Three candidates are running for the remaining two years on John Bencivengo’s unexpired mayoral term. Below is the biographical information provided by incumbent Republican Kelly Yaede, Democrat Barbara Plumeri and independent candidate Antonio Gambino, as well as their answers to six questions posed by the Hamilton Post editorial staff. The candidates were sent the questions, and responded in print. Election Day is Nov. 5.
Party Affiliation: None
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Education: Graduated Clifton Senior High School, 1976; attended Edward Williams College and Montclair State College
Kelly A. Yaede
Party Affiliation: Republican
Education: Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, BA in Political Science, 1990; Nottingham High School – Honor Graduate
Previous elected office: Hamilton Township Council (2006-12), Hamilton Township Board of Education (1999-2001)
1. Political campaigns are full of buzzwords like “open,” “transparent” and “efficient.” Building a platform on those principles is one thing; putting them into action is something else. How do you propose to make government more open, transparent and efficient? Give specific examples.
Gambino: When I am mayor, I will have two monthly meetings: one in the council chambers. I will rotate the other meetings at one of the fire houses. I will also instruct the police chief to update the police blotter on a daily basis. For senior citizens and the disabled who can’t make the meetings, I will have a hotline to my office.
Plumeri: Although they are buzzwords for some people, they actually define what my campaign stands for, and what our Hamilton residents and taxpayers should expect from their municipal government. To be open is to be open to being held to higher ethical standards when conducting the people’s business. We need to remove the cloud of corruption that still pervades our town hall. The Bencivengo scandal already resulted in the former Mayor, and his good friend the Director of Engineering being convicted and jailed, while the Health and Recreation Director was summarily fired. I will insist on instituting a strong and empowered Local Ethics Board that will be tasked with rooting out all unethical behavior and holding all public servants to the highest of standards.
To be transparent means being honest with the public about our recent crime waives; the irresponsible one-time budget gimmicks (raiding the surplus funds, transferring Hurricane Sandy money) used to manipulate the 2013 budget, and of course reporting all the names of those who contribute to your campaign account. The voters have a right to know who contributes to every local campaign. To be efficient is to operate without waste, to produce an effect that affects how government spends tax dollars. We need to start with a clean slate, we need an authentically independent forensic audit conducted by a firm that is not already employed by the Township.
Yaede: As Mayor, I acted to make Hamilton’s government more open, transparent and efficient. These words are not just buzzwords for me, but facts. I removed the door to the Mayor’s office, welcoming residents and employees to come to my office to speak directly with me regarding their concerns. I worked with the Council to adopt a public contracting ordinance that made Hamilton’s contracting process one of the most transparent in New Jersey as recognized by the good government group, the Citizens Campaign. We also implemented the most comprehensive ethics reform package in the history of Hamilton Township. As for efficiency, I worked with the Council and my administration to cut $1.2 million from the budget, all the while maintaining the level of services expected by Hamilton’s residents and investing in our infrastructure. This year alone, 29 roads in Hamilton were repaired and over 100 roads have been repaired since 2008.
2. In recent years, Hamilton Plaza on Route 33 has been rejuvenated. Suburban Plaza seems poised to make a similar comeback. But there are still plenty of vacant properties along Route 33 and across the township. What will you do to change this? When considering future development, is it more important to get the property on the tax rolls or to hold out for the “right fit” for the community?
Gambino: It is important to get these properties back on the tax rolls. It is up to the zoning and planning boards to get the right fit of business in our community. It is also important to realize that we have to offer incentives to business. There is a small business package in the assembly, one of which is Assembly Bill 204. It allows corporation business tax credits as incentives for redevelopment of distressed shopping centers.
Plumeri: I believe it is important to find a way to do both. In order to accomplish that goal we first must clear the air, and let individuals and companies that want to invest in Hamilton emphatically know that all ties to the corruption of the past are gone. The key for future development is a long term, balanced vision that encourages all parties to work together. We need to encourage consensus, analyze all sides of the issues and make determinations with as much information as possible. Maintaining the charm of our many diverse neighborhoods should be part of that vision and should include new and bold ideas to foster and encourage small business investment in our neighborhoods. While there is occasional discussion of rejuvenation along Route 33, if you pull off into the smaller strip malls, you see empty storefront after empty storefront. The unique nature of Route 33 requires a special emphasis on attracting small businesses to accelerate its rejuvenation. While a short range plan to get property on the tax rolls provides temporary relief, I will pursue a well thought out long range vision that is balanced and responsible so that the overburdened taxpayers of Hamilton feel some lasting relief of their tax burden.
