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Mayor, Township Council Candidates Square Off At Somerset Run Forum

The candidates gave their views on a wide variety of topics, and got in a few digs at their opponents.

Topics ranging from government transparency to economic development were discussed at an Oct. 24 forum for the Township Council and Mayoral candidates.

Held at the Somerset Run clubhouse, the forum was moderated by the League of Women Voters.

Running for the three available Township Council At-Large seats are Democrat incumbents Kimberly Francois and Crystal Pruitt, and newcomer Sivaraman Anbarasan, and Republicans Christina Ganzer-Zambri, Noah Fofanah and Sam Velu.

Running for the mayor’s seat are Democratic incumbent Phil Kramer and Republican Beverly Briggs–Lawson.

Each candidate was permitted to give an opening statement, after which questions were taken from the audience. The forum concluded with summations from the candidates.

The Republicans used their answers to audience questions to challenge the Democrats on a variety of topics, including government transparency and taxes.

One question referenced “capping” the amount of property taxes paid by senior citizens.

Addressing the Somerset Run residents, many of whom are retired with adult children, Briggs-Lawson noted that they had no children in the school system, and asked, “What are you getting for your taxes?”

“For some reason Franklin Township does less, but taxes increase,” she said. “If you cap” senior taxes, “would it greatly impact anything? We should try it.”

Kramer pointed out that state law precludes municipalities from capping taxes for senior citizens.

“We do cap your taxes by spending your money wisely,” he said.

Kramer also said that over the past three years, the municipal portion of residents’ property taxes has increased 0 percent, .5 percent and 0 percent, respectively.

“Despite tight budgeting, we are paving roads four times faster, fixing the water system faster, building a youth center, adding a northern branch to the library, a community center and looking to save money by having our own southern library branch, rather than renting like our predecessors,” he said.

Ganzer-Zambri turned the question to services, saying that she “heard talk of increased services, and I’m wondering what those services might be.”

Ganzer-Zambri said that if the Council “cut some waste out of government” it “might be able to keep taxes level and increase services.”

One audience member questioned the number of empty storefronts in the township, sparking a debate about the Council’s recent economic development efforts.

Francois noted that the Council commissioned an economic development study, and also hired an economic development director.

“Sometimes you have to spend money to make money,” she said. “We are looking to attract new business, attract new ratables, and this should help us eliminate some of the vacancies you see.”

“We want them occupied,” Pruitt said of the empty storefronts. “We want to bring in the commerce, we want them to be successful.”

Anbarasan noted that the office vacancy rate is high throughout the state.

“It’s a huge problem,” he said. “What we have to do is attract new businesses.”

Briggs-Lawson said that there are many empty storefronts along Route 27, including in Franklin.

She suggested that some of those properties – such as the former K-Mart building in Rutgers Plaza – could be temporarily repurposed.

The K-Mart building, she said, could be used as a temporary youth center until teh one under construction is completed.

Speaking of the economic development director, Ganzer-Zambri said she doesn’t “know what they’re paying this person to do, but I don’t see much.”

“Maybe it’s time to do something else than bring in an economic development consultant,” she said.

The Republican challengers charged the Township Council is not acting in a transparent manner.

“There is a lack of transparency, and a lack of respect for residents,” Fofanah said.

“We are a very open government,” Kramer countered, noting that nearly all meetings of township boards and committees are recorded and televised.

The Republicans also took aim at the Democrats for the Council’s recent vote to abolish the Police Chief position and replace it with a Public Safety Director.

“we do not want a Public Safety Director who cannot carry a weapon or investigate a crime scene,” Velu said.

Creating the new position “sends a negative message to the rank-and-file of our officers” who will not see paths to promotions, Ganzer-Zambri said.

Pruitt said that in other towns, retired police chiefs are often hired as Public Safety Directors.Francois said she believes tat “the person we bring on will have police chief experience.”

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