Red Bank residents have plenty of concerns. Property taxes, they say, are too high. Government, they suggest, is not forthright enough. The local economy, they mention, is still struggling. What they want to know is, what’s going to be done about all of it?
In the community room of River Street Commons Wednesday night, a crowd of more than 75 people gathered for the Westside Community Group’s annual Red Bank Candidates Night. With three candidates appealing for votes in the upcoming council election, residents were given the chance to have their questions and concerns addressed directly.
Incumbent Democrats Council President Art Murphy and Councilman Mike DuPont are seeking re-election to their fourth and third terms, respectively, while Republican challenger and Board of Education Member Sue Viscomi is looking for her first term on borough council. The consensus opinion from Murphy and DuPont is that things in Red Bank are working. For Viscomi, they’re not.
When it comes to the issue of rising taxes, DuPont, head of the borough’s finance committee, believes he and the rest of council have done best by following the maxim “doing more with less.” Over the past few years, he said, the borough’s debt has been reduced by 30 percent, operating expenses are down, and so too are the number of borough employees, trimmed by attrition rather than layoffs. The town has also been able to increase its surplus, too, he said.
Yes, he admitted, taxes have gone up, but have stayed under the state’s mandated 2 percent cap. The reason, he said, is that while the borough is running leaner, costs like healthcare and pension contributions have strained Red Bank’s budget.
Viscomi, who serves on the Board of Education’s finance committee, said council hasn’t done its best to try and lower taxes, but instead has renamed it. The rising reoccurring revenues, like meter payments, parking tickets, and water and sewer bills, which fund Red Bank’s independent water distribution system, are all taxes just with a different name.
Viscomi said she would help trim costs by holding borough employees more accountable, saying that people tend to “dilly-dally” when on the job. She pointed to the borough’s Department of Public works, saying she would place more stringent controls to ensure that work was being done in a timely fashion by doing things like outfitting borough trucks with GPS and making hourly employees punch in and out during working hours.
Though several important questions were asked and answered, the debate was marred by a small group of residents who decided to ignore the rules issued by moderator Amy Goldsmith. Instead of asking questions and waiting for a reply from the candidates, several residents instead used the platform to, as one resident put it, ‘give a speech,’ and to bicker back and forth with the candidates and each other in a self-serving and disruptive fashion.
When the small group of residents weren’t sucking their teeth at every comment, audible talking throughout the entirety of the procession, and interrupting the candidates at every turn, questions were answered occasionally, however.
For much of the night, as DuPont and Viscomi exchanged their differing opinions about various topics, Murphy was content to let his fellow candidates do the heavy lifting, answering questions only when addressed directly. In one instance, Murphy was asked why he receives benefits as a councilman – DuPont does not receive benefits from council and Viscomi said, if elected, she would not either – to which he replied: “I’m taking the benefits.” The issue comes up every election cycle, he said, and while he says it’s a fair point to address, he’s not willing to give up the benefits he receives.
Murphy instead used his opening and closing comments to provide a concise assessment of the job he said he and his fellow councilman have done to make Red Bank a better place, calling Red Bank a trend setter whose direction other towns have attempted to follow.
DuPont concentrated his closing comments on the future, saying he and Murphy ran on a platform of a vision last time, and that the vision has not yet been completed.
What concerns Viscomi most, she said, is the Democratic monopoly that’s run Red Bank for the past several decades. With the exception of a few former council members like state Sen. Jennifer Beck, and Monmouth County Freeholder John Curley, the borough council has been comprised of all Democrats. The public would be better served by electing her, if only to be the council’s lone voice of dissent and a challenge to rubber stamp politics.