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Candidates Talk Backgrounds And Plans For Future At Packed Forum

Thirteen candidates discussed the issues with a huge crowd at the Bellevue library branch

 

At a public forum that attracted upwards of 100 people to the Bellevue Avenue library branch Sunday afternoon, candidates running for town council in the May 8 election spoke about everything from what some believe to be the declining quality of Montclair High School to the abundance of supervisors at the Montclair Police Department.

One by one, candidates spoke briefly before the standing-room-only crowd—as many in the audience took copious notes—and explained why they were running for office. In total, 13 candidates were on hand to introduce themselves. The only mayoral candidate who was present was Karen Turner as the two other mayoral candidates—Harvey Susswein and Robert Jackson—had previous engagements.

Each candidate was given four minutes to speak. In general, several of them were more specific about their plans than they have been in the past. Below is a summary of what each had to say.

Bob Russo, candidate for councilor-at-large on the Montclair 2012 slate: I teach urban administration at Montclair State University. My students sometimes ask me why there can't just be a 'Montbloomridge' town. But I tell them that's not going to happen. But we can do more to share services with other towns. We have a fire services contract with Glen Ridge. The contract brings in less revenue now than it used to but this is the way we need to go. Surrounding towns like Verona and other smaller towns could use Montclair's services. I want to practice what I teach. People talk about outsourcing. I'm not for doing that. I'm for selling our services to other towns.

Walter Springer, candidate for second ward councilor on the For Montclair slate: I've lived here 22 years. On day one, I would have performance evaluations done for anyone having anything to do with this town. We need to know what we're paying for and who is doing what. We also need to strengthen the high school. Everyone loves the elementary schools and the middle schools but we start losing people when it comes to the high school. No one is saying that. It's the pink elephant in the room. I would also re-invest in the Capital Finance Committee. That is one group we need to listen to. We need to tap into volunteer groups. I was PTA president for two years at Mount Hebron. Overall, I've been a volunteer for 10 years.

Deputy Mayor Kathryn Weller-Demming, candidate for councilor-at-large: I've been here for 33 years or, as you can probably guess, my whole life. People talk a lot about people being forced to leave Montclair because of taxes and costs. That's a long-standing problem. Most of us want to stay. We've gotten a lot done in the last four years. We've been very aggressive when it comes to debt. We made many difficult choices. The most difficult was cutting funding to the library. But this year we were able to restore funding. My [theme] is Paying It Forward and that's what I want to do.

Peter Zorich, candidate for councilor-at-large on the Real Progress Montclair slate: I have two kids in the public schools ... at Hillside and Glenfield. I've worked as a TV news producer for the last 20 years. I now have a media consulting company. I've been dismayed by the crushing taxes. Taxes have doubled in the last 10 years. I don't want anyone to have to move out of this town because of taxes.

Selma Avdicevic, candidate for second ward councilor: When you look around here, we have high taxes, we have so-so schools. We have debt. The biggest problem is how we manage our money. I have spent 10 years in real estate management. I used to work for Leona Helmsley. I have a master's in real estate finance. I know a couple of things about debt. And I know how to manage a business. We need to peel back the layers and look at how we manage our money.

Robin Schlager, candidate for second ward councilor on the Montclair 2012 slate: I've lived here 20 years. We have two kids that went through the public school system. I don't think this is a so-so school system. I think it's an excellent school system. Of course, there could always be improvements. I've been PTA president at both Nishuane and Hillside. I'm an associate director for the MFEE, which raises money for our schools. I sit on the July 4th committee. I know how to raise money [from private sources]. The Rand Park in the second ward is crying out for help.

LeeAnn Carlson, candidate for councilor-at-large on the Real Progress Montclair slate: We moved here nine years ago. I became concerned that Montclair was becoming increasingly unaffordable. I was a founding member of the Concerned Ciizens of Montclair group. That's where I met Karen [Turner]. I'm an engineer by training. I was a brand manager for IBM. In the past my job has been to look for inefficiencies at companies. My daughter is a freshman at Montclair High School and I now have the time and I believe the skills to help Montclair.

