By John Burton
RED BANK – This year’s borough council election sees two veteran Democratic council members squaring off against two Republicans, new to political races but one well known to the community.
Democrats Sharon Lee and Kathleen Horgan, who have a combined total of nearly 15 years on the council, are facing GOP candidates Sean Di Somma and Cindy Burnham, who are conducting their first bid for elective office. While her name hasn’t been on a ballot before, Burnham has made her thoughts known over the years as she has publicly sparred with borough officials over a variety of issues.
The race could change the makeup of the council. Council members have been all Democrats for a number of years.
Lee, 57, of East Westside Avenue, is a planner for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and is in her third three-year term. Horgan, 68, of Branch Avenue, who works as liaison for the board of directors for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, has been on the council for nearly six years.
Di Somma, 31, of Morford Place, works for a firm that drafts stock shareholder communications. After moving to Red Bank about 2 ½ years ago, he began seeing things he didn’t like – and started speaking out, attracting the attention of borough Republicans who asked him to run for council.
What bothered him, he said, was a council that he alleged was offering only excuses for the increasing tax rates and increasing debt without answers.
Burnham, 58, of Wallace Street, is a substitute teacher at Red Bank Regional High School, Little Silver. She has been active in the borough for more than 30 years, starting with her move into her first apartment here and then buying her first home. Though she moved to Fair Haven at one point, she returned to the borough as a resident last year.
Both Democrats said they are seeking another term because of their commitment to the community and the desire to continue working on projects and the progress they believe has been accomplished over the years by the current administration and the previous Democratic administration of Edward J. McKenna.
“I think very much you never stop tweaking,” Lee said. The community “never stops changing. It’s always in motion” and continues to require oversight and guidance.
Horgan said there are things she would like to continue to address – including the borough’s environmental agenda by working on making the community more “green.” She also wants to continue working on the borough’s website.
“We are caretakers of our community,” Lee said.
For Lee, she sees her accomplishment as her ongoing work with the borough’s Department of Public Utilities (DPU) on infrastructure – road maintenance, water and sewer – and projects that have been undertaken to improve Count Basie and Marine parks. She also points to the establishment of Cedar Crossings, the completed residential project that required the borough to acquire the property and work with a developer to give low- and moderate- income earners a chance at homeownership.
“It’s all about constantly working to improve life,” Lee said.
The big issue is, Horgan said, “taxes, taxes, taxes.”
But, the Democrats argue, the council has been diligent with taxpayers’ dollars, having kept within the state 2 percent cap mandate while continuing “to struggle to cut debt and maintain services,” Horgan said.
“We have challenges that a lot of other towns don’t have,” Horgan said, including a high number of tax-exempt properties that require services and impact the infrastructure.
In the past, borough officials would approach state legislators when changes in the state budget formula were being made but nothing came of it.
Lee and Horgan pointed to the borough’s long tradition of shared services – long before others picked it up – with borough inspectors and officials also working for neighboring communities, a financial benefit for Red Bank.
They stressed that they have a proven record of accomplishments: A vibrant business community that has a vacancy rate at less than other downtowns and commercial developments in the works to bring in tax ratables and provide an economic ripple effect for the community. The commercial district now carries about 42 percent of the tax load, lifting some of the burden off of homeowners, they noted.
“Red Bank has prospered under Democratic leadership,” Horgan said.
The Republicans see it differently.
Di Somma said the governing body is guilty of “years and years of fiscal mismanagement” with the council operating “the same way for a hundred years.
“They’re not bad people, they just don’t seem to know how the world works,” he said.
Burnham said she has been hearing as she campaigns that “people want a change. They’re frustrated,” with the status quo.
Some solutions, she said, can be found in the way neighboring Fair Haven has addressed its budgets. That community has seen either a flat or even slightly reduced municipal tax rate, she said, pointing to that town’s strategy of incorporating more shared-service agreements. That borough has also outsourced some services, such as trash collection, and has hired an in-house engineer, instead of contracting with a large, expensive and politically connected engineering firm.
Burnham has been on the public stage for the last few years working to establish the Maple Cove nature area at the northern end of Maple Avenue. Her efforts for that parcel of borough-owned property caused sparks between the council and herself. Elected officials accused Burnham of ignoring state environmental regulations to the borough’s peril while Burnham charged the borough was about to sell off the site.
A similar struggle erupted over establishing a community garden. All parties supported the concept but there were heated confrontations over its location, before officials made it clear where it would be – over Burnham’s objections.
“After being in this town for 30 years, people ask me, ’Cindy, why do you want to do this?’ to go through all this,” she said. “And I tell them, you have to walk through the flames to put it out,” referring to what she alleged is a lack of proper management and to bring out change.
Taxes for the Republicans are a premier issue but the two candidates differ somewhat in where they stand. “I won’t promise to lower taxes,” Burnham said. “I’m about stabilizing taxes,” looking to ensure they are raised only as a last resort and always spent judiciously.
Di Somma, on the other hand, is unequivocal. In his analysis of past and current budgets, he said an 11 percent tax reduction can be accomplished over a three-year period. He would like to see an end to allowing some borough employees to take borough vehicles home. He would sell them to help pay down debt.
Even more can be accomplished by selling off the water and sewer utilities to entities that know how to manage them – a point on which Burnham agrees. “I’m not qualified to run a water utility,” Di Somma said. “I would feel much more comfortable with water (rate) increases coming from BPU (state Board of Public Utilities) than this council.”
Democrats have rejected that proposal, arguing it would mean a one-shot revenue source and discussions with water and sewer service providers would mean likely even higher rates for borough customers, with those companies especially complaining what it would cost for them to undertake sewer treatment here, Lee said.
The Republicans also fail to see eye-to-eye on maintaining the public library.
“It’s a 20th-century model,” Di Somma said, adding that the borough should join the Monmouth County Library System and save operating costs.
Burnham, on the other hand, sees the library as providing a vital local service. “Every good town deserves a good little library,” she said.
It is important there be voices of dissent instead of a single party calling the tune, the GOP candidates contend. “We don’t want to be only watchdogs,” Di Somma said, “We want to be policymakers.”
“By the way,” he added as an afterthought, “as watchdogs, nobody barks louder than Cindy and I.”