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Berkeley Heights Township Council Candidates Discuss Issues at LWV Candidates’ Forum

Editor’s note: Click here to view recording of candidates’ forum.

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — Township Council candidates fielded questions during a remote candidates’ fourm hosted by the League of Women Voters of Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Summit Thursday night. 

The candidates, incumbents Jeanne Kingsley, a Republican, and Susan Poage, a Democrat, were joined by their running mates Democrat Bret Sayre and Republican Jeff Varnerin, each a first time candidate. 

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The moderator, Sharon Steinhorn of The League of Women Voters of Monmouth County, asked 11 questions submitted by residents which covered topics as diverse as how to keep the lid on property taxes, whether to build a dog park, the Western Drainage Study, the Municipal Building, and more. 

Each candidate gave an opening statement, then the questions began.

Opening Statements:

Bret Sayre said he is running for council because “I want to be a part of our future for not only our current residents, from our youngest to our oldest neighbors, but also for our new generation of young families, and our next generation of children who may one day raise their own families here.” He pointed to his more than “20 years of financial experience,” an asset when it comes to managing budgets and dealing with regulatory issues, and his experience as a small business owner. He asked residents to visit his and Poage’s website and look at the “economic plan called THRIVE” which they developed.

Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley said she initially ran nine years ago to ”get involved in new ways by sharing some of my skill set with the community.”  A CPA and finance professional, she said she has “worked hard to implement a long term vision” for Berkeley Heights, while keeping it affordable and taking on infrastructure issues and “creating policies and programs that position us for the future.” She pointed out the accomplishments of the past several years: new parks, enhanced playing fields, new community events, expanded shared services with the school board, and  the new Y and community pool. Kingsley said she wants to “continue this momentum.” The Kingsley, Varnerin website is here.

Jeff Varnerin said he “was raised with public service in my blood.” He said he has volunteered as a soccer, lacrosse, basketball and baseball coach. In high school he was a first responder cadet in the Watchung Rescue Squad, and said he will be “an ally who understands” the needs of the township’s first responders. A scientist and project manager, he said he solves complex problems and is detail oriented. Varnerin said among the issues facing the township are: making the downtown viable; ensuring all residents are heard and that outside interests do not have unfair influence and stopping “the mismanagement” of township projects. 

Councilwoman Susan Poage said she ran for office because she wanted to make a difference. “I’ve grown into a leadership role on the council fueled by still wanting to make a difference” for residents. She said she has worked on updating ordinances for the sewer department and developing an updated system for inspection, which saves money. She sponsored the No Knock ordinance, has voted for each shared services agreement, created the volunteer-led grants committee, which finds, applies for and has won grants for the township. The program won the Municipal Innovation Award. She supports the “Connell rezoning as a fantastic opportunity” to help the township recover from the Pandemic. 

Question 1 Part 1, for the incumbents:  A major role of the town council is to manage municipal property taxes, limiting expenses, while providing and maintaining quality services. Jeanne and Susan, what have you done to responsibly manage our property taxes? Please detail your role in analyzing and reducing both the town’s general annual budget, and specifically what actions you’ve taken to review and adjust the municipal complex project budget.

Kingsley said the top job of any elected official is “managing the budget … The minute that we heard COVID hit, I was in the administrator’s office starting to look over our budget to see where we could find … areas to cut.” They spoke to department heads to find areas to cut, give up, or delay. The township delayed hiring some people, and making some purchases and re-analyzed the capital plan so “we could get it down to zero impact this year, because we knew it was going to be a challenging season for everybody.”

Poage said, “it was economics 101. Basically, there are needs and wants, and we had to go with the needs …  everything got cut” that the town couldn’t afford. The result was a zero tax increase for residents, she said. Revenues can be increased and “some of our ordinances are very outdated,” and have now been updated, but there are more that need to be analyzed.  Poage said she is also starting a Disc Golf Course in the town, which will bring in more revenue and “help alleviate the burden of taxes.” 

Question 1, Part 2: Candidates Varnerin and Sayre, “explain how you were actively engaged in this year’s annual budget process, and discussions around the ongoing municipal complex budget, as well as any ideas or suggestions you have offered.”

