Responses From Township Committee Candidates

October 21, 2018

As we have done in past elections, Citizens for Readington has offered a survey to serious candidates for Township Committee.  We posed eight topics and promised to print their response, word for word, up to a certain word limit.  The candidates can respond in either bullet format or paragraph format.

Please note that we alternate the order of response.  So, for question 1, we give the Republican response, then the Democrat response.  For question 2 we give the Democrat response then the Republican response, etc.

The Republican candidates are Mayor Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch. 
The Democrat candidates are Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore.

Q1.   Briefly list your most important volunteer activities that you have done for Readington. (max 100 words)

Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

Juergen – 28 years as a resident and 25 years as a volunteer. 
Chair, Readington Twp. Open Space Advisory Board
Readington Twp. Planning Board
Hunterdon County Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee
Readington volunteer of the year – 2017
Trails / Public walks / Tree Planting / Tree Seedling Giveaway / Stewardship projects
Open Space Master Plan update – 2017
Hunterdon Land Trust and NJCF for Readington preservation efforts

Ben – 16 year resident
Mayor, two years, gratis
Township Committee, three years, gratis
Planning Board, ten years
Open Space Advisory Board, five years & three years as chair
Historic Preservation Commission, two years

Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

Denise Esakoff was a Girl Scout Troop Leader for 5 years in addition to volunteering in the schools
and recreation sports programs. Elizabeth Fiore is co-president of MOMS Club of Three Bridges, a
Girl Scout Troop Leader, and chairs the HSA Fine and Performing Arts Committee, which donated
$4,500 to the district arts program last year alone. However, our biggest volunteer commitment
thus far has been attending Township Committee and subcommittee meetings gathering
information and meeting with concerned citizens. Together, we have invested more than 640 hours
to understand and embrace the process of local governance.

Q2.   What qualifications do you bring to the Township Committee and how will those qualifications benefit Readington over the next three years? (250 words)

 Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

Denise brings 25+ years of business experience in marketing, data analytics, forecasting, market research, product management and advertising in the health care and telecom industries. Denise holds a Master’s Degree in Economics from Rutgers University, which included a focus on environmental economics, looking at ways to improve water conservation and clean air among other things. Elizabeth compliments that with her years of local government and non-profit experience. Also a NJ native, with a degree from Rutgers, Elizabeth most recently was the administrator for her town’s Community Preservation Program in which she managed grant allocation for historic, recreation and open space projects. Her expertise in fundraising and community building encompasses art, social services and land conservation non-profit organizations.

Our collective experience has already enabled us to drive positive change. Through deep immersion in the current government’s operating practices we have uncovered violations of the NJ Open Public Meetings Act (“Sunshine Law”) and the township has been given notice that they must comply with state law by making records of their meetings accessible to the public. Several committees are not incompliance (e.g., Environmental Commission and the Agricultural Advisory Committee). We have also discovered that the Open Space Advisory Board, and the Environmental Commission, are operating outside their current written charters. When elected we will immediately implement a review of all operating charters and make sure that each part of our governing body is in compliance
with state regulations and is operating in full transparency.

 Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

Juergen – I have approximately 35 years of corporate experience. I managed projects and change management programs for major corporations while at PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM. Extensive efforts leading teams, working with stakeholders, implementing best practices and implementation technology in organizations.  My qualifications include a PMP, a Project Management Professional certification, and a career promoting project management best practices for many companies internationally and across industries.  I was a corporate trainer for project management and am experienced in presenting topics & issues and working on solutions with people and committees.  I will continue to actively recruit residents to volunteer, so we can continue to protect our environment and maintain our quality of life.

Ben – I have served as Mayor, Township Committee and three committees including oversight of the budget and the police department. This has given me deep insight into how municipal government works and the problems that it can solve.  I have spent the last three years learning the intricacies of the legal issues facing the Township and the path forward.  I have twenty-five years career in cyber security and information technology working across the United States including the Silicon Valley, Texas and New York City, from small startups to Fortune 400 global companies.  I am the Chief Information Security Officer of a US stock exchange.  Twenty-seven years as a first responder with the National Ski Patrol adds to my experience managing volunteers.  My range of experiences gives me a broad base of knowledge to apply solutions to Readington’s issues.

Q3.  What are your views on Solberg Airport? (150 words)

Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

The Solberg Airport issue has impacted Readington since a 1958 NJDOT study, came to a head in the Governor’s election in 1968, and has been influencing our politics ever since.  We support the general aviation airport at Solberg that we see today, but do not support expansion of runways that that will bring additional commercial, commuter or business jet traffic.  Municipalities have very few controls over airports within their boundaries.  In 2007 a majority of voters supported actions that lead to an eminent domain case that takes land around the airport, but leaves the current operations.  That process is with the court and the Appeals Case will be heard in 2019.  Whereas we would prefer to settle this issue directly with the airport owners in a way that puts controls that limit expansion while permitting a successful business, we are resolved to continue the legal process, if needed.

 Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

We firmly oppose expansion that would turn Solberg into a major jet airport. We want to reduce litigation costs, which have averaged $726,000 for the past 4 years. We are open, once the court cases have been resolved, to meeting with the Solbergs to find ways to work together on a solution for upgrading the facility and providing a commercial and recreational benefit to the town. We were saddened when we heard that the Readington Middle School Aviation club holds meetings, not at Solberg, but at Alexandria Airport instead. The Economic Commission that we hope to establish will be a key part of the dialogue between the Solbergs and the Township, looking for mutually beneficial commercial opportunities such as an airport restaurant or club meeting rooms. This will be an easy win for all parties and a step on the path toward economic sustainability for Readington Township.

 Q4. What actions would you take on Affordable Housing over the next 3 years? (250 words)

Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

Affordable housing is a state mandate; the number of units we are required to provide in Readington is being decided in the courts. Going forward, we can improve the process by which the township has operated thus far, and include the voices of all citizens of Readington. When elected to Township Committee, we will encourage consultation with the stakeholders most affected by the location such as neighbors, Emergency Services, the Board of Education, and the community at large. We will also bring additional clarity to the township’s affordable housing plan since it is unclear who is even serving on the affordable housing committee as referenced in the slide presentation on township’s website. We will also ensure that important government documents such as the Master Plan, which includes the affordable housing element, are always free and easily accessible to township residents. When our campaign requested electronic access to the Master Plan, we were told by Township Administration it is only available in hard copy for purchase at a substantial cost or to review in person. Upon further pressure, the Master Plan was only recently made available online. Breaking down barriers to open access, such as providing the Master Plan for free online, is a step in the right direction, and we want to continue to move Readington in the direction of transparency and accessibility.

Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

The Affordable Housing issue is one that is being mandated by the courts.  We must provide a plan that will provide a realistic opportunity for the Township to meet the affordable housing numbers that will be set by the court because the consequences of not producing a plan are far worse.   As a member of the Township Committee Ben has voted for the Nelson Street project, which as 100% rental project means 72 units counts as 144.  Ben has voted for settling with two developer “interveners” for projects on US 22 which will bring another 446 units, of which 112 will be affordable units.  Ben has voted for classifying the existing mobile home park as affordable housing and encouraged other classification of existing housing as affordable.  Ben has voted for acquiring land near Three Bridges for possible use as affordable housing.  These are some of the things that Ben has already done.  We will continue to seek out creative solutions to meet the numbers while minimizing the impact to Readington.  We will continue to argue in court for reduced numbers.  We will continue to meet with legislators to craft legislation to reduce the impact to all towns.

Q5.   Should Readington devote more, fewer, or about the same resources to open space as it has over the past 5 years? (150 words)

Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

Readington Township has a long history of being a pioneer with both Open Space and Farmland preservation. The township residents overwhelmingly approved the first municipal Open Space referendum in 1978.  The first farm was preserved in 1987 and there are now approximately 70 farms preserved.  A total of approximately 8,920 acres have been preserved, either as Open Space or Farmland.

For the last five to ten years fewer new parcels were protected than in previous years.  That is now changing.  In 2018, Juergen completed five preservation efforts totaling 70 acres of open space at no purchase cost to the Township.

We think that Readington should increase the efforts spent to preserve open space and fully support the Master Plan which calls for the preservation of 90 acres per year through 2050.

Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

We love our open, green spaces. We want to reevaluate our open space plan, as Hunterdon County just did, and prioritize acquisition of open space adjacent to preserved properties with public access, utilization, and a coherent plan for maintenance in mind. We support balancing open space acquisition with sound economic sustainability to minimize impact on tax base, debt burden, and long-term financial viability.  There must be full transparency to the planning and acquisition of open space. The Environmental Commission, which has in its charter responsibility for acquiring open space has not published meeting records since 2014. Unlike our opponents, we will ensure all Township sub-committees operate in accordance with Open Public Meeting laws. The Open Space Advisory Board has no authority to recommend acquisition of parcels, yet they do. Both committees are currently operating outside their respective charters. These charters will be reexamined and updated when we are elected.

Q6.    What other programs would you advocate for Readington over the next 3 years? (ex. social, seniors, Merck/Unicom, development, or whatever) (200 words)

Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

Upon election we will implement a market research study to collect information from residents across the spectrum of citizens, and business operators, in this community. We will use that information to assess and prioritize plans and programs. This will give all community members a chance to be heard. Establishing an annual ‘Citizens Satisfaction Survey’ will provide valuable feedback to the town leaders ensuring governance is conducted in accordance with the needs and interests of the entire community in mind. 

It is an imperative to work proactively with UNICOM to ensure they become integrated into the community. Our Economic Commission will do just that, exploring with UNICOM the types of support goods and services they need and; that will also benefit township residents. Through this dialogue we hope to bring a wealth of new opportunities to Township residents to enjoy, including new community gathering places and recreational activities. We have heard from many citizens over the past year and are excited to bring to life ideas for enhanced recreation opportunities, more connectivity to each other with community gathering space, and to jobs, with enhanced transit options.

Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

Now that UNICOM has closed on their new Science and Technology park and started moving in employees, the next steps will be working with them as they bring more jobs to Readington and integrate with our community.  We would like to see Readington Business Association expand to encompass more local businesses and continue the dialog that is working to resolve some of the issues that businesses face.  We should take a look at our zoning on the U.S. 22 corridor to see if there are any changes needed to fix unintended restrictions that require variances.   We would like to increase communications with the residents via the website, social and print media.

 We are supportive of our local farm and market initiatives such as the Shoppes at the Farm, Bishop’s Open Air Market, Schaefer’s Farmstand, Profeta Farmstand and the Readington River Buffalo Farm.

We have many volunteer programs and opportunities in this Township and believe that residents should be engaged and active in their community. It is especially important for new residents to be informed of our range of recreational, environmental and historical activities so that they may join our community.  We look forward to expanding the range of these activities.

Q7.   Comment on the health of town finances (budget, debt & taxes).  If you advocated any new or expanded programs in the above question, explain how you would finance them.   (250 words)

 Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

Township finances are only 20% of your tax bill.  The other 80% goes to the County and the schools.   The local tax rate is dependent on the budget.

The Township’s budget has been drifting upwards due to cost pressures from line items like salaries, health care, insurance and fuel.   Legal fees fluctuate based on which litigation is active in a given year.  On the Township Committee Ben has advocated for containing costs and limiting discretionary debt increases so that we pay down more than we spend up. 

Since a peak in 2009 the Township’s debt has been trending down with the exception of 2017.  This downward trend is because the Township’s bonding for new capital improvements has been less than what we paid off.  Payments from the County and State for prior open space purchases has further paid down debt.   2017 was an exception because the court ordered Readington to buy back sewer capacity from Merck and others.  This capacity will be sold for affordable housing use and be paid off.   Readington maintains an AA credit rating and has a debt ratio less than half of what is allowed by law.

In recent years the Township has been able to preserve open space via donations instead of purchases.   2018 has seen the preservation of five parcels consisting of 70 acres year-to-date.  All were either by donation (free), by license (cost $1 each) or fully reimbursed by County and State funds.

 Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

In our view the Township has gone backwards financially under the current administration. Our ratable base has declined in the past 3 years, most notably in the commercial sector where the assessed valuation has declined by 10% since 2015. The picture is worse looking back to 2014, the year before our opponent took office. Since then, we lost $58 million in assessed value. The tax burden on residential property owners has far outpaced the commercial sector under this administration as well. Per household taxes paid by residential property owners have increased 14% over the past 3 years; farm assessed property taxes have increased 8%. The commercial sector on the other hand, has had no growth in taxes.

Not only have homeowners and farms been disproportionately impacted by rising taxes, they bear an increasing amount of debt. Since 2015, the year our opponent took office, our total municipal debt burden has increased 5% to nearly $60 Million. The result? A 26% growth since 2015 in the amount we pay out of our municipal budget just to service this debt. In 2018 alone, 25% of our budget goes toward debt service and that allocation has increased by 15% since 2015. These alarming trends must be reversed now. The Economic Commission we propose will do just that: proactively engage with citizens and business leaders to bring the right mix of businesses to our community. Businesses that will increase the quality and convenience of life in Readington without compromising its rural character.

Q8.    Explain how you are different than your opponents. (150 words)

Denise Esakoff and Elizabeth Fiore

It is time for change. We bring new thinking, new skills, and new energy in order to create a more representative governing body. We will not stand for government leadership that allows the municipal tax burden to increasingly shift toward residents and that tolerates ever increasing debt. Nor will we stand for leaders that operate outside the bounds of acceptable government practices with at best, sloppy record keeping, at worst, a deliberate attempt to shift key decision-making responsibilities to a limited few without full transparency for all our citizens.

We look forward to incorporating the voice of all Readington citizens into the planning process through surveys and town meetings and to shining the light of transparency on government operations. Importantly, we are eager to rebalance our economics and revitalize our community with new shopping, dining, and recreation opportunities that our Economic Commission will bring to bear. Learn more:

Ben Smith and Juergen Huelsebusch

We offer long-term and sustained volunteer efforts and experience across Township Committees and Boards.  We currently work with all Township resources and get results.  We are actively involved in affordable housing, airport, open space preservation, and other topical issues.  We have improved Township communications and continue to improve them. 

Our opponents have no Township volunteer track record and no experience in practical terms. They will need a three-year term to understand how our local government works, rather than solve problems and face challenges. 

 Our opponents are promising things like pools, bus and train service, but do not know the economic reasons why these have not happened or are not practical.

Unlike our opponents who are telling people that there already are jets are Solberg Airport and they would like to see it expanded into a commuter airport, we are firmly supporting the will of the people by opposing airport expansion.