Yaede: Over the last several years, Hamilton has seen significant investment by businesses. In fact, last year, Hamilton was the only municipality in Mercer County to see an increase in its commercial ratable base. This was no easy feat in light of the current economic conditions, but it shows that due to our proactive approach to attracting commercial development, businesses see Hamilton Township as a wise investment. At the height of the recession, 15 percent of available properties were vacant. However, over 40 new businesses have opened in Hamilton this year alone, many locating in these vacant properties.
Attracting clean commercial ratables is important to Hamilton Township, but these ratables must be the right fit for our community. Commercial ratables belong along our commercial thoroughfares like Route 130 and Route 33. Commercial development must be balanced, but it must also be encouraged to ensure that residential property taxes can remain stable.
3. Neighboring Robbinsville has boomed, and will welcome several Fortune 500 companies to the township between this year and next. In the last few years, Ewing—which, like Hamilton, is mostly built-out— has attracted packaged goods company Church and Dwight, River Horse Brewing Company and high-tech firms like CA into its borders. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s major developments have been a hotel, a Wal-Mart, a pair of rumored Wawa gas stations and a Target that has been under negotiation for nearly five years. Is Hamilton falling behind? Explain.
Gambino: Under Kelly Yaede’s leadership, Hamilton Township has fallen behind. Kelly Yaede has taken credit for Glen Gilmore’s economic development. As mayor, I will revitalize old factory and warehouse sites and vacant properties by offering economic incentives and PILOT programs similar to what Robbinsville and Ewing have to offer.
Plumeri: Yes, Hamilton is absolutely falling behind. The fallout of the Bencivengo administration and the continuation of policies as usual of the appointed Yaede administration are not exactly high positives when large companies are looking to open a dialogue to set up shop in Hamilton. The companies mentioned are regional, national and international corporations. Companies of that nature are looking for honest, open and up front local government willing to welcome them openly and fairly. We are in the heart of New Jersey, with unique access to I-95, I-195, I-295, routes 130 and 206 and the New Jersey Turnpike. Hamilton has easy access to of our country’s largest metropolitan areas, its ports and transportation system. Once the cloud of corruption is fully lifted Hamilton will once again have a bright future.
Yaede: Hamilton Township is not falling behind and the wording of this question is disingenuous at best. Wal-Mart is, in fact, the number one Fortune 500 company in 2013. Having Wal-Mart opening a second store in Hamilton is evidence that Fortune 500 companies find Hamilton Township as a good investment. Several other Fortune 500 companies have also invested in Hamilton, such as CVS Caremark, Verizon Communications, Kohl’s, Marriott International, etc. The list goes on and on. Hamilton Township actively pursued Amazon.com, number 49 on the Fortune 500 list. Unfortunately, being built-out, our community was unable to accommodate a one million square foot warehouse like Robbinsville could. Over the last several years Hamilton has also attracted businesses such as Cybergistics, Princetel, US Logic, BAI, United Business Media, Medical Diagnostics, SA Technology, Petco, etc. What the evidence shows is that Hamilton remains a leader in attracting Fortune 500 and other commercial development.
4. What would be the first major initiative during your new term as mayor of Hamilton Township? Why?
Gambino: My first major task as mayor will be to have our energy tax receipts returned to Hamilton for tax relief. I will travel in the state of New Jersey to work with other mayors to put pressure on the governor to return our 3 to 5 million dollars. I will work with the assembly on Assembly Bills 2921, 2753 and 2738. These bills are in the assembly to have our energy tax receipts returned.
Plumeri: I will do what the current Yaede administration has refused to. I will conduct an authentic independent forensic audit conducted by an accounting firm that does not have a long history as a contract employee of the Township as well as with the Hamilton Township School Board. I believe it is essential for every Hamiltonian to have full confidence that the entire stench of the corruption scandal has been removed from every department of their Township government, permitting our town to get to the business of providing the best services to our residents and embarking on a bold, new, smart economic development plan.
Yaede: The first major initiative is to continue to find alternative funding sources in order to continue to keep taxes stable. It is important to our quality of life to find alternative sources of funds so that Hamilton’s taxpayers are not solely bearing the necessary costs of government.
We have already begun this effort by hiring a professional grant writer to maximize our efforts to receive every grant Hamilton qualifies for. This initiative is already paying dividends and will for years to come. We must also continue our efforts to attract commercial development to Hamilton since commercial ratables allow us to keep the municipal tax burden low for Hamilton’s residents. Last year, Hamilton was the only municipality in Mercer County to experience positive commercial ratable growth, and approximately 40 new businesses have opened in Hamilton this year. Our record shows our commitment to growing our economy and keeping taxes stable.
