The Hopewell Valley League of Women Voters held its annual Hopewell Township candidate forum last week for the four candidates vying for two seats on the Hopewell Township Committee: current mayor Kevin Kuchinski (D), Michael Ruger (D), Luis Nicolao (R) and Phil Volpe (R).
Each candidate had a chance to introduce himself and discuss primary policies.
Michael Ruger spoke about his legal background, as well as his experience moving to Hopewell Township and being a stay-at-home dad for a while. Professionally, Ruger outlined his qualifications and his dedication to the community saying, “I’ve been involved in public policy my whole life, and there is a lot of policy that takes place locally. But, more importantly, I care. I care about what happens to the community. I care about the budget. When I get my tax bill every year, I want to make sure my money is spent properly. I care about the environment. And I certainly care that the PennEast is never built and scars our Township.”
Mayor Kevin Kuchinski said, “I have a vision for a better Hopewell Township – our challenge is maintaining the rural character while providing the services the residents expect in a fiscally responsible manner. It is not enough to mean well,” he continued, “but one should have concrete ideas and solutions to make the Township more affordable.” Kuchinski also spoke about the importance of protecting water and environment, and said he would fight to push property taxes lower and make Township more affordable. Lastly, Kuchinski addressed his professional qualifications including profit and loss responsibility at Church & Dwight.
Phil Volpe, one of the two Republican candidates referred to himself an “un-politician” in that this is his first experience in politics, although has been involved in Hopewell Valley “in the outskirts of political scene.” Volpe is also a self-described “uber-volunteer” with involvement in the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, Hopewell Valley YMCA board and as a Recreation Foundation member, among others. Volpe spoke about his professional experience having worked in sales and sales management in the tech-arena and his experience running his own business, Cream King, in Pennington, NJ.
Luis Nicolao shared that, while he has not had political experience, he has been a Hopewell area resident for 20. “I haven’t been in politics but I’ve served my country and now I have the chance to serve in a different way,” said Nicolao, who described himself as a fiscal conservative who wants to reduce the budget. “I’ve been in Hopewell for 19 years and I want to see why this is happening,” he continued.
Each forum participant expressed a commitment to reducing the budget. Mayor Kuchinski spoke about debt inherited from prior mayoral tenures and his successes so far including having cut over $2M in operating expenses and maintaining a tax rate at 1.1% per year, well below the rate of inflation. “Debt was a problem that we have now cut by $11M and no longer carrying interest costs going forward,” said Mayor Kuchinksi, who also spoke about his corporate and nonprofit experience of varying budget sizes.
“Taxes are everyone’s number one concern,” said Nicolao, who spoke of his experience with a budget at his coaching position at Princeton University. “I hear a lot of rhetoric about this but, if you ask anyone outside of New Jersey, our taxes are out of control.”
Ruger spoke about his experience on the Hopewell Township Finance Advisory, a bipartisan citizen group that advises the Township, “That is education and I know where and how the money is spent and where to look to reduce.”
“Every time I look at the budget, it goes up,” said Volpe. “The budget is an issue in this community and I’m prepared to work on that.”
On School Budget
The candidates were next asked the school budget, which makes up the majority portion of the Township taxes. Nicolao spoke about the vital relationship between the Township and District.
“We have some of the best schools in New Jersey, but have to look at the school budget,” he said. “Having not looked in detail at the school budget, and obviously it is hard to go backwards but I think it is of vital importance to make sure the school has what they need.”
“The Township Committee has virtually no control over the school budget, but we have control over the amount of money we pay for the schools,” said Ruger. “We spend more, in Hopewell Township, per capita than the Boroughs and that is one way to get taxes down.”
Volpe echoed the reality that there is little control over the school budget and spoke about the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation. “We have to find more revenue outside the normal stream. There must be some waste in that $60-70M dollar budget,” said Volpe.
Kuchinski shared his support for the District, including serving as president of the HV Education Foundation. “We are working now to share vehicle depot space to cut costs, and need to push to make sure that Hopewell Township residents don’t pay more per student than the Boroughs,” he said.
On Senior Citizens and Senior Center
Ruger spoke about how the senior center will remain open thanks to contributions from the other Valley municipalities and with the help of also donations. Regarding a potential community center, Ruger said, “I’m going to take a hard look to make sure we can cover operating and construction costs, maximizing the utility without imposing additional taxes.”
Volpe touted success in securing a senior director over a decade ago and says that creating a space for seniors is one of his top two priorities.
Kuchinski reiterated Ruger’s comments and said that he is committed to the seniors and their needs and is working with the Boroughs to keep current the senior center open until a permanent solution is developed.
“I can’t believe we are still talking about this,” said Nicolao. “The seniors deserve to move forward with no more talk.”
Candidates were asked how to encourage residents to live more sustainability, for example increasing recycling or decreasing energy use. Volpe said that he works in the energy business. “There is a path to sustainability and I think that, of all the new energy sources, solar is the best for this area.”
Kuchinski talked about his involvement with the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, bulky waste pick-up, and the Township’s Green Team’s success in winning this year’s solar challenge. “We are moving forward to bring more solar power to help with costs and sustainability,” he said.
“I think it is important to save money any way we can, but it is not our responsibility to tell individuals how to use their energy,” opined Nicolao.
Ruger suggested water conversation awareness including the importance of native environmentally friendly plants. He also thought that the Township could consider sponsoring lightbulb drives and moving forward to using LED lights outside Township buildings.
On Affordable Housing
Candidates were asked about what principles they would apply to future proposals for development and redevelopment. Kuchinski said that development has been a long-time concern of many residents of Hopewell Valley and that we are all proud of the rural character. “We have to do what is best for Hopewell Valley,” he said. “We fought back sewer expansion many times… and we need to keep sewers out of preserved areas… We also need help at the State to bring people to the table to make sensible reforms from a development standpoint.”
Nicolao agreed that it is a big issue and said he wants to fight to keep the number lower. Ruger said that the number of units is, in part, governed by the market and indicated that he plans to ensure that whatever is built is done so in a sensitive manner. Finally, Volpe talked about his negotiating skills to work harder for a lower ratio.
Candidates were permitted to ask questions to each other during a portion of the debate. Some questions were merely opportunities to further explain qualifications, while others offered stronger points of contention.
Nicolao asked Ruger about equalized tax rate and why there was a misstatement.
“I hate to say this but you’re wrong,” said Ruger. “If you go to the County website, you will find it and the Township has confirmation from the County Tax Board that the information is correct. There have been Republican dominated budgets that were out of control and it is true that the Democrats have brought down spending and tax rate.”
While Ruger questioned Nicolao’s dedication to his candidacy and inquired about concrete ideas about budget. “I’ve been very active in the community and I volunteered almost every chance I could get,” said Nicolao. “Just because I’m not on a board, doesn’t mean I wasn’t involved.”
Kuchinski questioned Volpe regarding his opposition to the PennEast pipeline, suggesting that the Republican party took a $6,000 from a pro-pipeline super PAC just before last year’s election. Volpe said that they do not have 6,000 and they are not taking any “dirty money.”
When asked where specifically affordable housing could be located, Nicolao suggested looking “outside the box,” including alternatives site such as existing prison.
Each candidate was afforded a brief closing statement during which they reiterated their opening statements and suggestions.
The Hopewell Township Committee Forum of October 19 will be rebroadcast on Comcast Channel 95 and Verizon Channel 30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 5:30pm through November 5.
For more information about the candidates, please stay tuned to MercerMe including our Letters to the Editor.