Without a local debate this year, MercerMe asked questions of candidates running for Hopewell Township Committee based on ongoing community issues in the vicinity. The answers in this article have been provided by Democratic candidate Kristin McLaughlin.
What do you view as the most important issue facing the Township for 2016?
Keeping a town we know and love affordable. It is the most frequently mentioned issue to me when I talk to our fellow residents. Many people are afraid that they will not be able to stay in the Township after they retire because taxes continue to rise. First, let’s be clear about the facts. In 2014 and 2015, when our opponents and their ally Harvey Lester held the majority on the committee, our property taxes rose +7.4% in 2014 and then +5.8% in 2015. Compare that to 2016, when Democrats restored fiscal stability in the Township — net spending fell -1.57% and the tax levy held flat at +0.29%. While just over 13% of your county tax dollars come to the Township, you have the right to expect those dollars to be carefully spent. Oversights, like the lack of working heat detectors in the Township garage, can end up costing all of us huge amounts of money. We have received a paltry $700,000 from insurance to replace the $3,000,000 worth of damage done to our equipment. The Committee liaison to Public Works at the time of the fire was John Hart. I take the opportunity to represent my neighbors seriously. I will look at every expenditure with fresh eyes. I will examine every possible opportunity to share services in order to cut our expenses. Let’s look at solar panels. Would that be a financially responsible way to cut our electricity costs? Let’s look at whether we can share more services with the boroughs. Are there tasks in the public works department that we could do less often and do something else with that money instead? We will look at everything with fresh eyes and safeguard every dollar entrusted to us.
What do you view as special about Hopewell Township?
If you have read anything else about me, you already know that I was born and raised in a suburb of Kansas City. Hold that image in your mind. In Hopewell Township, I get to live next door to a farm, within a stone’s throw of four others, and within an hour’s drive of two of the world’s great cities. I love my hometown, but the opportunity to live in a community with deep rural roots and a history of valuing open space was alluring. I’m so glad that my husband got to grow up here. We knew where we could give our children a place they could call home. I will protect that open space against unchecked development. Unlike our opponents who are on record supporting the expansion of sewers (multiple times) all across our Township, I will work with the Township’s Master Plan and will keep our open space just that, open.
How does your personal and professional background make you uniquely qualified to serve as a Committee member?
After three years in my first job out of college in the Manhattan DA’s Office, I enrolled at Teacher’s College and earned the right to help mold our youngest citizens in ways that could allow them to grow into productive members of society. In my volunteer work over the years, I have always focused on community and results. Bringing people together to create a better school or a more sustainable environment takes intelligence and the understanding that the outcome must benefit everyone. We pay our taxes and understand that in doing so, we are doing our part to support the community that supports us. After speaking to hundreds of residents, I am more committed than ever to represent their views. We are fortunate that our community is filled with smart, engaged and concerned people of all political parties. Here, people vote for people, and issues are decided on their merits. Any talk by my opponents of the dangers of a “supermajority” are scare tactics. Hopewell Township voters are smart enough to see through that, and know that Democrats have long-championed the environment and limited development. I am running to represent all our residents and will work for smart solutions to our challenges.
What is your plan to increase community engagement with the issues before the Committee?
Very few people attend Committee Meetings or the different sub-committee meetings. While minutes of the meeting do eventually become available and the videos are available on line, it takes time and effort to track those down. Our Township website, while full of information, could use an update to make it easier to use and more flexible for future needs. I’d like to consider the feasibility of a newsletter that lists links to the minutes and videos of recent meetings and upcoming dates for activities and other meetings. It could go out via email and our residents would have one place to find the most recent Township information. While social media can be a useful tool, it also breeds rumors and misinformation. I would not be in favor of an expanded use of of social media for this purpose. On a positive note, I’d like to see our Township develop some community events, in the spirit of Pennington Day or Food Truck Night in Hopewell Borough. It’s always nice to have an excuse to meet our neighbors.
What is your thought about the future plans for a senior center and/or community center?
Our seniors deserve a place to gather and build their community. They’ve needed a space for a long time. Our opponents have not moved the ball forward and would not even consider a small amount of money to start the design process. Let’s get this done. I think the addition of a community center could be a boon to everyone. I support the continuation of the search for a location for both a combined senior/community center and the stand alone senior center. We must consider access issues and the related traffic repercussions. However, if we can access the combined $3,000,000 in grants to build a place for people of all ages to come together, we can add significant value to our Township. John Hart proudly proclaims that he’s been talking about building a new senior center for 20+ years; I am committed to getting one built.
