Standing Room Only at Long Beach Township Board of Commissioners Candidates Night
Residents packed the Long Beach Township courtroom Monday night as the seven contenders for the municipality’s Board of Commissioners – Commissioner Ralph Bayard, Thomas Beaty, Danielle Hagler, Greg Kopenhaver, Commissioner Joseph Lattanzi, Mayor Joseph Mancini and Donald Myers – assembled for a candidates night. Although termed a debate, the office-seekers engaged in a civil and informative Q&A session, with next to no fireworks.
The ticket of Beaty, Hagler and Myers and the current administration did, however, clash over transparency of municipal finances – including the budget and funding for the shuttle service – and whether the present governing body practices an open door policy. Hagler said she doesn’t believe the latter to be the case, while Mancini remarked, “My door is always open.”
Holgate Taxpayers Association President Dan Macone, who does not vote in New Jersey, served as moderator, and wife Kathy Macone kept the time. Each candidate was allowed two minutes for opening and closing statements and responses to five questions prepared by the Long Beach Island Joint Council of Taxpayers Association. Pat Prout, vice president of the group, explained that the order of speakers for statements and responses was randomly determined.
Noting the municipality “was in disarray” when he first took office 12 years ago, Bayard said he has overseen a major infrastructure update and numerous park improvements, among other projects, and believes “our town is currently functioning effectively and efficiently.”
Mancini said the past four years, since Superstorm Sandy, were “remarkably challenging,” but the governing body worked quickly and tirelessly to rebuild the municipality. Current town representatives have also overseen the federal beach replenishment project, succeeded in negotiating so Acme could expand, created a free Island shuttle service and more. “Your government has consistently worked on your behalf,” said Mancini.
Myers said if elected he would look forward to “listening to and learning from” other residents. He, Beaty and Hagler would like to change the form of government in the township from a board of commissioners to a mayor and council system “for better representation. … We would like to expedite that process.” He also wants to preserve the charm of the township.
Kopenhaver, who retired from the Philadelphia Police Department in 1988, underlined consolidation of the police forces on the Island as one of the most significant issues the governing body should tackle. “It’s so inefficient” as is, he remarked. “I believe, with my background, I’m the guy to do it.”
All seven candidates support more shared services.
Hagler said she would like “to see the town that I grew up in restored.” She would like to create a setting of inclusiveness and ensure that everyone has a say. “I think one of my strengths is bringing people together.”
Beaty explained, post-Sandy he and wife Elizabeth, who live in Holgate, worked diligently alongside other members of the community to rebuild, of which, he said, “we’re extremely proud.”
Beaty, Hagler and Myers would take an in-depth look at the budget if elected.
Lattanzi pointed out that the township’s tax rate is 0.232, the second lowest on the Island. As the commissioner of revenue and finance, “I’m here to bring the finances together,” Lattanzi said, “and we’ve done a phenomenal job.” There is an audit every year, he stated, and “we’ve never had an issue.”
Kopenhaver wants to work closely with the other towns to consolidate and to negotiate with the Southern Regional School District in an attempt to reduce the Island’s hefty school tax.
Beaty agreed with Kopenhaver that it’s important to work to change the tax share LBI homeowners pay for the high school; this involves keeping an eye on similar situations playing out elsewhere, and possibly considering litigation.
Lattanzi reiterated that school taxes for Southern Regional comprise a very large share of the budget, and the responsibility for that falls on the shoulders of school board members.
Bayard acknowledged the importance of the grant writer he brought on a few years ago, whose efforts have secured the township millions of dollars in grant funding.
Candidates were asked to state their position on possible consolidation of the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School in Surf City and the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom.
As Mancini noted, the Beach Haven Elementary School refuses to consider consolidation with the other two Island schools despite “numerous overtures to them.” The mayor said, of E.J. and LBI, that “right now the two schools aren’t really costing us any money” as is, but that the matter of consolidation should be decided by the taxpayers.
Lattanzi would also like to see taxpayers decide which school to keep and which to expand and upgrade, guided in part by assessments for the properties.
Bayard believes there should be one school, but he feels it’s up to the school board to make the decision.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” is Kopenhaver’s take on the situation. He also pointed out that Ship Bottom doesn’t want to see the lot purchased by a housing developer.
“I don’t think an outside developer is good for the town or for the community,” said Beaty, who sits on the LBI Board of Education. “I don’t want that school to be torn down,” and the borough’s infrastructure strained by dozens of new residences. He supports Ship Bottom’s pursuit of the property, and its use for various community purposes.
Hagler, who attended both schools, opposes the demolition of the LBI School to make way for houses, and feels that isn’t what is best for the community. In addition, she believes in trying again to negotiate with Beach Haven, and thinks Beaty and Myers’ experience on school boards would be valuable in this endeavor.
Myers would hate to see the grade school lost to development, and remarked, paraphrasing Will Rogers, “They’re not making land anymore.”
All candidates agreed on the value of the LBI Shuttle. “I think all of us will agree it’s a great thing,” Hagler said of the service, but she, Myers and Beaty are concerned about how to continue financially supporting the service once its three-year $300,000 grant expires.
Lattanzi, who developed the program, said the enterprise is funded by ad wraps as well as the grant. When the grant ends, “we’ll have to find another mechanism” for funding, which could be in the form of a bus badge.
Mancini said the buses really “knocked down the door of shared services moving forward.”
In his closing remarks, the mayor stated, “The next four years are very critical for Long Beach Township,” as the municipality continues to recover from Sandy, works to see Little Egg Inlet dredged, builds a new water treatment plant, communicates with the county to ensure higher road crests on Long Beach Boulevard and more.
Lattanzi emphasized that he, Bayard and Mancini offer “performance, not promises. ... The mayor is here every day, and he’s the linchpin,” supported by the commissioners.
Hagler said she, Beaty and Myers are “here because we love this town … and we have the experience,” and no special interests or conflicts of interest. Hagler, who wants her daughter to experience the township in the same way that she did growing up, said she is “a lifelong learner” who doesn’t have all the answers but is willing to work to find them.
Beaty highlighted his ticket’s “clear vision” for the municipality, and his, Myers and Hagler’s desire for “positive change.”
— Juliet Kaszas-Hoch