Ridgewood News

By Darius Amos

During a lively and interactive forum with members of the senior citizen community, the candidates for Village Council addressed several key issues impacting all Ridgewood residents. The Candidates Coffee event, held last week at the Ridgecrest Apartments, marked the first time that all six council hopefuls discussed election topics as a group.

 

Of the six candidates, three will be selected by registered voters on May 8 to serve four-year terms on Ridgewood‘s governing body. The pool of candidates includes two incumbents, two Planning Board members, and two village watchdogs.

The candidates – Paul Aronsohn, Russell Forenza, Gwenn Hauck, Keith Killion, Albert Pucciarelli and Mary Jane Shinozuka – answered questions offered to them by moderator Irma Leeds, a member of the League of Women Voters. They provided the audience of approximately 30 seniors with their viewpoints on the council’s role in modernizing The Valley Hospital and the responsibility of reducing municipal expenses while protecting services. An additional question, raised by members of the public, requested ideas on how to improve the central business district (CBD) and keep businesses from moving out of the downtown area.

Hospital expansion

The governing body last fall unanimously voted not to pass an ordinance that essentially would have approved a $750 million expansion at The Valley Hospital. While all of the candidates acknowledged the worth and importance that Valley has in the community, they were asked if and how the Village Council can assist the hospital with its goals of upgrading and expanding.

Killion, who voted against the hospital expansion, said the onus of developing a new plan should rest on the shoulders of Valley’s officials.

“The Village Council is involved in running village government. I don’t believe I have the expertise to help Valley formulate a plan,” said Killion, a retired police captain and current Ridgewood mayor. “I believe there is a compromise. What that compromise is, I don’t know. Valley has to present it. It’s their business, not mine. But I’m willing to listen.”

Forenza, a village resident since 1951, declared the hospital is a “necessary entity” in Ridgewood that has improved throughout the years. He said that if elected, he hopes to form a committee that would include residents living near Valley and throughout the village.

The committee, Forenza said, would be tasked with determining “what we can do and what would work to make everyone happy – that’s hard to do. What we’ll do is look at the pluses and minuses. We’ll look at things that we don’t agree on … and work out a solution to the problem.

“The council should reach out to Valley and say we’re willing to cooperate and work this out and make it easier for everyone,” Forenza said.

To Pucciarelli, Valley Hospital has been “magnificent” to residents and his family. An attorney and Planning Board member, Pucciarelli said hospital executives must realize that “the people have spoken,” referring to the multitude of expansion protests last fall.

Still, he believes that the council can assume a better role should Valley return with a revised plan.

“I think the council can play a constructive role as mediator before the process devolves and gets to that public hearing state,” Pucciarelli said.

A former Valley Hospital Auxiliary vice president and two-time chairperson of The Valley Ball, Hauck considers the hospital as one of seven personal treasures of Ridgewood and she believes that the facilities require modernization. Her contention on the topic focuses on the discussion process.

“The question is how do we control the debate next time, because what happened [last year] was so negative in the Village of Ridgewood in terms of the morale factor,” she said. Hauck’s solution is to “protect the political process.”

“Representatives can meet instead of making it such a public process. It would manage the process in a better way,” she said. “The hospital is important, but what’s more important is that we remain a neighborly community.”

Shinozuka, a member of the Planning Board, agreed with the Village Council’s decision to vote against the expansion plan last fall, and she applauded that governing body for “listening to the residents” because it’s their duty to “protect the residents.”

If she is elected to the council, Shinozuka said that she would listen to Valley officials if they returned with another expansion plan as long as it “would improve the quality of life in Ridgewood.”

“But I do think it’s the hospital’s responsibility to come back to the town. What the council can offer is a forum where there is free and open mind for a new proposal,” she said.

Aronsohn, an incumbent councilman, said he recognizes the hospital’s value in the community but voted against the proposal last year because it was “too big” and “too destructive.” But the expansion discussion, he said, doesn’t have to end there.

“This conversation needs to move forward. The important first step is for the Planning Board to rescind its amendment [to revise Ridgewood's master plan],” Aronsohn said, referring to a 2010 Planning Board move that adopted changes in the hospital zone to permit the expansion. Those changes, however, are not effective without an ordinance passed by the council.

“We need to start the conversation with a blank piece of paper,” he said.

He added that the Village Council should play a proactive role in leading the conversation next time. “Bring the two parties together,” Aronsohn said, “and find out what’s best for Ridgewood. That is the question, the guiding principal.”

Municipal spending

In light of the state-mandated 2 percent cap on budget increases, candidates were asked how they would reduce municipal spending while protecting the services offered by the village.

A veteran of municipal budgets, Forenza has more than 20 years experience preparing the City of Paterson‘s annual spending plans. He is a proponent of seeking additional revenue sources, such as grants, as an alternative to cuts and reduction of expenditures, which he said should always be a last resort measure.

Forenza also suggested furlough days and a decrease in employee hours as a way to save money.

“You can also look at [the village's] purchasing and make sure you get the best value for your dollar,” he said. “But everything has a price. When you reduce services or hours, it’s an inconvenience to the customer, the residents.”

The two areas that should not see drastic cuts, Forenza said, are public safety and public health because both departments “keep us alive.”