Bill Hurlock, candidate for first ward councilor on the For Montclair slate: I've lived in the first ward 13 years. My daughter is at Glenfield and my son is at Northeast. My wife was president of the Northeast PTA. I'm proud to have two kids in public schools. What I've heard again and again from people is that as soon as their kids are out of high school they will be out of Montclair. I don't want to hear this anymore. We have to worry about the quality of life here [in addition to the financial situation]. We have graffiti on the back of Northeast School for the first time I can remember. I want to start holding meetings in the first ward and what could possibly be a better place than in this beautiful library building. I'm an attorney by trade but please don't hold that against me. I'm an adjunct professor now at Seton Hall Law School.

Chris Swenson, candidate for third ward councilor on the Real Progress Montclair slate: I graduated from Yale. I worked for Sen. Bill Bradley. I went to Wall Street and worked as an investment banker. I ran a number of small companies. I have a broad business background. I've lived here 19 years. I'm probably mostly known for founding the Montclair Baseball and Softball Club. I served on the revenue and budget committees for the Board of Education. We discovered there was actually an $11 million surplus last year. I think that some of what we did with the school board we can do for the town.

Karen Turner, mayoral candidate on the Real Progress Montclair slate: We moved here 17 years ago. My husband went to Nishuane, Mount Hebron, and Montclair High School. I was a public school kid. I worked at KPMG. I love this community but then I started looking at the numbers. From 2000 to 2012 our debt has increased 198 percent. Taxes for schools and the municipality have increased by 93 percent. We've seen a decrease in services. We've spent the last two years researching how these increases have happened and what we could do to free up more money so that our services aren't diminished. We would put an easy-to-read budget on the township website. If you look at the fire department, there are two non-management positions to every one management position.

Jeff Jacobson, candidate for third ward councilor on the For Montclair slate: We arrived here five years ago. Previously I worked for the city of Philadelphia. We outsourced trash transfer ... resulted in over $100 million in savings for the city. The good news is that the candidates are all saying that taxes are too high. For Montclair has ideas about introducing competition in government services. Look at the police department. There are 33 supervisors supervising about 79 officers and detectives. This is not an attack on anyone. But we need more officers on patrol. Our slate has been very specific and not everyone else has been. We're not going to cut the Bellevue branch funding. What's happening with the decrease in funding to the Montclair Community Pre-K is a disgrace.

First Ward Councilor Rich Murnick, running for re-election on the Montclair 2012 slate: I live on Gordonhurst. My office is at 210 Bellevue Avenue. I go to St. Cassian church. I eat nearly every meal at Dai Kichi or Jackie's or the Charbroil. When I say I'm local, I can't get any more local. I can tell you this. I will not vote for the [currently proposed municipal] budget unless the funds for the library and the [Montclair Community] Pre-K are in there. We want this [Bellevue] library branch to stay open Monday to Friday. Montclair State University could come in and use part of this for a museum for art displays and that would be okay. But we need to keep this as a library. It's an important institution.

Patricia Hurt, candidate for councilor-at-large: I've been a resident here 50 years. I taught at MSU. I graduated from Montclair High School. I was a prosecutor with Essex County. I'm a people person. We are faced with very diffficult times and we need leadership that's not afraid to make decisions. The police is a sacred cow. Fire and libraries are sacred cows. Education is a sacred cow. We need to make sure every dollar that goes to the county comes back to Montclair. Every county road ... when it snows we need to make sure the county will be there to maintain it. Few of us know what our county dollars are doing. I'm an ordinary girl trying to do an extraordinary thing.

