While thunder and lightning raged outside the Lodge at Schooley’s Mountain County Park Thursday, inside the adjacent lodge building sparks flew between Republican candidates for two top Morris County elected offices.
The Republican clubs of the Chesters, Mendhams, Mount Olive and Washington Township hosted debates between the primary election candidates for Morris County clerk, and three open seats on the Board of Freeholders.
Seeking the five-year term to replace retiring Clerk Joan Bramhall are: Laurie Bogaard of Chester, an attorney; retiring Freeholder Ann Grossi of Parsippany, an attorney; Zbigniew Nowacki of Denville, a county treasury department employee; Michael Sanchelli of Jefferson, a township council member and county public works employee, and James Vigilante of Parsippany, a business owner and former councilman. The winner of the June 4 primary will face Democrat Terry O’Connor Redwine of Butler in November.
Running for the three open three-year freeholder seats are incumbents Douglas Cabana of Boonton Township, an attorney and Thomas Mastrangelo of Parsippany, a business executive; Kathy DeFillippo of Roxbury, deputy mayor; Stephen DeHart of Pequannock, a business owner; and Barbara Eames of Hanover, former school board member and current Maplewood teacher.
The winners will face the winners of a Democratic primary that drew four candidates: Donald Cresitello and Roger Holman of Morristown; Thomas Moran of Randolph; and Mark Stein of Long Hill.
Both debates had their moments of contention.
During the clerk debate Bogaard fired the first salvo when she called Grossi a “double dipper” because Grossi qualifies for two state pensions, and said that fact calls into question Grossi’s self-declared status as a “fiscal conservative.”
Grossi said that her $21,000 pension was modest and was earned because she, like those in private business, paid into a pension system. She said her pension did not compare to the potential pension that would be earned by Bogaard’s husband, Essex County Superior Judge Peter Bogaard, who stands to collect 75 percent of his $165,000 salary, while, if his wife is elected clerk, the family will earn “nearly $300,000” in state salaries.
Bogaard snapped back, declaring her husband’s job off limits.
In the freeholder debate, DeHart and Eames, who are running as a team of “Conservative Republicans," sniped at Cabana and Mastrangelo, also running as a team, along with DeFillippo, who was absent Thursday.
The disagreements reached a peak during a debate about the use of regional planning in relation to a proposed change to the state's development and redevelopment plan.
Eames said regionalization would mean municipalities and residents would lose control of some actions to “unelected regional bureaucrats,” including the acceptance of grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for “low-income housing,” while DeHart said the state plan would force urbanization upon Morris County.
“Do you want urban areas in Morris County? Show me your hands," DeHart asked the audience.
Both opponents said regional planning is an element of U.N. Agenda 21, which is a non-binding action plan for sustainable development passed in 1992. Some groups have declared the plan a U.N. conspiracy to take away individual rights.
DeHart and Eames accused the incumbent freeholders of agreeing with Agenda 21 because they supported a resolution last year to back the revised state plan.
Cabana said that the freeholders last year passed a supporting resolution to ensure that Morris County had a “seat at the table” when regional planning was discussed. The resolution was clear that the freeholders did not support Agenda 21, he said.
He said, refuting DeHart, that for years the state has been supporting development along transportation systems like roads and train lines. That policy has assisted Morristown, Madison, Denville and other towns like the Chathams to attract residents and jobs, Cabana said.
Other issues raised by Freeholder candidates included county spending, including the future of Morris View Healthcare Center and county nursing home.
Cabana said that more than 10 years ago the freeholders took over the nursing home from the foundation that was running it. At first the county contributed $16 million to keep the center open. Now, through a series of moves to privatize many of the services, including the hiring of a private management company to run the facility, the county contributed $4 million to the center, Cabana said.
Mastrangelo said that the every effort is being made to reduce the costs and increase the income of the nursing home. He said the freeholders support keeping the facility open because of residents who need the service.
Eames was uncertain of her position on the matter. She said costs need to be controlled but was not sure the center needed to be closed. She said she would follow the consensus of the board on the issue.
DeHart said he would close the facility. He said it costs $30 million to operate and has 280 patients.
“Thirty million is a lot of money. That’s 10 percent of the county budget to take care of those 280 residents.”