Sayre said he was paying close attention to how the town would take care of its budget and making sure it would live within its means. As the owner of a baseball analytics company, he sees “a direct kind of corollary” with the town. It’s hard to come up with a budget and make sure the business can “survive when there is no baseball.” The concepts are the same, find costs that can be put off, know where the money is going and seek a long-term solution, he said.

Varnerin said he knows “what it takes to make trade-offs between what you can and can’t have … “it relates specifically here to the municipal complex,” he said. He analyzed “every single document associated with status reports,” took part in council meetings and budget hearings, and “offered solutions.” He said he would like the Grants Committee to look at grants available on the state and federal levels, which means adding volunteers. As an “expert in productivity of the workforce,“ he said he would explore “immediately so that we can drive (out) inefficiency.”

Question 2: Do you feel candidates and/or elected officials should take contributions from an entity doing business with Berkeley Heights? If not, would you amend the municipal pay to play ordinance? 

Poage said this is a “hot, hot topic, and there is a committee on the council” working on it. The committee is bipartisan, with Kingsley and Councilman Stephen Yellin working on it. She said she has seen a draft ordinance, but because nothing has been presented or discussed in the conference session, she would not comment on the ordinance “until I see the fully developed ordinance.”

Sayre said, he thinks campaign finance is an important issue from the national to the local level and that there are a lot of solutions that we can enact to … make campaign finance work for everyone.” He said he believes no one is pleased with the current system but that the bipartisan committee should be able to “make it workable for everybody.”

Varnerin said he had to “sign non conflict of interest documentations” with his employer, “as it relates to any future activities” between his employer and the town.  He said he believes when it comes to campaign finance, “transparency is paramount.”  “I think it’s important that the public understand exactly who is funding your campaign, so they understand who’s influencing you.” 

Kingsley said she has been trying to reform pay to play laws “for the last two-and-a-half years.” Nine years ago it took $4,000 to $5,000 to run a local campaign. “The last couple of years campaign spending in this town has gone up significantly, and I think the residents are tired of it … it would behoove both parties to agree to cut the financing back and go back to a grassroots campaign.” 

Question 3: The township has conducted a drainage study on the west side of Berkeley Heights as a prelude to a water pipe infrastructure repair plan. Would you support the implementation of this plan? And is this the only plan that makes sense? Or are there alternatives? 

Sayre said there is “never only one solution to a big problem,” but he is very supportive of the project, which he called “extremely vital for the future” of the town. The increased number of storms are not going to stop, and unless the infrastructure is maintained, “we’re not going to do the best by our residents … and are going to start having effects on people’s property values,” which will hurt the entire town. 

Poage said she supported the drainage study results and called the infrastructure all over town “difficult. It’s difficult to look at, it’s difficult to drive on.” She said when she was in the area where the study was done recently, she “had to wade through an area in front of someone’s driveway. I know there were problems all over town, but you have to start somewhere. She agreed that the flooding “does impact how people view the properties here.”

Kingsley said in 2018 “I fought hard to make sure that we put a drainage study actually in our capital budget.” She supports “what we’re doing,” but believes “we have to take a holistic approach and need to look at drainage issues” all over town. Given the price tag, $10-$20 million, she recommends a “second opinion …  I have a feeling it’s much larger than just the west side.”

Varnerin, who doesn’t live near the Westside Drainage Study area said he spent “over $10,000 in water diversion measures to prevent flooding” in his basement. He said he knows the problem “is much bigger than this one area,” and the township needs to understand the scope of the problem and the options before making “a major investment … so we’re looking out for all of the taxpayers and not just a few.” 

Question 4: Many residents have called for having a dog park built in our town. Would you support building one? And, if so, where?

Kingsley said there is already a dog park “planned for in the development of Connell Corporation,” which she called an “important part of our tax base.” She cautioned the need to be “measured” in how the property is developed and that what is approved “complements our downtown and doesn’t compete with it.”  