Aside from continuing to advocate for lower affordable housing numbers, what is your solution for satisfying Hopewell Township’s affordable housing obligation? Where would you advocate for the development to be centered?
Before we walk past the upfront part of your question, I want to be clear that we need to FIGHT against the nonsensical numbers of new Affordable units Fair Share Housing has proposed for Hopewell Township. We have just over 6000 housing units in the Township today, so we cannot possibly absorb another 1000+ affordable units and then the 4000 market rate units they would bring with them. Looking ahead, I do not think that one area of the Township should have all development shoehorned into it, as the pro-sewer lobby would like. We have to look at all options available to us in order to meet our obligations. I do think that once we have a final number from the court, we need to listen to all residents, work within the Master Plan that Democrats created, and then thoughtfully find space in order to meet our constitutional obligation for affordable housing. One immediate way every Township voter can help is by reaching out to their representatives in the NJ legislature to affirm that the current Affordable Housing law only looks at a present and prospective need; not the 16 year GAP period that the Builders lobby and their Republican allies are lobbying for. If we could accomplish this, it would e.gcut Hopewell’s obligation by ~50%.
How could Hopewell Township be made more affordable for its residents?
I would be happy to share more specifics on how I’d fight to control/reduce taxes and lower spending. First, on the spending side, we plan to look at the entire budget with fresh eyes and zero-based key assumptions. Several specifics: 1)we would pay down Township debt by selling off surplus municipal properties – currently, almost 1 in 4 of your local tax dollars go towards debt-service. Smartly selling one property alone would reduce debt carrying costs by $400,000 per year for the Township, equivalent to a penny reduction on our tax rate $0.364; 2) can we smartly invest in solar energy to reduce electrical usage? Between the SREC’s and lower electricity bills, there should be a net savings; 3) can we organize the various Township departments more efficiently – with a number of senior-level retirements on the horizon, this will be an important opportunity to consolidate over the next 1-3 years; and 4) we would partner with neighboring communities and the School District to develop new shared services – e.g. could the District’s school buses be parked on Municipal property, near where they are currently fueled?
Second, we believe there is an opportunity to pursue additional state and federal grants to help reduce property taxes. This year, Mayor Kuchinski uncovered over $275,000 in state road grants that had been approved, but not accepted by the prior Committee. With the new Transportation Trust Fund, we intend to aggressively pursue additional grants to help cover road and bridge replacement costs, one of the Township’s largest current expenses.
Third, we believe that there’s an opportunity to diversify the Township’s tax base and reduce its reliance on residential property taxes by attracting new restaurants and other small businesses to the Township (e.g. eat local, buy local, shop local), much as Hopewell Borough has already successfully done. Importantly, any new businesses would need to fit with our current rural character, and we’d need to make sure they did not contribute to sprawl nor significant traffic impacts. Note, we are against big box development and the other unchecked development that our Republican opponents have consistently lobbied for.
What solutions would you suggest for managing traffic through Hopewell Township, in particular on Route 31?
We have to continue to work with the county to improve the flow of traffic around the circle, as Committeewoman Julie Blake has championed. We can work with our police department to intensify their efforts to keep speed down, as non-residents traveling through the Township are a big contributor to accidents on the circle. What we don’t need is more truck traffic on Rt. 31. I support the restriction placed in the Pennytown redevelopment plan that prohibited high speed pump and nozzles for refueling trucks for which our opponent Mr. Hart advocated. We definitely do not need more tractor trailers crawling on and off 31. In addition, both of our opponents have advocated for the expansion of sewer service throughout the Township. More sewers equals more development. I did not hear any support for widespread development while talking to the hundreds of people I’ve met. We don’t want “Mega-Developments” anywhere in this Township.
What is your position on the PennEast Pipeline and what is your suggestion for combatting its impact on Hopewell Township?
We do not want this pipeline. It would take advantage of our hard-fought investments in Open Space and Preserved Farmlands for private gain. While our opponents are proclaiming that they “banned” the Pipeline from our Township (which if true would have ended this threat), Michael and I wrote multiple letters to FERC outlining the deficiencies in the DEIS PennEast presented and the dangers our residents face if this pipeline is allowed to come through. We attended rallies and protest marches to join our voices with the thousands of residents, community groups and non-profit organizations in opposition to the project. Words without actions are just words. We will not negotiate with PennEast and undermine the years of work and money our predecessors put into preserving what is so special about our corner of the most densely populated state in the country. We have not and will not ever negotiate with PennEast … our opponents cannot universally make the same pledge.