Jeff Jacobson April 23, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Frank, What we've said is that (1) all three capital spending entities -- the Township, the BOE and the Library -- collectively need to borrow significantly less each year than they collectively pay down in "old debt," so that we're paying down a material amount of net debt in each year of our term; and (2) we want the BOE and the Library to submit their capital requests so that the Town Council can consider everyone's capital needs alongside one another and fund only those priorities that are necessary for public safety or will pay for themselves in a reasonable time. Mechanically, I believe the Council has a couple of different levers it could use to stop a project that doesn't meet these criteria, but I can't imagine a dispute would get that far. The Council and the BOE have to work cooperatively on these issues, and I believe we will.
carols April 23, 2012 at 10:15 PM
while it doesnt answer whether we are in the top 25, this report by the BOE presented this fall has a lot of info on our test scores. http://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/Article.aspx?Id=737
Right of Center April 23, 2012 at 10:18 PM
"or will pay for themselves in a reasonable time." The escape hatch.
Kevin April 23, 2012 at 10:39 PM
I honestly don't have confidence in the evaluations that have been performed. Everything needs to be re-evaluated.
CGI Debate April 23, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Candidate Forum, in 8 Minutes... if you don't get your fill... or even if you do... Come to the CGI Mayoral DEBATE on Thursday at 6:30pm in the LGI @Montclair High School where the candidates will debate their positions on the future of education in Montclair. You can still SUBMIT QUESTIONS for the debate to CGIDebate@gmail.com or via twitter @CGIDebate. See you there.
Kevin April 23, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Jeff, I do appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions here. I also like to hear that "paying down a material amount of net debt in each year of our term" is part of your platform. However, as ROC has pointed out, there seems to be that "escape hatch" of "items that will pay for themselves in a reasonable time." I completely understand the value of making "investments" in the town however that hasn't seemed to work out too well in the past. Can you commit to putting the "investments" on hold until we have paid down a material (10%) amount of the debt?
Terry Gorman April 23, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Jeff, In addition to the influence of Remsen and his former council members on your slate, I'm would also like more specifics on your slates position on the town's current debt levels. As I understand it, and please correct me if I'm wrong, your slate has committed to issue less debt each year than it retires. But I haven't heard how much less. In theory, your slate could come in to office with the town having debt of $250M and leave office 4 years later with the town have debt of $249.5M. Better perhaps then what we could hope for with the Jackson led slate, but not really any better than where we are today. Am I wrong on this?
frank rubacky April 23, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Thank you Jeff.
Mary Beth Rosenthal April 23, 2012 at 11:46 PM
I don't have an affiliation with any slate or candidate, nor am I an employee of the Montclair school district. (I am an energetic volunteer, however). And far be it from me to suggest that anyone should reconsider their opinion based on fact. But whatever inefficiencies there are in our schools, the cost of busing kids for magnet purposes is not one of them. It is about 1% of the total school budget. In addition, Montclair's administrative costs are less than the state average -- an average which includes more than one school districts with fewer than 100 students.
Mary Beth Rosenthal April 24, 2012 at 12:07 AM
Again, I am utterly unaffiliated in the upcoming elections. Here's the real elephant in the room. Montclair taxes, including our school taxes, are high because: a) our town is like 95% residential. Towns like Milburn & Livingston have significant retail development that reduces the property tax burden for homeowners, and b) while NJ spends quite a bit on public education, it ranks about 45th out of 50 states in the percentage of money spent to supplement local school budgets. Most states support, on average, over 50% of locoal school budgets. NJ supports about 40%. It's critical that the town provide appropriate police and fire protection, along with the other amenities that make a community attractive. It's imperative that every agency & department, including our schools, run as efficiently as possible. But does anyone think that this town can attract the kind of economic development we need without good schools?
hereswhatithink April 24, 2012 at 12:09 AM
I think a better way of evaluating our school systems is to see the list of colleges that our graduating seniors will be attending. A huge number or students will be attending top schools all over the country and they have received a huge number of merit scholarships. Every June the list of where the students will be attending is in the Montclair Times.
Mary Beth Rosenthal April 24, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Guess what? I'm unaffiliated. I've only lived here for about 15 years, but I understand that one other way it was "in the past" was that schools in the south end of town were about 95% African American and schools in the north end of town were about 99% white. And here's another actual fact, in addition to the one about the cost of busing (see above -- it's about 1% of the budget): Montclair is as residentially segregated today as it was in the 1970s. So if we saved the $1 million and did what we did in the past, our schools would look the way they looked in the 1970s. Are you all really saying that you believe that that's acceptable?
