Incumbent Republicans Richard Bunce and Marie Ryder Galante face challenges on Nov. 6 for their 3-year Borough Council seats from Democrats Mara Modes and John Pezzino.
The election comes at a time when the council approved a reassessment for all borough properties to balance the assessed value compared to the market values, the Highlands Council approved the designation of Hopatcong as a town center, and the borough faces budget challenges in the face of a mandated 2 percent tax levy cap.
Bunce, 56, has served on the council since 2003. He owns his own construction business and has lived in Hopatcong for 21 years. He is married, has three daughters and several grandchildren.
The reassessment was important because it will balance property values across the borough, Bunce said. Certain neighborhoods had seen the difference between market, or sales values, and assessed values grown markedly, he said. The county tax office set the imbalance this year at 114 percent, and projected it would rise to 117 percent in 2013, he said.
The result of the imbalance was an increasing number of tax appeals, which helped drive the imbalance to even greater levels and saddled the borough with rising legal costs to defend against the appeals.
Getting the tax base stabilized will also help the borough manage its annual budget, and lower its legal fees, Bunce said.
In recent years the borough has taken steps to share services with municipalities and the county, which have reduced the borough’s costs. Shifting the borough’s health management services to the county produced considerable savings, he said. The council also makes judicious use of available grants for improvements that enhance safety and support the business community.
Managing the budget in the era of a 2 percent cap requires careful attention to staffing and other costs, which is why the borough is examining a solar energy project that would lower the cost of providing electricity to borough facilities.
Attaining a town center designation is a key step in developing a comprehensive development plan for the borough, Bunce said. The impact of the designation will have a positive impact on plans to develop the River Styx area of the borough’s lakefront where developers have indicated an interest in building.
“There are big plans. The town center designation makes them more readily attainable,” he said. The designation backs what are “good sound investments.”
Overall, Bunce said, the council has been working to move the borough forward while it supports local efforts to showcase Hopatcong as a good place to live. Beautification of the center of town near the municipal complex and the recent effort to allow bow hunting for white tailed deer are examples of an effort to address specific issues, he said.
Galante, 43, is owner and operator the local hair salon, A Cut Above. She has been on the council since 2007. She previously served on the council from 1997 to 1999. She has lived in the borough for 39 years.
Galante said the reassessment brought the borough’s tax assessments back into balance.
“It was not a fair system,” she said, that was threatening to spin out of control. The decision was made to reassess the property when the equalization rate, the difference between the assessed value and market value of properties reached 114 percent, she said.
The imbalance generated more than 300 tax appeals in the past two years, Galante said. The defense of the appeals raised the borough legal costs, which are part of the budget affected by the 2 percent levy cap.
The borough’s budget was well below that cap limit last year, the first year the cap was in place,” Galante said. She said the council is approaching 2013 budget preparations expecting little additional state aid, but with the goal of maintaining a flat budget.
The council is concerned about the impact of raising taxes, and has taken steps, such as merging departments and boards, to reduce expenses.
The advantage, she said, is that borough employees are cross-trained and can use their talents in more than one department. The use of grants for infrastructure needs has helped the borough complete important projects at lower costs to taxpayers, she said.
Attaining the town center designation was a council goals for five years, she said. The key is that the borough can now plan development in a comprehensive manner because the rules will be well understood.
The designation brings clarity to the borough’s approach to growth, she said, especially in the River Styx section, where developers expressed interest in making investments. That potential development would not happen without the town center designation, Galante said.
Hopatcong is a vital, diverse community, and bringing together all various aspects of the community is a key goal of the council, she said. So support of borough events, like the recent farmers market, and improvements at such facilities as the borough’s parks, make Hopatcong a better place to live, she said.
Modes is a registered nurse and has studied industrial technology, ethics and paralegal studies. She is married with two children and has lived in the borough for 30 years.
She is challenging the incumbents to bring more “transparency, accountability and confidence” to municipal government.
She will seek to create and implement policies that provide long-term benefits to borough residents, she said.
Modes said would cast a harder eye on the types and number of grants the borough seeks, analyzing them with a cost benefit analysis. She said a recent grant to rebuild sidewalks and install streetlights cost the borough $82,000 in expenses not covered by the grant.”
“I would advocate for a moratorium on grants for non-essentials that do not cover 100 percent of the costs,” she said.
Modes said she would have sought a reassessment earlier. She said the borough spent “tens of thousands of dollars” prior to calling for a borough-wide assessment in August.
At that time the council authorized $300,000 to cover the cost of the reassessment. While the borough did a full revaluation of all property in 2007, the real estate market crashed in 2008, creating a need to reassess this year, the council said.
Modes said the council needs to be more transparent when it presents it annual budget to the residents. She called for a full budget session and not “a pie-chart presentation.”
She called for the availability of more borough information regarding borough decisions and meetings, the posting of bill lists online when the meeting agendas are posted.
Modes said she would work for more council interaction with residents at public meetings, and said “the checks and balances of the Hopatcong council appear to be lacking when we see allegations of ethics violations, conflicts of interest, and restrictions of public access to information.”
The council needs change, she said, in order to govern “effectively, efficiently and without bias.”
Pezzino, 53, is a master electrician and small business owner who has lived in Hopatcong for 13 years. He has two sons.
He said his chief concerns are about the safety along borough roads and the quality of life in the lakefront community.
On Lakeside Boulevard, he said, the Quick Chek was built, but no crosswalk was installed. Since many children who could visit the store live on the opposite side of the road, this has created a safety concern, he said.
“We need to install warning signs and crosswalks to prevent a serious accident,” he said.
Pezzino said he questions the review of building permits that come to the borough.
“Building permits seem to be getting approved based on the amount of new revenues that can be brought in, instead of assuring smart, courteous projects that maintain the beauty of our lake and the integrity of our landscapes,” he said.
He called for a system that would give neighbors more chance to be heard.
Pezzino said the borough needs to attract a more diverse business community to provide a wider choice of goods and services.
“It seems like the only new businesses that open up in Hopatcong are businesses that take business away from existing businesses that sell the same products or services,” he said.
He suggested the borough could seek to attract a medical clinic that could serve the senior citizens and others in town who have limited ability to travel.
He said adding an amusement park on borough property near Hopatcong State Park would expand the variety of entertainment in Hopatcong, and provide job opportunities to the borough’s youth. Such a feature would enhance the borough’s standing as a lake community as well, he said.
If elected Pezzino said he would approach NJ Transit or Lakeland Bus about setting up a full-time bus route in the borough.
Such a service would provide a bus line to the Dover hospital, several professional buildings, and a way commuters to connect with train and bus locations, he said. In addition, it would provide a needed way for youth to get around town to attend local events, stores and get to jobs.
The bus route “will give our residents independence, dignity, pride and happiness,” Pezzino said.
Pezzino said he wants to see change in Hopatcong, but even as a Democrat, said he supports some the actions taken by Republican Mayor Sylvia Petillo because they have been forward looking.