Poage said she “would love a dog park … and want to make it a dog friendly town with little bowls of water outside all the shops.” She agreed the two areas, Connell and downtown Berkeley Heights should complement each other and would love to see connectivity between those two areas. 

Varnerin said he would like to be able to walk his dog up at Connell, have a meal and watch a soccer game, but ”an office park is an important element to our tax base … We can’t allow a big corporation like Cornell, to compete with our mom-and-pop shops in our downtown, it must be complimentary.

Sayre said he favors a dog park, but wanted to dispel a myth that “development at Connell hurts our downtown businesses, which I think is completely untrue … Our town can support both businesses at Connell and businesses downtown. The town needs to do a better job letting people know about its businesses, he said.

Poage was allowed a chance to rebut Varnerin’s comment. She called office parks “a dying breed. It’s like a dinosaur. And what Connell plans on doing is making something that is going to adapt to the changes that we’ve seen in our environment … I really think that they are going in the right direction … I don’t believe that the office park is going to be the future.”

Question 5: Do you support continuing our shared service agreement with Union County? And, if not, where would you make up the difference in costs for hiring a new full time public works director?

Varnerin, a former first responder, said he knows “the benefit and necessity of shared services. It’s critical for the local level.” As for the situation with the Director of Public Works, he said “I think what’s critical is that we have performance standards, and we review those agreements annually, and hold our service providers accountable to the service standards.”

Poage said it is time to “adapt and change. We have to utilize our shared services more” both in and out of Union County. The township pays taxes to Union County, so when it shares their services she said she feels like “we’re getting some of our tax money back.” She called the DPW director “a great example of working smarter, not harder.”

Sayre said, “I think this is a great opportunity for us to continue to address fiscal responsibility in town.” He supports looking into shared service opportunities with ”anyone who is willing, then figuring out what makes the most sense to move forward with … There’s so much that we can do, and we don’t need to do it alone.”

Kingsley said she is a “huge proponent of shared services.” With 56 cents of each tax dollar going to the schools and 23 cents to the county, “those are the places we should be looking to first.”  Things change, so it’s important to evaluate what is needed and the cost benefits to make sure the town is “getting value and savings for the taxpayer.”

Question 6: Do you believe our township’s zoning regulations are working correctly? If not, would you support revising them? And how?

Poage is a member of the planning board and master plan subcommittee. She said she has met with the town planner who said to her, “‘Your zoning is all over the place,’ which is part of the reason our downtown looks a little bit like it looks, it’s called patchwork.” “The zoning needs to be overhauled, she said.  

Sayre said, “We definitely need to open up the zoning ordinances that we have, take a look and see what really makes sense for Berkeley Heights for the next generation and the generation after.” He would like to make it easier for businesses to come in to town, get open and then stay in town.

Kingsley said she ran the first time because “our downtown was such a hodgepodge and appeared to have inconsistent standards.” She worked with the Downtown Beautification Committee to modify Article 19, which regulates what happens in downtown. The result is a more consistency within the downtown and “helped to make a better walkability, streetscape and feel for the town.” The key, though, is enforcement, otherwise the plan is “really not that useful,” she concluded. 

Varnerin said there is “a real balloon of our children on their bikes, riding around town, and we need a measured approach to ensuring that our zoning is appropriate so that our children are safe.” He also wants to see appropriate code enforcement for businesses and residents. “We want this place to be a family friendly location where families come together to meet each other,” he said.

Question 7: What steps should Berkeley Heights take to become a more inclusive and welcoming community to individuals and families of all races, ethnicities, income level, gender identity? What does success look like?

Poage said, “This is a big passion of mine.” She has done workshops in the township and at school. “The biggest piece about inclusion is education. We have to educate our residents to understand we all carry bias. It’s called implicit bias. And we all carry it and you have to understand your bias so you can move forward and heal as a community.”

Kingsley is a member of the “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Committee” and has supported the Diversity Council which was formed about five years ago. She said, “I think what’s important is engagement and community engagement … “We are, I think, a welcoming community, and I just think we have to do things to get more people engaged and to know about it, so that they feel more comfortable … the key is, listen, learn, and get people engaged.”

