The residents of New Milford face an interesting challenge when they go to the polls on November 6. On the hot-button issues of the United Water property and flood mitigation, all four council candidates are philosophically aligned.
Nearly 100 people filled the cafeteria of the David E. Owens Middle School Wednesday to attend SOD's (Stop Over Development) first "Candidates Night," moderated by the League of Women Voters.
Although the audience asked the candidates a variety of questions, the United Water property and flood mitigation dominated the evening and seeped into almost every answer to every question. At a disadvantage was former councilman, and current candidate, Peter Rebsch who could not state his position regarding the United Water property because he sits on the Zoning Board and is currently hearing Hekemian's site plan application.
The recusal of Council President Howard Berner and Councilman Austin Ashley from discussing the topic of the United Water property prompted SOD member John DeSantis to question whether Berner and Ashley can "unrecuse" themselves since the entire mayor and council have subsequently made statements about the property.
Former councilman and candidate Michael Putrino, also the only New Milford native on the ticket, is the only candidate who could freely speak to the issue. He said that if elected he would pursue the purchase of the property.
In talking about Hekemian's proposed development of a 70,500 sq. ft. supermarket, 4300 sq. ft bank, 221 unit townhouse and four-story parking garage, Putrino said, "It doesn't belong here."
Regarding the issue of flood mitigation, Berner proposed purchasing the United Water property and model the mitigation of that property on Garfield. Garfield, a city adjacent to the Passaic River, received grants to install nine underground retention basins, capable of holding 2.25 million gallons of water, to divert water away from the Passaic River during flooding situations and release it back at low tide. Berner informed the audience that the grants writer who secured the grants for Garfield, Marlene Casey, is also New Milford's grants writer. Ashley and Putrino also supported this plan, as well as Rebsch.
With the exception of Rebsch, the candidates agreed that the application before the Zoning Board should run its course. Berner, Ashley and Putrino do not support rezoning.
Breaking party lines by stressing his anti-rezoning position, Berner said, "I work for you people. I don't work for the Republican Party."
"There can be no compromise," he added.
Ashley said that he does not support rezoning and has been opposed to every Hekemian plan. Reiterating his position, he said, "The lesser of two evils is still evil."
Should the United Water property become available for the town to purchase, the borough would have to bond to purchase the property before any grants could be applied for. However, when bonding, the town would have to put forth 10 percent of the purchase price before it could begin the process of applying for grants.
Berner explained that property acquisition is not part of the Open Public Meetings Act and, therefore, all discussion takes place in closed session. Upon the recent release of the January 2011 closed session minutes, Berner said he is on record as supporting the purchase of that property, but could not garner a majority of support.
Putrino challenged Berner on this issue by asking why he did not propose a motion to purchase. Although not on the council at the time that the purchase of the United Water property was before the council, Ashley said that the town should have bought the property and the fact that they didn't "goes to the issue that they have no plan."
The candidates were also in agreement that New Milford's COAH (Council on Affordable Housing) obligation could be allocated to other areas in town. COAH is the crux of Hekemian's argument before the Zoning Board based on the fact that the property was designated by the 2004 master plan as the location where New Milford will satisfy it's affordable housing obligations.
New Milford's current Round 2 COAH obligation is 11 units. The town's Round 3 obligation, which is currently in limbo, brings the number of units to 40.
Ashley and Putrino suggested Brookchester as a viable location for fulfilling the town's COAH obligation while Berner suggested looking at rehabilitating foreclosed properties and satisfy the town's COAH obligation by utilizing them as group homes.
Regarding the town's need to have a viable field that will not flood, all four candidates agreed with Berner who said that the United Water property is the ideal place for a multi-purpose field as long as the Garfield model is followed--retention tanks that can retain over 2 million gallons of water and release it back to the Hackensack River.
Putrino added that a joint agreement between the town and the Board of Education (BOE) to rehabilitate other fields would serve the town.
"We have an obligation to upkeep and maintain our fields and build a field outside of a flood zone," he said.
Since all four candidates are either on the council, or have previously served, Lori Barton, SOD Communication Chair, asked each if they do, or did they ever, accept taxpayer health benefits. Berner said that he does receive town health benefits and plans to continue his participation if re-elected.
Rebsch said he did not accept tax payer health benefits when he served and does not support it. Ashley does not receive health benefits from the borough of New Milford, nor does he support it. Both Rebsch and Ashley support a resolution to end councilmembers from receiving health care benefits at the expense of the taxpayer.
Putrino said that he did receive benefits when he served as a councilman and agrees that if elected he would look into it.
Residents were also curious about the candidates views on lowering taxes. All agreed that should the proposed development of the United Water property be approved, taxes will rise based on the need to expand the schools, improve the infrastructure, increase police, and hire teachers.
Ashley broke discord in the area of taxes. It is his position that taxes are controlled at the local level and the budget should be gone through line item by line item to find cost savings for the taxpayer.
"You have to be able to afford to live in this town," he said.
In distinguishing his position, Putrino said, "I feel there is a void in leadership in the current governing body."