Pucciarelli admitted that municipal taxes are “the single biggest issue” that is facing the residents, and that budgeting with the 2 percent cap is “a discipline that we’re not used to.” He said that annual increases of 6 or 7 percent are “outrageous,” and that certain expenses will likely be cut.

“Hard decisions have to be made. We can’t just continue going how we’ve been going,” he said. “As a councilman, I’ll have to face that reality and take a long, hard look at it and make the decisions that are necessary.”

Shinozuka and Hauck agreed, saying that no one wants to eliminate services, but sacrifices must be made.

“It is difficult to say where we can cut. Everyone has to get in line and see what they need,” Shinozuka said, adding that she hopes areas such as the library and open space can be preserved.

“Would you rather have more money go to the library or the community activity center or to parks and recreation?” Hauck said. “Unfortunately, money goes to salaries and wages and things like that. Ridgewood doesn’t look like Ridgewood anymore… We should be putting money back into the infrastructure.”

Killion suggested that the village reduce “secondary spending,” such as the installation of artificial turf fields and developing property that isn’t priority.

“Money that should have been spent on infrastructure has been let go for many, many years, and it’s finally catching up to us,” he said, using the Habernickel Farm project as an example. “It was a lot of money that could have been used to fix our sewer pipes and our roads and replacing vehicles.”

Aronsohn said members of the public sector budget their money “backwards” when compared with methods used by families and in the private sector. In fact, he said, “one of the things we don’t do well is budget.”

“As a family, you have certain income and certain expenses. All of a sudden, you’ll have a repair to your house that came out of nowhere,” Aronsohn said. “Your first inclination is not to look for other revenue or get a loan necessarily. What you try to do is make tradeoffs [in the budget].”

Aronsohn continued, saying that the council should be more careful and prudent when spending taxpayer money. He said a consistent 7.6 percent tax increase is “absurd,” as was the 12 percent raise for the village manager that the council approved last year.

“Nowhere in the state of New Jersey is anybody in the public sector getting a 12 percent increase. At the same time, there’s another cut to funding to the library,” Aronsohn said. “Where are our priorities?”

Business district

 

Council hopefuls were asked for their ideas and opinions on downtown Ridgewood, specifically suggestions to stimulate economic activity, reduce the number of empty storefronts and prevent storeowners from moving out of the area.

Pucciarelli said the council should play a role in revitalizing the CBD, but it should not “over-govern or micro-plan.”

“We have to let the economy work. We have to let the successful businesses thrive, and those that aren’t [successful] fail. That’s what our economy is about,” he said.

Pucciarelli said if he’s elected, he will encourage a mixed-use downtown and explore additional residential opportunities for residents 55 years and older. Parking should also be improved, he said, though not by building a parking deck or instituting a “pay and display” system.

“We have to find ways to extend parking wherever it’s available,” he said.

Like Pucciarelli and Shinozuka, Killion is a member of the Planning Board and said easing the burden for new stores is a “cumbersome process” because the village cannot grant tax incentives and maintains its fees to “protect the neighborhood.”

Killion also said stores are leaving the CBD for several reasons, and it’s a multi-faceted problem that is governed by the economy. The council, he said, can help by revisiting and easing the permit process while continuing to work on parking options.

Stating that “it’s a free market,” Forenza said that the council does not have the power to tell landlords how much to charge for rent, not does it have the authority to tell tenants to pay a particular rent fee. Instead, the council can help improve the CBD by developing a new parking plan.

“We can get the merchants to stop parking on the streets,” Forenza said, suggesting that storeowners and employees utilize areas such as the Graydon Pool parking lot during the off-season. A parking garage can be an option, he said, if the merchants “foot the bill.”

Aronsohn said the council should not preoccupy itself dwelling on concerns that are out of its control, such as the global economic crisis or the popularity of online shopping. What the council should do, he said, is concentrate on areas that it can fix.

“We can fix parking and re-visit some of the old ordinances on the book,” he said. “Taking care of those areas can alleviate some of the economic pains felt by the businesses.”

Ridgewood‘s downtown is not the only business district in the area that is suffering, Hauck said. “We are all faced with the same escalating wage increases and health benefits. Until we figure that out, our budgets are squeezed. And when budgets are squeezed, you can’t make changes the way you should,” she said.

Hauck said the council can improve the climate in the CBD by encouraging developers to build, which would likely “attract more residents and increase tax revenue and shopping in town.” She supports additional parking in the area as long as it does not cost the taxpayers.

According to Shinozuka, patience might be one of the keys to helping downtown. “We have to wait out the economy and see if things get better, and hopefully that will alleviate some of our problems,” she said.

In the meantime, she stressed the importance of attracting shoppers to Ridgewood, an area she said has always been known as a destination for consumers.

“If we get that feeling back and do what we can on our side … we can revitalize downtown,” she said.

Shinozuka added that she was in favor of housing for residents age 55 and older in the CBD. That type of community, she said, “would be more inclined to do their shopping there.”

Ridgewood residents will have another opportunity to meet the council hopefuls later this month. The League of Women Voters will moderate a candidates’ forum at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 30 at Village Hall. The program will be televised on channel 77.

Email: amos@northjersey.com