Sayre said, “I think, ultimately, diversity and inclusion starts with conversation.” However, some people are more comfortable in a larger group setting, others in a smaller setting. To that end, Sayre said, “I’m starting an open office hours program where I will meet regularly with residents to get their input on what we can do better as a town.” He said he wants to provide “more intimate forums where people can talk and really feel like they’re being heard.”

Varnerin said he attended the march organized by the town’s youth and “listened and I learned a lot.” However, that isn’t enough, “you have to take real action” and listen more to the community, he said. “It will take everybody locking arms and moving together to get through this.”

Kingsley added one more thought — “We as a community need to do a much better job on social media … we have some real bullies in this town …if we’re going to be a true community that listens and learns and respects each other, then we have to have the fortitude and the strength to stop the bullies on social media and just say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate it anymore.’”

Poage added one more thought — “You have four choices, upstander, bystander, victim or bully … be an upstander.”

Question 8: If the recreational marijuana statewide ballot question is approved on November 3, or after, do you favor allowing the sale of marijuana in local stores?

Sayre said, “Yes, I would. I think if that passes … that is the will of the people. I ultimately believe that government is the will of the people, that is what we should be doing as a country for state or municipality.”

Varnerin said, “Three years ago, I got a phone call while I was on the sideline coaching soccer. My 24-year-old nephew had overdosed and died. His gateway drug was marijuana. And for me, this is a safety issue. I would not want this in my downtown, I wouldn’t want our children near it. This is just not the place for it.”

Poage said she would support a marijuana dispensary in town. She said she had always thought marijuana was a gateway drug but learned at a talk on drugs, “it’s cigarettes, because it’s the first time in your young life that you do something that you know is bad for you, and you do it anyway.” Poage said if surrounding communities have a dispensary and Berkeley Heights residents go to those towns to buy what they want, and those towns get the revenue, “I look at that as a lost opportunity.”

Kingsley said if the ballot question passed, she would want to have a referendum in Berkeley Heights before the township began selling it. She said she has seen “the impact on teenagers and adults.” She has worked with the police “to make sure that they are strengthening the enforcement of the sale to minors.” Not only does she have “public safety concerns about marijuana being sold here,” but also concerned that this could somehow damage the reputation and ranking of the school system.

Question 9: Do you support the township planner’s recommendations on improving township infrastructure?

Kingsley called the question “vague.” She said she has been involved in the Article 19 changes as they relate to the developments going into the downtown area and has “been intimately involved in reviewing and commenting on all of those plans, and making sure that they adhered to the standards that are in Article 19.” The township wants the buildings to fit “the feel” of Berkeley Heights, and the streetscape changes will “make a more walkable, consumer friendly, downtown Berkeley Heights.”

Sayre said there is a lot of work to do, including “making sure that we’re able to make our roads and sidewalks what they need to be.” He said the challenges everyone has faced this year has presented the town and businesses with the opportunity to change things. “I think a lot more people want to be outside” and more businesses want the “flexibility to be able to operate outside.” He said the town needs to be responsible and “do a good job of listening to what people in the town want,”  so the “people feel some sort of ownership. 

Varnerin said, “We need to provide folks options. Development really starts with a master plan” which is developed with the input of residents, business owners, and civic association.” Currently, there are a lot of people who leave the area “because there are no options for them” in town. “If development is done carefully to meet the needs of the residents and businesses,” that should benefit everyone. 

Poage focused on the sewers “because that is our most valuable infrastructure.” If the system should fail, that would be a disaster for the town and “that infrastructure is really in a sticky situation.” She said, “A lot of thought and money needs to go into making sure it runs.”

Question 10: What ideas do you have to increase revenue that doesn’t come from raising our property taxes? Please be specific.

Varnerin said new members need to be added to the grants committee “so that we’re going after grants not just for one part of our government, but supporting all aspects like recreation, as well as infrastructure.” He would analyze the fee structure to make sure it is “in alignment with our peer communities,” which are not just next door. Finally, he said train station parking fees need to be re-thought. 