grewupinmtc April 24, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Mary Beth this is in response to your 815 Pm comment. According to you, I was in the 5% of the white people that went to grammer school in the south end and I didn't have a problem with it, I turned out just fine ( and your 5% of whites living in the southend and 99% living in north end is wrong even for 70s). How do you know what the make up of the town was in the 70s and 80s you weren't here. Today the makeup of the town is even more diverse.
Cary Africk April 24, 2012 at 03:02 AM
There is/was no missing $11MM. For a short time there was a $11MM surplus due to the fiscal year the school runs on. The real surplus number was $5MM. It was not "found" or "missing." It was planned. The Municipality had close to a $4MM surplus also. We are NOT going to find $10MM in "inefficiencies" and "waste." Not going to happen.
A. Gideon April 24, 2012 at 03:48 AM
There was no missing or found M$11, but neither can we really call the M$5.7 surplus entirely "planned". It was the result of savings from various sources, some under the district's control (eg. spending reductions) and some not (eg. an unusual number of retirements). The savings from basic spending cuts could have been "planned" (built into the budget), but CO always budgets *very* conservatively (not w/o some justification). The retirements could not have been since they occurred after the budget was approved. What was missing in both cases was any tracking - at least in reports to the BOE and the public - of the accruing surplus over the year. As I understand it, such reporting has now been put into place. ...Andrew
Peter Simon April 24, 2012 at 03:55 AM
Here are the data you requested above, Andrew. They compare Glen Ridge, Millburn, and Tenafly (three NJ Monthly top-ten schools) to Montclair, based on the performance of each district's population of white students (which is, unfortunately, the closest proxy we have to "high-SES" students) in the NJASK and HSPA tests: Glen Ridge: http://bit.ly/GW6bt3 Millburn: http://bit.ly/GYsiUb Tenafly: http://bit.ly/H10gZ9 As you can see, the results are essentially equivalent (and actually, Montclair outperforms Glen Ridge). This stuff really cannot be repeated often enough. The unquestioning acceptance by "ride164" of the NJ Monthly rating of the Montclair school system is all too typical.
A. Gideon April 24, 2012 at 04:05 AM
Thank you, Peter, for re-posting this. ...Andrew
Jeff Jacobson April 24, 2012 at 10:18 AM
I've nothing more to add on this Remsen business. I've never met the man, and the positions our slate has taken during the election reflect our own beliefs and no one else's. On the debt, if we only pay off $1 million during a four-year term, we'd have failed. Even the current Council is slated to pay off $800,000 in net debt in this, its last budget year, and we have to do better than that. If the right folks get elected to Council, and if we adopt a policy of (1) spending capital dollars only on emergency needs or revenue-generating projects, (2) selling town assets only at market prices and earmarking the proceeds for debt reduction; and (3) reducing operating expenses and using operating surpluses to pay down debt, we should be able to pay off at least $10 million over four years. I'd consider that a good benchmark of success.
Jeff Jacobson April 24, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Kevin, You're right that spending too often has been justified by pie-in-the-sky analyses of revenues a project *might* generate. I'd need to see hard numbers, not soft ones, before I'd vote for such a project, but let me give you an example of something I'd consider a wise investment: We badly need to convert our current parking meters to full-block "muni-meters" that accept credit cards and allow for flexible programming (i.e., one- or two-hour parking during the day but four-hour parking in the evenings). This would give us more parking spaces in town, be more convenient and -- very importantly -- raise considerable revenues, much of it from non-residents. Switching will require some up-front capital spending, but I'd make that deal in a heartbeat because we'll get the money back -- and then some -- very quickly.
CGI Debate April 24, 2012 at 11:39 AM
BOE? Education Budget? Yes, lets discuss this in greater depth... what a better way to do this than at the Civics & Government Institute Montclair Mayoral Debate where the focus will be on Education. The debate will take place THIS THURSDAY NIGHT, April 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Montclair High School LGI room. The focus of the debate will be on education in Montclair. It will be moderated by two high school seniors, Chris Murphy and Gabriella Peterson. Follow us on Twitter @CGIdebate.
Right of Center April 24, 2012 at 12:07 PM
Mr.Jacobon, Would you publish the hard numbers your support of the new (and extremely expensive meters) are based upon?
Kevin April 24, 2012 at 12:18 PM
Jeff, Thanks for the response. The parking authority is a good example of something that could be turned into a money maker. While the meters sounds like a good idea, I think the problems run much deeper there. What is the position of your slate regarding the Parking Authority? Retain? Take in house? Outsource?
Kevin April 24, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Actually the school busing costs are about 4%($4.9M) of the budget,however 38% (1.84M) is for out of district Special Ed. We were (are?) drawing up the bus routes manually rather than utilizing GPS based software. A good source of information on transportation costs in Montclair can be found here: http://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/WebPageFiles/1577/transportation101018.pdf
Jeff Jacobson April 24, 2012 at 01:48 PM
