an asset for the local economy. It is also a place that offers an area for healthy exercise for residents, supports farms and farming, and provides the rural atmosphere we all value.”
   Ms. Roberts said she would also like to create an exciting, walkable small-town “downtown” out of “the confusing, disconnected commercial district that currently surrounds the intersection of routes 206 and 518.”
   ”Montgomery is at a crossroads in the redevelopment, re-engineering and retrofitting of this area,” Ms. Roberts said. “If we do it right, which will take a lot more work and commitment from the Township Committee, we can ease traffic congestion and bring greater prosperity to the entire community for generations.”
   Ms. Roberts also said Montgomery needs to keep planning for the future.
   ”We should be planning to provide for efficient public and private transportation, a vigorous economy that meets the needs of businesses and residents, and a safe and healthy environment,” Ms. Roberts said.
   If reelected, Ms. Graham said she would continue the work of leading Montgomery through difficult financial times while protecting essential services and preserving the township’s rural character.
   ”We recently marked the fifth anniversary of the 2008 fiscal crisis and both our residents and our township continue to face financial challenges,” Ms. Graham said. “Residents face unemployment, underemployment, loss of income and the challenge of making ends meet.”
   If elected, Mr. Willson said he would work hard to reestablish commuter rail service from the old Belle Mead Station, to get better control of taxes and support an effective traffic control strategy in town.
   ”This would improve traffic patterns in the township and increase everyone’s real estate values,” Mr. Willson said. “When commuter train service is assured, we should plan modest-scale, transit-friendly development next to the train station and preserve the balance of the farmland nearby.”
   He continued, “Montgomery is facing a real financial challenge. A chronic budget deficit is upon us. Taxes will be going up for the next two to three years regardless of who is elected. I cannot say I can stop tax increases; however, I will work diligently to control them. Taxes can be controlled by responsible business expansion in the township. Projects like Madison Marquette, and the so-called Belle Mead node should be encouraged. Both of these projects can be developed with a minimum of environmental impact.”
   An effective traffic control strategy in Montgomery Township would mean new road connections, intersection improvements, timed traffic signals, additional turning lanes at routes 518 and 206, and better management of the curb cuts on Route 206, according to Mr. Willson.
   The candidates were asked about what they consider the most pressing issues in town.
   Mr. Trzaska said Montgomery’s three most important challenges are reflected in its core governing principles — financially do more with less, protect public health and safety services, and preserve Montgomery’s rural character.
   ”The cost of living in town is too high,” Mr. Trzaska said. “We need to do all that is possible to streamline local government and be more fiscally responsible. As such, we have cut spending to 2005 appropriation levels, approved budgets well below Gov. Chris Christie’s property tax cap, saved taxpayers over $600,000 with our debt refinancing plan, and lowered our residents’ electricity costs by $1.4 million. We are also working on a complete redesign of the staffing structure in town hall to improve efficiency and further reduce costs. And we have done all of this while aggressively investing in our roads and police department. As mayor, I know that spending our limited resources wisely is critical to Montgomery’s quality of life.”
   Mr. Trzaska said the Township Committee has approved many significant road projects and partnered with state and county officials to get even more done.
   There is no more important service that the local government provides than the Police Department, according to Mr. Trzaska.
   ”One of our core governing principles — protect public health and safety services — directly focuses on the effectiveness and quality of law enforcement in Montgomery,” Mr. Trzaska said. “As mayor, the evolution of our police department is probably the issue that ‘keeps me up at night’ the most. We have been working on this for the past two years and have made substantial progress. The key is to be aggressive and proactive.”
   The Montgomery Police Department is unique, according to Mr. Trzaska.
   ”In our community, customer service is just as important as law enforcement,” Mr. Trzaska said. “We have worked very hard to identify new cadets and leaders that understand and value this. At the end of the day, we will maintain the level of service that our residents expect and deserve.”
   For Ms. Roberts, the most important priority is two-party representation on the Township Committee.
   ”Because decisions made by a more diverse group with different points of view will be better, wiser decisions,” Ms. Roberts said. “With a 3-2 majority, Republicans could still make bad decisions based on party politics, but it would be much more difficult under the watchful gaze of the loyal opposition.”
   Ms. Roberts continued, “The Republican Township Committee says they have a structural deficit, which means an ongoing, permanent deficit. They are kicking the can down the road, and we need to do something about it. I believe we need to do more to support the business community so it can generate more tax revenue. I also support more shared services to save money and bring in more tax dollars.”
   Ms. Roberts also said the heads of several departments in the municipal government are near retirement, and the township will soon need to hire replacements.
   ”They are the ones who really run this town, on a day-to-day basis year in and year out,” Ms. Roberts said. “It is imperative that the process for hiring new senior staff and consultants meets a very high standard, to ensure that the best people are hired for the job, not the best-connected people. The hiring process and outcome will be better under a bipartisan Township Committee.”
   When it comes to pressing issues in town, Ms. Graham said, “I love Montgomery, but I do not love our taxes.”
   ”That is why, for the past three years, my top priority, and the priority of the entire Township Committee, has been the responsible fiscal management of the town so that we hold down municipal taxes, while preserving essential public safety and health services,” Ms. Graham said.
   Ms. Graham said the governing body must continue its efforts to budget responsibly and hold taxes down but should not been foolish in cutting spending.
   ”We have appropriately invested in road improvements and implemented a succession plan to ensure the continuity of the quality and leadership of our top-notch police force,” Ms. Graham said.
   She said Montgomery is a wonderful, diverse community in a beautiful semi-rural area.
   ”Indeed, my family moved to Montgomery 20 years ago not only for its excellent schools and wonderful community but because of the stunning scenic beauty of this locale,” Ms. Graham said. “I believe we must continue to preserve Montgomery’s beautiful open spaces so that we do not lose the rural character of the town forever.”
   When asked what he considers the most pressing issues in town, Mr. Willson said the three “t”s — traffic, taxes and transportation “closely followed by new and improved township services due to our changing population demographics.”
   ”More development near the 518/206 intersection is inevitable, and it could happen very well or very poorly,” Mr. Willson said. “New road connections to ease traffic congestion must be built. The former Texaco station will be developed but it must be done properly. We must also prevent the Tusk Restaurant from becoming another Texaco. We need to restore passenger rail service from Belle Mead to New York City and Philadelphia. I also envision improved NJ Transit bus service up to Hillsborough.”
   Mr. Willson said taxes need no introduction.
   ”The township will have several very financially challenging years,” Mr. Willson said. “Frugality will be mandatory, and new sources of tax revenue must be developed. “
   Mr. Willson said it would become a necessity to develop more services for middle age and senior citizens.
   ”Improvements might include more recreation and senior language programs, more pedestrian friendly areas, better parks, improved senior lunch programs, more sidewalks, and more upscale and convenient retail stores restaurants and cinema.”