Bergen freeholder candidates debate before county-wide election
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Bergen freeholder candidates debate before county-wide election

Forum sponsored by Jewish Standard and JCRC

Two Republicans and two Democrats running for the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders faced each other in a candidate forum at Temple Avodat Shalom on River Edge on Sunday, where they agreed on objectives for the county but clashed on how to achieve them.

Republicans Rob Hermansen of Mahwah and Margaret Watkins of River Edge called for smaller government and reduced spending.

Watkins cited a three-point credo: You know your needs better than government does, government runs best when it is answerable to the people, and big government is inefficient.

On the Democratic side, Steven Tanelli, a North Arlington councilman, said government must provide a social safety net and social services.

“Children have to live and thrive in a safe community,” Tracy Silna Zur of Franklin Lakes, Tanelli’s running mate, said. Government must provide for the needy but “hold the line by making sure we have smarter government.”

After opening statements, candidates took turns answering questions. Alain Sanders, the moderator, is an associate professor of political science at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City and a member of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey. The forum was sponsored by the JCRC and the New Jersey Jewish Standard.

Job creation

First, the candidates were asked what the county can about job creation.

Hermansen, the one incumbent in the race, called for identifying vacant space to attract companies. He praised a county program that works with various agencies to help homeless people and former inmates get jobs. He noted his role on the Workforce Investment Board to bring business to the county.

Watkins said creating jobs is a mission for the private sector. “If government does it, it will cost you money,” she said.

Zur criticized the lack of “one-stop shopping” for information for companies considering a move to Bergen. She criticized what she said is a funding cut for the Workforce board and a $5 million reduction for Bergen Community College.

Tanelli, her running mate, picked up on that. “It’s about creating opportunities,” he said. “It’s about training and retraining.”

Watkins responded that while education is needed, Bergen County already has many qualified people looking for work. “We can train and train, but we have to have jobs,” she said.

“That’s what we’re talking about, we need new kinds of jobs,” Tanelli said. “That’s part of the mission” of the college. “That’s why it should be funded, not cut.”

Law enforcement merger

Asked about a proposed merger of the sheriff’s department and county police force, a measure that was defeated, the candidates agree in substance.

“From day one we supported the merger. This is not going to happen overnight. We need a better plan,” Tanelli said. “Nobody is going to sacrifice safety.”

Zur noted that Bergen is only one of two counties in the state to have a county police force – the other is Union. Bergen has too many levels of law enforcement, she said. “We don’t need two SWAT teams

Watkins said she is a “firm advocate” for consolidation because it “will save you money” and no jobs would be lost. She challenged Zur on the SWAT team statement, noting that the one under the sheriff’s jurisdiction is just for the jail.

Hermansen said he supports consolidation, but he voted against the measure because it was flawed as drafted. “It was a bad ordinance,” he said. He chided his opponents for absences at meetings on the matter.

Special needs

Asked about “special needs” residents, “It’s heart-breaking” to see people institutionalized, Watkins said, and it’s important to work together for solutions. Hermansen said costs are “enormous” and the county must work with “public and private dollars.” The county has helped fund housing programs, but “there is always more to be done,” he said.

Zur agreed on the need for public/private funding, and said it is part of government’s role to provide services.

Senior services

The candidates were asked about the role of the county in helping seniors “age in place.” They agreed on the need to keep a lid on taxes.

The Democrats answered first on this question, with Zur calling for affordable taxes so seniors can stay in their own homes. She criticized cuts in transportation programs that help seniors with doctor visits.

Watkins, the Republican, agreed taxes must be curbed to help seniors. “There is nothing better than staying in your own home,” she said.

Tanelli, the Democrat, criticized what he said is lack of planning and said officials must be more proactive on senior services, with an eye to managing costs.

Hermansen said “there is a plan, there has always been a plan,” and he cited the “Meals on Wheels” and transportation programs.

The issue provided material for a sparring match, Tanelli telling of seniors in his town forced to eat cat food. Watkins then blamed Tanelli for voting for a 32 percent tax increase.

Tanelli replied that the tax increase was for a one-time expenditure, and while Watkins lost her reelection bid in River Edge, he has the confidence of his constituents. She responded that she lost by just 70 votes, and that the defeat opened the way for her to run for freeholder.

Infrastructure

Bridge repair is expensive but “safety comes first,” and if repairs are necessary “we have to make sure the money is out there,” Hermansen said.

The candidates agreed on the need for federal funding for bridge repair, which Tanelli noted is a problem elsewhere beside Bergen County. Hermansen said the county is working on setting priorities for bridge repairs.

Zur said that stimulating mass transit programs, such as light rail, could ease the traffic load on roads and bridges.

Education

The candidates were asked about education, and whether immigrant aliens should get in-state tuition rates at Bergen Community College.

“It’s very important to provide a quality and affordable education for all Bergen County residents,” Tanelli said. “I’m in favor if you are a Bergen County resident you get in-county rates at Bergen Community College.” Zur agreed, saying education should not depend on immigration status; immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the community, she said.

She said Bergen Community College is one of the “biggest gifts” for youngsters, enabling many to go on to a four-year degree without accumulating large debt.

Watkins noted her own role as an educator and praised Bergen Community College. While the state and county give funding, the college’s success relies on “students who participate and are willing to learn.”

“I told my children and my students, the one thing no one can take away from you is your education and what’s in your mind,” she said.

Hermansen praised the Bergen County Academies, an academically oriented magnet school. He noted that college is not for everyone and praised the county’s role in providing vocational education for youngsters who want to learn a trade – auto mechanics, for example, or plumbing.

In her closing statement, Watkins offered a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “I place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers to be feared…. To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt….”

Tanelli accused his opponents of being short on planning. “As you can see, our opponents did not offer a plan,” he said. “We are not happy with the status quo.”

The Democrats’ plan “sounds eerily similar to what we’re doing,” Hermansen countered.

“I believe in smaller government and doing the right thing, ” he said. “We did the right thing on the budget. We have cut waste, no-show jobs.”

He said recent county budgets have seen minimal increases, contrasted with large increases under previous Democratic administrations. Earlier in the session he noted that a voluntary pay cut he took put $21,000 back in the county coffers.

“There are so many things we haven’t touched on,” said Zur. “There is a better way, working with both sides of the table to come up with solutions.”

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