The open space trust fund was also called into question.
Cabana and Mastrangelo said that the freeholders cut the open space tax again this year, the third in a row. Cabana said the trust fund was authorized by voters in 1996 and since then the county has preserved 21,000 acres of farms, wetlands, open space and parks, and historic sites. The trust fund is used to maintain the county’s quality of life, he said.
Mastrangelo sad the county in recent years has used the open space fund to assist towns seeking to buy up properties in flood plains, part of a larger flood litigation effort started after Hurricane Irene.
Eames questioned the need for the fund, now that “25 percent of the county has been preserved.” She said that while the open space tax has been cut, the county still has $95 million in reserve.
Cabana said that represents funds that have been already encumbered.
DeHart said the referendum that approved the open space trust fund was held too long ago, and called for a new referendum to ask voters’ opinion on the tax.
No Tax Hike, But Still a High Budget
Cabana and Mastrangelo said this year’s county budget included no tax increase, a 1.7 percent decrease in the county tax levy, a $4 million cut in the open space tax. The 2013 budget was $6 million less than in 2012, and included $4 million in pension savings and a $7.7 million cut in borrowing.
Eames and DeHart acknowledged that the county tax rate dropped and that the operating budget dropped, but it was still $3 million more than it was in 2010 when Cabana and Mastrangelo were elected.
They said the budget was trimmed in ways that were unsustainable, including the cut to the open space tax.
DeHart said that the Morris County Improvement Authority has been borrowing money at an accelerated rate, including providing funds for private companies and low income housing. He said, “Our children and grandchildren” will pay off this debt. DeHart said the authority represents larger and larger government, which only fuels inefficiency and higher costs.
Cabana said that the county has reduced borrowing. The improvement authority is an independent agency and the freeholder board has oversight, he said. The projects funded through the authority take advantage of the county’s AAA bond rating and have saved participating schools and towns millions, he said.
Management, Budget Questioned in Clerk Debate
All the candidates for clerk said they would examine staffing and job allocations after they took office. All of them tied the staff and budget considerations to creating new goals for the department.
Vigilante said the clerk’s office supervises elections, issues passports, performs marriages and handles real estate transfers and records. He, and others said staff cross training would be an important step. Vigilante said he would enter the office with his eyes open and be ready to learn what needs to be done, but providing leadership would be the key.
“I’ll take care of the customers,” he said, “and the customers are the Morris County residents.”
Sanchelli, who worked in the clerk’s office previously, said all staff there are cross trained. As the staff has been reduced the remaining staff has shared duties, he said.
Grossi said that she is aware as a freeholder that cuts have been made at the clerk’s office, but it remains “an efficient, well run office.” She would seek to improve job standards in the office.
She said the job calls for executive management experience, which she has and would apply. Vigilante touted his military management experience and Nowacki said his previous job as an auditor prepared him with the financial management skills necessary for the clerk’s job.
Sanchelli said that his experience in the auto-racing business, when he managed race tracks, has prepared him to face the staff, budget and customer service issues in the office.
Bogaard said she would seek to continue the quality of service Bramhall has in place at the office and “Be alert and cooperative with people.”
On budget matters, Bogaard said she would seek to lower the real estate transfer fee collected by the office. The fee is the prime source of income for the clerk’s office. It is collected when property is sold.
Bogaard said the clerk, by law, pays a portion of the revenue generated by the fee to the county and another portion to the state. But it is a tax, she said, and the money “should stay in the pockets of Morris County residents.” She said her goal as a fiscal conservative is to lower the taxes for county residents.
The other candidates pointed out that a county clerk can not by themselves change the real estate transaction fee, since it set by state law.
Bogaard said she would try to seek a short-term cut, maybe four months, as a way to stimulate homesales, and perhaps the economy.
Vigilante said that a cut in the fee could help. He said that years ago he paid a transfer fee of $500, and last year, paid $4,800.
Sanchelli said the amount collected by the clerk’s office is a reflection of the general economy. It rises when the economy is good and drops when the economy is bad.
Nowacki said he did not see any way to changing the transfer fee, but would favor a lower fee if it could be changed.
Grossi said the current fee levels are created under Democratic administrations in Trenton, and did not see the current legislature “taking back any tax now.”