Poage challenged Varnerin to join the grants committee, because it recently lost a valuable member. He accepted. She agreed with him on the need to change the fee schedule and said “it is being analyzed.” Supporting local businesses will help and, finally supporting the Connell rezoning will increase revenues, she said.

Kingsley said, ”The most important thing we can do is continually be reassessing our fees, whether it’s for sewage hookup, the construction department, the building department, field  usage, liquor licenses, or any type of other specialty things” that can be monetized. Also important is to make sure the costs of running each department are being covered, so we, at least, are not burdening the taxpayers that don’t use those services.

Sayre said he wanted to focus on the business side, “when you put more effort and focus on your local businesses,” you can increase revenues and the residents will be able to see and feel the difference. “We need to get businesses here, we need to attract them, we need to keep them, while being responsible about how we support our businesses,” he said. 

Question 11: Several surrounding towns have formed a tri-town 55 plus, a 501 c3 organization, they have received grants and implemented several age-friendly programs which benefit the entire community. What steps should Berkeley Heights take to become a more age-friendly community?

Sayre said “finding the right balance between” making it easy for seniors to age in place by “making sure that they are easily able to get everything they need from the community … and making sure they’re not being priced out of the community from a property tax standpoint.” It’s important to continue the work of the Senior Advisory Board and, when the dedicated space for seniors opens at the Municipal Complex, the town will finally be able to apply for grants for programs.

Kingsley said the town’s hands have been tied because it has not had a dedicated space for seniors, which means the seniors are not eligible for most of the grants that are out there. Once the building finally opens, “we will be able to bring in programs such as the Union County education, and theater programs, and other things to really enhance the quality of life for our seniors,” she said. The town did buy a new senior bus a few years ago and there is a group currently playing BINGO during COVID. 

Poage, who said she was now in the 55 plus group, said the Grants Committee is focusing on grants for senior recreation programs. She wants to be able to provide “outdoor equipment … specifically for seniors, because I think that they need to stay active in order to age in place.” The committee is thinking of what other grants are available and members are “putting things into place now that will help us get” grants next year. She would also like to see a recreation director who helps out seniors.”  

Varnerin spoke of his parents who moved out of New Jersey and left their grandchildren because of the cost of staying in the state. “I think it’s a really impossible situation for seniors who don’t have the means they had when they were working. So we need options for families here. And that starts with housing,” he said. He said he was “pleased to see that there are now going to be opportunities for seniors to remain in town where parents can have their elderly parents near them to engage with their grandchildren.” He suggested having sessions on “freezing taxes” which “can help them stay locally.”

Closing Statements

Varnerin said, “I pride myself on being a hard worker, and a problem solver, but most importantly, in getting things done. He promised to “listen to all perspectives when faced with any decision for our town … I’ve never been more inspired to serve. We are going to need to think big and work together to manage the complex issues that are developing during these very trying (times).”

Sayre said it isn’t just the mayor, council and administration that keep Berkeley Heights running. “The truth is that it is to all of us together that make this an extraordinary place to call home.” It’s the firefighters, EMTs, teachers, business owners, volunteers, crossing guards, those who speak up at meetings and neighbors who make Berkeley Heights the unique town it is and who he wants “to serve alongside.”

Poage said, “I tell my students and their parents, one cannot grow and develop without taking some risk. Just running for office was a risk.” After she was elected, she attended classes on being an elected official in the state. “I’m not afraid to show my values, morals, and opinions up on the dais … My work on the council and for the residents of Berkeley Heights has demonstrated my growth and success in the area of fiscal responsibility, honesty, vision, passion, energy, creativity and transparency.”

Kingsley said, “When you elected me, I told you I was committed to building the future of Berkeley Heights with you. We have worked hard to make smart strategic investments, and through our collaborative efforts with residents, volunteers and community stakeholders, we’ve delivered significant improvements … This election is important … Our homes are one of the largest investments we will make in our lifetimes. And it’s crucial to protect those property values. Preserving the quality of life we have in Berkeley Heights is essential because it affects every member of our community. 

The Forum has been recorded and it will be posted on www which is the League of  Women Voters Berkeley Heights, New Providence and To see recording on Youtube, click here

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