By Frank Mustac, Special Writer
HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP — Hopewell Township features election day’s only local contested election for a seat on municipal government bodies.
Incumbent Committeeman Harvey Lester is being challenged by Julie Blake for a three-year term.
Elected as a Democrat in 2012 to the 5-member Township Committee, Mr. Lester switched his affiliation to the Republican Party after he was selected as mayor for a one-year term by his fellow Committee members in January 2015.
Ms. Blake is running as a Democrat.
Each candidate responded to several questions about themselves and their campaigns. The questions, and the responses from Mr. Lester and Ms. Blake are provided below.
Q: Describe the two or three main issues of this campaign, and explain your position on each issue.
Julie Blake chose the PennEast pipeline, taxes and affordability, and overdevelopment.
Penn East: The PennEast pipeline represents the gravest threat to the Hopewell Valley in a generation or more. The pipeline promises to disturb our wildlife and forests, damage our water, and put our health at significant risk. Slated to cut across the township from west of the Ted Stiles Preserve to Mercer Meadows, the pipeline flagrantly violates our decades long commitment to preserving the environment and open space. We need to mobilize all forces to stop this pipeline in the way that previous generations blocked the interstate highway from cutting through our community.
We are fortunate to have so many excellent environmental groups in Hopewell Valley: Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed, the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, and the D & R Greenway Land Trust, the New Jersey Conservation League, among them.
Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline and StopPennEast have done a great job partnering with our State and Federal Democratic leadership in spearheading the resistance to this threat. If elected, I will work to strengthen these crucial partnerships.
Taxes and affordability: I’ve spoken with nearly a thousand Hopewell residents since April, and the most common concern I’ve heard is that high taxes are making Hopewell Township unaffordable.
Under my opponent’s leadership, the township has failed to respond to these concerns. Harvey Lester and the Republicans approved a +9 percent net spending hike for 2015, and Hopewell Township’s total spending increased faster than any other town in Mercer County. At a time when we should be tightening our belts, our spending rose from $21 million in 2014 to $24.6 million in 2015.
The township is using its emergency funds and borrowing money to meet this spending increase. An incredible 29.21 percent of our budget now goes to paying for debt service!
Our tax levy rose +5.28 percent this past year (again the highest in Mercer County!), but the misuse of emergency funds will create great problems in the future. The emergency funds are gone forever, but the higher base spending remains.
This is not a healthy way to run local government. When you start borrowing money and using your emergency fund to pay for increased spending, you leave yourself with two choices: increase taxes or look around for big developers who will bail you out.
Overdevelopment: Overdevelopment is a serious threat as it stresses our schools, roads, public services and environment. Hopewell is a rural community that has limited sewers and for years has conscientiously dedicated significant parts of its budget to preserving open space.
We have to be mindful of how we will meet out affordable housing responsibilities. I am worried about proposals to overdevelop the Route 31 corridor and the southern tier. Why has the township planned extensive housing developments that will clog the area between I-95 and the Pennington Circle? That stretch of road is one of the most dangerous corridors in Mercer County. Why would we feed more traffic into it? In short, we do not want to create an “Affordable Housing District” in Hopewell Township nor do we want to develop tracts of land that require expensive construction and sewers.
As a Hopewell Township Committee member, I would propose that we have a serious public discussion about whether we should require all commercial construction to be certifiably green. I want to point out that, as a candidate, I have pledged not to accept any monetary contributions from developers or others who seek to exploit our natural resources for financial gain.
Harvey Lester chose the Penn East pipeline, taxes and development.
PennEast: I am fighting the PennEast pipeline every step of the way. In October 2014, I voted to oppose the pipeline in a township resolution that authorized township intervention. In November 2014, I attended the PennEast open house at South Hunterdon High School to see their tactics for myself.
Besides attending numerous public meetings and strategy sessions, in February 2015, at the scoping meeting, I publicly urged FERC to vote for the “No Build” option.
In July, when the county granted PennEast survey approval at Baldpate Mountain, I authored a press release announcing that I would introduce a resolution at our upcoming township committee meeting to demand that the county rescind their permission. Within 24 hours of publication, the county withdrew survey approval. At that meeting, I introduced and passed a resolution banning PennEast from surveying township property, including Baldpate Mountain.
Also in July, as chair of the Hopewell Township Board of Health, I conducted a novel hearing with scientific testimony regarding health and safety aspects of the pipeline. After hearing testimony, I introduced and passed a resolution declaring that the pipeline was “a significant and unreasonable risk to township residents.”
Recently, I became an intervenor in my own right.
Taxes: Even with the lowest municipal tax rate in Mercer County, debt was a budget drag this year.
For years, previous township committees kicked the debt can down the road by spending money that we did not have, and failing to responsibly plan for our future.
By 2014, we had $49 million in bonds to be paid off by future committees. For example, when the 2008 Township Committee bought Pennytown for $6.5 million and our affordable housing trust fund ran out of money, future township committees were stuck with that obligation. When we had a fire this year, those obligations combined to cause our spending to spike.
This year, under my leadership, 14 public budget meetings were conducted. That represents more than twice as many budget meetings than were conducted during the previous year and more budget meetings than 2013 and 2014 combined. Like zero-based budgeting, every dollar was scrutinized.
In 2015, Wall Street acknowledged Hopewell Township’s money management skills when the bond rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, gave Hopewell Township its highest rating of triple A. That highest rating put Hopewell Township in an exclusive club of only 18 New Jersey municipalities with a triple A bond rating.
Development: I believe in limiting development. Always have, always will. In the past, Democrats have represented that view, but following their massive Kooltronic-Pennytown scheme and more massive Scotch Road Town Center proposal, I see that local Republicans are currently the party holding the line on development.
In 2008, under a Democratic administration, the township bought Pennytown for $6.5 million to construct 70 affordable housing units. By 2009, still under a Democratic administration, the project expanded to 365 housing units and a proposed partnership with Kooltronic Corporation. Under Republican administrations of 2010, 2011 and 2012, the project did not move forward. When the Democrats regained control of the Township Committee in 2013, the project was resurrected and was wildly unpopular. I chose to stand with the people and against my former party.
By 2014, history had repeated itself. When the current owner of the former Merrill Lynch property at Scotch Road asked the Planning Board to recommend to the Township Committee re-zoning 200 acres on the west side of Scotch Road, the Democratic administration proposed a 1,000-acre Scotch Road Town Center project. Once again, the project was wildly unpopular. Once again, I stood with the people and against my former party.
By Frank Mustac, Special Writer