The Sun asked the candidates the following questions, the candidates answered to the best of their ability, and how they would problem solve if they were to be voted into council.
Question 1: What ideas are you coming up with to combat the financial crisis in Medford?
Question 2: In what ways are you going to facilitate government transparency in the community?
Jeff Beenstock, Republican
This all-new council, of which Chuck Watson and I are part, inherited a $6 million budget deficit at the beginning of this year. We closed this deficit and balanced the budget on time. We achieved this result largely by closely examining the township’s expenses and eliminating costs that were not absolutely necessary. Only after all prudent budget cuts had been made did we present the referendum for consideration by the taxpayers.
Now that we have reset the tax levy, the amount of taxes the township receives, as a result of the referendum, we must limit tax increases to stay within the 2 percent cap imposed by state law. While I will work to keep property taxes as low as possible, I am not willing to pledge not to increase property taxes. The financial problems we are now working to resolve were created in large part because Medford did not increase municipal taxes at all from 2006–2010. This failure to increase taxes resulted in passing the financial burden to the future, and we are dealing with it now. We cannot let that happen again. When the referendum passed, it was intended to make up for the past and not to provide revenue for the future. Tax increases should be a last resort but need to remain an option.
In the first instance, though, we can control the budget by limiting spending and making sure the municipality provides only core municipal services. Here are some specific examples we are pursuing now and will continue with if elected:
- Four union contracts will expire at the end of this year. We will aggressively negotiate those contracts and use as the model the contract with the firemen’s union we agreed to earlier this year, which resulted in concessions to the town.
- As we first mentioned during the budget process, we are exploring hiring a private company to provide trash disposal. Last month, we solicited bids. We received responses earlier this month. The lowest bid could result in hundreds of thousand of dollars of cost savings to the township and at the same time provide enhanced service with respect to bulk trash, which would be picked up twice a month rather than the current quarterly service.
- We are examining a self-funding healthcare system. By leaving the state system and carefully planning for healthcare expenses, we have the potential to save the township hundreds of thousands of dollars and provide an equal or better healthcare system to our employees.
- The township has $45 million in long-term debt. We will pay $3.9 million in debt service this year and are scheduled to pay $4.2 million in debt service next year. We need to pursue all reasonable ways to restructure the debt service in a fiscally responsible manner.
- We need to continue to attract new businesses that are consistent with Medford’s character to enhance the current business community and reduce the residential tax burden. The Economic Development Commission, led by Mike Pagnotta, has done a phenomenal job of promoting Medford to businesses. We will support this effort by pursuing the rehabilitation designation of the Main Street area, revamping our sign ordinance, and generally lessening the regulation of business through our land use process.
- The governing body must also assist existing businesses. At the last council meeting, we discussed a program recently adopted in another New Jersey town that provides property tax rebates to its residents who shop at local businesses. The rebate comes from a portion of the payment for the goods and services and not from municipal funds. It has been very well received, but we need to examine it further before we decide it works for Medford. The township will arrange for and invite the business community to a meeting with the third party vendor that sponsors the program to provide additional information. I would only be a proponent of this program if the business community feels strongly that it would benefit.
These are some of the ideas we believe will make Medford financially healthy for the long term. There is no magic to achieve this result, and it will not happen quickly. However, Chuck Watson and I have the experience and the wherewithal to see it through.
Open government has been and will continue to be a priority of this current council. Prior to this new council taking office, there was substantial acrimony and discord at council meetings. We have worked hard to conduct our business in a civil and open manner and encourage public participation.
At the beginning of this year, we changed the agenda of our council meetings to add a second public comment period. The first public comment period is near the beginning of the meeting and allows the public to have input on our agenda items prior to consideration and action. The second public comment period occurs at the end of the public portion of each meeting. It gives the public an opportunity to discuss any issue at all, including items that arose during the meeting.
Although it is necessary for council to meet in executive session in order to discuss confidential business, our agenda identifies and describes each topic to be considered in executive session. Minutes of each executive session are prepared, and are released at such time as the topics covered are no longer confidential.
We have followed the model of the Blue Ribbon Committee that studied the proposed Medford Crossings project by appointing committees consisting of a combination of council members and residents. Council created a task force to make recommendations to council about procedures to be implemented to make sure that the municipal government acts according to law. Specific recommendations were made. Council has already implemented some of them and will consider others shortly. We also formed a committee to evaluate the current sign ordinance. Chaired by Chuck Watson, this committee, consisting of two council members, residents and a planner, recently started its work, and expects to make recommendations to council by the end of this year.
We have worked within the limitations of the township’s current website to provide as much information as possible. Updates are regularly posted. We also use the Nixle system to provide e-mails containing important township information.