5. In this year’s budget, 17 government positions were eliminated. Spending was cut by $1.2 million and is now at a level lower than it was in 2011. The cuts allowed for a budget with no tax increase. Will Hamilton ever be at the point where belt-tightening is not necessary? Explain.
Gambino: Because of our weak economy, most likely we will have to always watch and control our spending. As mayor, I will sit down with our unions and put into place a four-year productivity incentive and attrition program to ensure Hamilton’s government remains productive.
Plumeri: It would be irresponsible and almost impossible to predict in the short term. As a Township, we are still recovering from the first budget brought forth by the Bencivengo-Yaede administration in 2008 that resulted in a monumental tax increase of over 40 percent. In those difficult economic times, that huge tax increase was devastating to many of our residents. Irresponsible, stop gap, budgeting gimmicks continue to this day with the Bencivengo/Yaede administrations. This year’s budget was artificially flat because it was balanced with $4.5 million of one time, nonrepeatable revenues that will not be available next year. The Yaede administration has already forecast (in this year’s budget) a $3.5 million rise in 2014 taxes and a rise of $2.5 million in 2015. Even with the cloud of corruption and budget gimmicks, I believe Hamilton has a bright long-term future.
We need to immediately conduct a thorough top to bottom, truly independent audit; get fresh new ideas regarding some of the old problems; and embark on a new transparent course to bring about long term solutions.
Yaede: It is our responsibility as elected officials entrusted with the residents’ tax dollars to always look to make government as lean and efficient as possible. If this is achievable by utilizing new technologies to cut costs or eliminate positions that are no longer necessary then it is our responsibility to make those decisions and act in the best interests of the taxpayers. Referring to the actions taken in our current budget as “belt-tightening” is disingenuous.
If striving to reduce government spending and eliminating unnecessary government positions in order to provide the most efficient and least expensive government possible is considered “belt tightening,” then we have tightened our belts. But our record over the last several years shows that we are committed to maintaining a stable tax rate and reducing spending whenever we can. It is for this reason Hamilton’s taxes have stayed flat while many other neighboring towns’ have increased.
6. A rash of burglaries have occurred in the Golden Crest neighborhood the past two years. Golden Crest residents did not know about the spree until dozens of crimes already had been committed. Throughout the process, they have complained about a lack of communication and information from the police department. Departments in municipalities like Princeton constantly relay information to residents, going as far as using social media to release minute-by-minute updates. Yet, in Hamilton, it is difficult to even get a complete crime blotter. As the township’s public safety director, what would you do to improve how the police communicates with township residents?
Gambino: I would use a reverse 911 system to inform areas of the community hit hard by crime. I will travel to the areas with the chief, and speak with the residents myself. I will order the chief to update the crime blotter daily with all crimes committed in Hamilton. All crime information will be supplied to the press on a daily basis. I promise as mayor that this disrespect to our residents will end. Criminals will fear the name Gambino.
Plumeri: The silence by the Yaede administration on the changing nature of crime within the boundaries of Hamilton absolutely confounds me. As Mayor, I would ensure there was a bona fide policy ensuring better methods of communicating information to neighborhoods.
The world around us is changing and so is the nature of the crimes affecting the quality of life of all residents of Hamilton. A meaningful partnership between our government leaders, law enforcement and all our diverse neighborhoods is key. Hamilton already has tools to assist its residents. Crime watch groups, the use of reverse 911 to inform and perhaps warn our residents of crime in their particular neighborhood, and good old fashioned conversation from our elected leaders to the residents that elected them would be a good start. Improving the conversation and effectively transmitting information in a timely fashion is about leadership and speaking up. I am utterly committed to doing just that. Unfortunately, our current Public Safety Director and appointed Mayor has remained silent regarding the safety of Hamiltonians since she was selected for to the job.
Yaede: First of all, the men and women who make up the Hamilton Township Police Division do a fine job day in and day out looking out for the safety and security of Hamilton’s residents. The law enforcement professionals within the HTPD are trained in police processes and are fully aware of when information should be released to the public. Just because the HTPD does not release every bit of information or does not provide minute-by-minute updates does not mean that there is an issue with communication. In many cases, not all of the information collected by the HTPD can be released without jeopardizing an investigation.
Choices must be made as to whether to release certain information and possibly not apprehend a criminal or keep some information confidential and catch the criminal. Taking criminals off of the street should be the HTPD’s number one priority; not updating Facebook and Twitter minute-by-minute.