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 Democrat Kristin McLaughlin, who currently serves as Hopewell Township mayor and is seeking reelection to Hopewell Township Committee.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing Hopewell Township?
Keeping Hopewell Township green and affordable are the two overarching goals I work toward every day. By far, the issue I hear most frequently from residents about is how much they pay in taxes. It is important to remember that the municipality keeps only 13% of the tax dollars we collect. The School District takes about 57%, the County almost 25%, and the Fire District and open space tax take less than 5%. On the municipal budget, I looked closely at and challenged each of our expenses and developed a 2019 budget that is 2% lower than our budget in 2015. That is nearly $2 million in savings. Even with those cuts, we were able to add services for our residents. I believe in creatively finding ways to do more with less and this budget accomplishes that.
I have also been working hard to lower debt and the associated $1.6 million in annual interest payments. Debt payments take money away from our ability to offer services to our residents and are a financial burden on each and every tax payer. Since 2017, we have reduced our debt from $67 million down to $59.5 million. I am working on several fronts to reduce debt, including selling Pennytown (which we no longer need to meet our affordable housing obligations) and working to find new tenants when BMS leaves its campus in 2020. BMS currently contributes almost $1000 per Township household in taxes, so this effort will be critical to keeping future tax increases down.
The second key issue is defending our water and the environment and protecting Hopewell Township’s rural character. Years ago, the citizens of Hopewell decided that preserving open space and farmland was an important goal. Honoring their foresight, I have partnered with Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FOHVOS) , The Watershed, D&R Greenway, the county, and the state to make the Township’s open space dollars go further. I want to expand our trail network both to enhance recreational opportunities and to knit the community together. We have also worked to create safe routes to school for our children. The new trail that winds from Scotch Road behind Back Timberlane was built with a partnership between the Township and Trap Rock. Trap Rock made a generous donation and our talented Public Works department created a beautiful trail that will give our students a safe option to walk to school. In the process, their parents and other members of the community now have a new way to enjoy those fields. We live in the most densely populated state in the nation. I will continue to fight to keep Hopewell Township green and our environment healthy for everyone.
What Professional and/or personal skills do you bring to face that issue?
I bring a passion for Hopewell Township and the ability and willingness to work with anyone who can help us reach our goals. I talk to residents and listen to their concerns. I have gone on the road to visit with County officials, Assembly members, and State Senators to advocate for Hopewell Township. I have travelled to Washington DC and met with advisors in Senator Booker’s and Congresswoman Watson Coleman’s office. I have met with the Commissioners of the Federal Energy and Regulatory Commision (FERC) to make sure that officials at the highest level knew the story of Hopewell Township’s fight against the PennEast pipeline. I am thoughtful and deliberate in making decisions and am willing to face difficult realities.
Too often, politicians try to wish difficult issues away. I do not and will not. My practice is always to get as much information as possible and make sure that I understand the issue before coming to a decision. My husband, Mike, and I moved here because we knew that our daughters would thrive in this green, healthy, and connected community. By working together with the many groups that serve Hopewell Township, I know that we can keep our hometown a great place to live.
How could Hopewell Township be made more affordable? First, we need to fix the school funding formula. Hopewell Township residents pay nearly $6000 more per student than residents of Hopewell and Pennington Boroughs. This year, when the School Board decided to raise taxes simply to support their surplus, I spoke out strongly against that plan because it so heavily impacted our residents. In the Township, we also need to look for new funding sources that reduce the burden of residential property taxes. To this end, we recently passed a PILOT on the Zaitz redevelopment area. This is an option in redevelopment law that returns more monies to the municipality and will generate approximately $112.5 million of revenue to the Township over 30 years (compare that to the $18.5 million we would receive under the normal tax law).
Additionally, we need to continue to work to attract new tenants to the BMS campus. That site supports nearly 6% of our budget. We are very excited that PTC Therapeutics, a NJ company that focuses on rare diseases, chose Hopewell as their new home. Making sure that we continue to attract companies that provide good jobs and will be great partners for the Township will remain a high priority.
Do you support running sewer lines to parts of the Township that don’t currently have them?
No. I do not. I value our rural character and am fighting to keep the pristine areas of the Township as they are – green, open, and healthy. I have partnered with environmental organizations such as FOVOS to work toward adding to our preserved lands. By preserving farms, adding trails, and securing open space, I have worked to ensure that the Hopewell Township of the future looks very much like the Township of today. There are areas of the Township that are currently in the Waste Water Management Plan that were slated to have sewer access years ago and are still waiting. I would like to work with them to see what can be done to address these unfulfilled promises. By contrast, my opponents have twice tried to impose unwanted sewer expansion onto the Township. This includes the recent proposal to extend sewers to the golf course and the adjacent Kooltronics and Pennytown properties. We know that would open the door to unchecked development. Voters already said NO to these proposals, and we need Township leaders that respect those decisions.
How have you addressed PennEast’s plan to build underground gas lines through Hopewell Township?
Unlike my opponents, I have vigorously fought PennEast every step of the way, expressing my opposition to PennEast’s plans by speaking out against it and advocating at the county, state and federal levels. I registered as an intervenor and sent comments to FERC when the pipeline was first proposed. I’ve spoken at rallies, supported Pints Not Pipelines, spoken at press conferences, presented before an Assembly committee in Trenton, twice travelled to Washington DC to speak directly to the FERC commissioners, and will be a speaker at a FERC forum in Kentucky about the future of pipelines. Just last week I took part in a Facebook Live discussion on our opposition to the pipeline with Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, Tom Gilbert of ReThinkEnergy, and Committeeman Kevin Kuchinski. This project would endanger the residents of Hopewell Township, and I will continue to fight against it until it has been permanently rejected.
What solutions would you suggest for managing traffic through Hopewell Township, in particular on Route 31?
Since Route 31 is a State highway, we can advocate for improvements but cannot change anything on our own. However, by using a tool available to towns through redevelopment law, the Township will be able to better control the commercial development at the Pennington circle. We will, for example, consolidate the many entrances and exits onto the circle and eliminate the dangerous exit from Shop Rite and the left-hand turn into BuyRite. We need to tightly limit future commercial development on Route 31 and work with the state to enforce truck regulations more vigorously. I have met with the mayors of neighboring towns and the county to discuss other problem areas, including the Route 31 intersection at Ingleside, as well as the Federal City and Bull Run Road intersection. Finally, we must limit new residential development to areas of the Township that have the roads and other infrastructure to support it — this is why we have slated the bulk of our affordable housing obligation on Scotch Road, closest to Ewing and the 295 intersection. I see it as my job to be the voice of the concerns of the residents, and traffic is something that affects everyone.
Since the League of Women Voters decided not to have an actual debate this year, what is one question you would ask each of the candidates from the other party?
For Mr. Hart: There have been several times where we as a Committee have spent a long time discussing a resolution or ordinance before us and you seem to be leaning toward a vote in line with the rest of the Committee. Then, your former boss, Mayor Lester, calls out from the audience exhorting you to vote a different way, and you have changed your mind and voted against the proposal. Why do you let pressure from a party boss change your mind on what is best for the Township?
For Mr. Jackowski: Last year, you proposed spreading affordable housing all across the Township, including at the workhouse on our northern border with Lambertville. Knowing this would have required sewer expansion and the associated unchecked development into currently pristine parts of the Township, why did you propose these alternatives? You also supported your running mate’s proposal to require new 5-7 story retail and residential towers on Washington Crossing Pennington Road vs. age-restricted homes closer to 295. Why is this a better option?