This fall, the township offered to residents a local government institute. This course, which was created by the township manager, has a detailed curriculum that educates residents on each aspect of their local government. Township employees volunteer their time to teach. The course completely filled up. There is currently a waiting list for a second offering of the institute next year.
We can and will do more. The township will examine whether it is cost effective to record and possibly stream council meetings. We will also look into whether the current website can be updated and improved.
Ultimately, public awareness of and participation into local government is critical to its success. As Mayor Randy Pace often says, “Residents must not expect from their government but should inspect their government.” As a council member, I expect to be accountable to Medford residents, and will work to make sure everything I do fosters open government.
Chuck Watson, Republican
As part of an all new council that took office this past January, Jeff Beenstock and I considered the financial issues facing Medford to be our highest priority. While certain expenses are legally or contractually required, everything else was on the table. During the budget process we looked at, all of these expenses for efficiencies, cost reductions, outsourcing options, and even at their necessity and we will continue to do so in the future. We have recently received bids for the outsourcing of our trash pickup. The preliminary review of these numbers has show the possibility of saving Medford hundreds of thousands of dollars while actually increasing the services residents will receive.
We are looking at our employee health insurance plan in detail. Preliminary numbers are showing a sizable savings for 2013. While this is a great first step, I have asked that we look at additional health care savings going forward using tools that I have used in my business. As an example, I instituted a health care savings plan that saved me thousands of dollars and increased the benefits to my employees at no cost to them. We will look at refinancing our debt on an ongoing basis for the opportunity to reduce costs. We will be very careful about incurring any additional debt making sure it is necessary and affordable. We will actively look to attract commercial ratables that will bring us needed tax revenue without impacting the burden on our school budgets. The rehabilitation studies that we have approved and the new sign ordinance that I am actively working on will help to attract these businesses to Medford. Opportunities for outsourcing and shared services will continue to be looked at. If they make financial and logistical sense for Medford, we take advantage of them.
In eliminating the $6 million deficit that we inherited in January, we substantially reduced the use of one time revenues. I will work to continue to reduce the use of one time revenues. I have lived my life and run my businesses by living within my means and will make the tough financial decisions that will have Medford living within its means as well.
Government transparency in Medford is at a higher level now than before we took office in January. We will continue to have meetings that are run in an open and civil manner. The public will continue to have multiple opportunities to comment and ask questions at our meetings. Our budget process will continue in open meetings with public comment and all of the documents we use will be made available online as was done this year. We will continue to question bills publicly, and openly, after reviewing the bill lists line by line. We will continue to be available by email or phone if you a question.
I would like to see our website updated giving the residents even more information as quickly as possible. We have expended the use of Nixle, a community information service found at www.nixle.com, and will continue to expand its use. We are also reviewing options for streaming our meetings over the internet.
Nancy and George Youngkin, Democrat
Zero based budget approach. We zero out all items from the previous year’s budget, then budget the expenditures that are required by county or state or by existing contracts. The next step would be to budget expenditures, which are not required, but extremely important to tax payers. Then, and only then, would other desirable expenditures be considered.
Shared Services. We believe there is a lot of potential for saving the township money by way of shared services. For example, we pay an attorney, a judge, and several secretaries for our municipal court. If we shared that service with another town, those costs would be lower.
County and State Funds. We pay a lot of money to the state and county in taxes. Much of that money is earmarked to come back to the municipalities. Unfortunately, there is paperwork involved, as well as matching funds for certain types of grants. But not all of them. For instance, the Clean Communities Grant; no match requirement Medford was getting around $45,000 each year, until 2012, when they got $3,500. Either the money wasn’t used correctly, or paperwork wasn’t filed.
Outsourcing. We believe there are areas that should be considered for outsourcing. However we know outsourcing is no guarantee for savings, or quality service. There are alternatives, like shared services, negotiating contracts that make sense for a town this size, or maybe there are retirees who’d like to work a few hours a week for the town they live in.
Attracting Business to Medford. Vitality creates growth. If we keep Medford beautiful, if we streamline the process for businesses to open, and be cost effective, we will have business. Planning, or lack there of, is an ongoing issue in Medford. We feel it is time to go back to the drawing board and make sure future development improves connectivity and flow, where it has been lacking. Continued support of the Economic Development Committee, who is responsible for the upcoming boom on Main Street. We think attraction type businesses on Route 70 would draw people into town. And we have to focus on all of the business districts, and do what we can to perpetuate the flow.
If council has two members who are not in the same party, there will absolutely be more transparency, because there will be dissenting voices asking questions. Even minority council members can force the majority to provide support for its arguments and explore issues that the majority may not want to have explored. And specifically, we would move to post the minutes to council meetings in a timely fashion.