Hard numbers on muni-meters will require an RFP, but here's why I want to get proposals: (1) Each new car pays at a muni-meter, rather than piggy-backing on remaining time from the last one; (2) muni-meters let us expand the maximum parking duration during different hours, so we can charge beyond the current 7:00 PM and thus get revenues from folks coming to dinner and Wellmont shows; (3) where muni-meters are installed on streets rather than lots, and you do away with fixed spaces sized for SUVs, one to three more cars can park on the block (depending on their sizes); and (4) muni-meters have less down-time. The companies selling these products tout 40% increases in parking revenues even without expansions of hours, as we would contemplate. We can't take those numbers at face value, and we'd obviously want to scrub the numbers thoroughly before investing in the technology. I'd also want to talk to Millburn and other towns that have made this switch. If the numbers work and our neighbors' experience has been positive, however, this could be a very worthwhile capital investment.
Jeff Jacobson April 24, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Kevin, Our slate has published a position paper on the parking authority, which you can find here: http://formontclair.com/2012/03/29/our-positions-the-montclair-parking-authority/. We want the Parking Authority to respond to the recent Glenn Rogers report suggesting it has a bloated payroll and other significant problems, and we want to work with the Parking Authority to generate more revenues and spend less of them. We think outsourcing should be part of the solution, whether to private companies or to other Township departments. The bottom line for us is that with reforms -- and new technology like muni-meters -- we should be able to count on the Parking Authority to substantially increase its contribution to the town budget.
Right of Center April 24, 2012 at 02:02 PM
"but I'd make that deal in a heartbeat because we'll get the money back -- and then some -- very quickly." Yet you have no hard numbers? This is why we're where we are Mr. Jacobson. Forgone conclusions. Frankly, I'd be shocked if the payback isn't at least 10 years. You'd have to know, above all, the current volume of parking and relative "inefficiency". I also find it interesting how specific you are about new spending ideas yet what's touted as "specific" on the subject of Fiscal Restraint (from your website) reads: "Require department-by-department financial reviews—use service metrics to track performance against goals. Immediately develop multi-year operating and capital budgets; finish budget deliberations before the start of each new budget year. Impose controls over capital projects and accumulated debt. Assure the transparency and availability of financial information. Encourage the Board of School Estimate to be more active in Board of Education budget processes." I'll say it again. Let's see savings FIRST before we start spending.
Kevin April 24, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Thanks for the link Jeff.
Jeff Jacobson April 24, 2012 at 02:24 PM
ROC, we've had this debate before, and I'll give you the same answer: Of course we have to recognize savings first. We've said quite specifically where we will find those savings, including at least $1 million through outsourcing. I was asked a different question here about capital spending and under what circumstances I'd vote to spend capital dollars. I've answered that if hard numbers show a project will pay for itself quickly -- using muni-meters as an example -- I'd vote for it. When and if the time comes, and we have RFP responses with hard numbers, we can debate the wisdom of such a vote. But you're not going to get any disagreement from me that we need to put wins on the board on the spending front before Montclair residents will, or should, have any tolerance for new spending, even if that spending would quickly pay dividends.
Mary Beth Rosenthal April 24, 2012 at 03:18 PM
I didn't ask about your educational experience, which I'm sure was fine; I'm also sure you are a fine person. I don't know about demographics from personal experience. I know about them from the Census Bureau & other resources. Montclair's current magnet system began in the early 70s. So the 70s & 80s were an excellent time for our schools. We didn't have a direct train, so housing was affordable & the town was diverse. But diverse doesn't equal integrated. Our schools were integrated, but housing patterns were segregated. I think most people don't realize that our housing is still segregated. So if we returned to neighborhood schools, they would be segregated schools. Before the magnets, according to the NJ Dept of Ed in 1969: Bradford, Mt. Hebron & Northeast were 100% white; Edgemont was 97% white, Watchung 94% & Rand 83%. Glenfield was 96% African-American, Nishuane 94%. That's what neighborhood schools looked like. According to the 2010 census, Montclair residents in zip code 07042, which isn't just the south end, are 42% African-AmericanA & have an average income of $60K. In "Upper Montclair," 07043, 11% are African American & the average income is $115K. So in 2012, neighborhood schools in the 07042 side of town would be 42% AA & 58% white. In 07043, they'd be 11% AA & 89% white. I guess you're right -- that is more diverse than 1969. It still doesn't look like integrated schools, tho.
frank rubacky April 24, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Jeff, You left the MPA off your list of Capital entities. Deck repairs & repaving lots will require an additional $500k over the next five years - which the Township will have to bond. As to pay stations, I think a better approach would be for the MPA to self-finance adding stations each year ($15k ea.) and let the increased income finance future year purchases. They have about $80k in their capital reserve, so they have a basis to implement. I think this one reason why we created the MPA in the first place.

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