Somerset freeholder candidates debate taxes, ethics

In Somerset County, the question is who “talks the talk,” and who “walks the walk.”

At a debate tonight at Montgomery High School’s Library, incumbent Republican Freeholders Peter Palmer and Robert Zaborowski accused their Democratic challenges, Montgomery Mayor Cecilia Xie Birge and North Plainfield Councilman Douglas Singleterry, of only “talking the talk” on taxes but failing to curb them in their hometowns. The Democrats countered by saying the Republicans had only “talked the talk” on ethics reform in the wake of last year’s Somerset County Parks Commission scandal.

The forum, which was moderated by former Republican Montgomery Mayor Peter Treichler, was the third and final debate in a potentially competitive contest – something Somerset County only began seeing recently.

“Our opponents have talked the talk about controlling taxes. Over the last three years, we have walked the walk, and they have not,” said Palmer, the director of the freeholder board.

The Republicans argued that the Democrats’ claims that county taxes increased by upwards of 40% are doctored number – that the county tax levy, in fact, has been much more modest. Meanwhile, the tax levy has increased in the Democrats’ hometown.

Holding up a Montgomery budget presentation, Palmer accused Birge of glossing over tax increases in her own town by not comparing the tax rate to previous years.

Birge argued that the numbers are coming directly from the tax bills, and held up a different part of the same presentation that she said answered Palmer’s question. After the debate, Palmer showed off the paper, noting that nowhere did it show a $1.7 million rise in municipal taxes.

But the Somerset County Parks Commission scandal, which drew outrage in the county for commissioners living rent free in county-owned homes, driving car paid for by the county and free trips to Atlantic City, remains a top issue for the Democrats in this election.

Singleterry noted that the head of maintenance for the county golf courses is still living rent-free in a $3 million home.

“Our Republican opponents have been on the freeholder board longer than anyone else. These abuses were entirely under their watch. Where was the oversight and accountability of these freeholders when the spending abuses were taking place?” he said.

Republicans noted that they hired an outside firm to investigate, and implemented all of its recommendations and then some. The $3 million house, they said, was no mansion, and was going to be turned into a visitors’ center.

The Democrats noted that their towns were among the first in the county to enact municipal bans on pay-to-play, and they accused the Republicans of allowing $20 million in no-bid contracts from campaign contributors.

That drew a harsh rebuke from Zaborowski, who called the accusation an “outright lie.”

“That’s an outright lie. There is no pay-to-play in Somerset County. All bids are handled by our staff, by our purchasing agent… They have no idea who contributes to the campaign. I have no idea who contributes in the campaign. I don’t get involved in that” he said.

Singleterry countered that he was referring to professional services, which are no-bid, discretionary decisions by the freeholder board.

Another hot point of contention was the salary of County Administrator Dick Williams is more than the governor of every state except California makes.

While touting the freeholder board’s fiscal responsibility in other matters, Palmer said this is one salary that’s well deserved.

“He does a damn good job,” he said. “I’m very proud of what our county administrator does. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the best one in the state. In fact, I’ve heard other county administrators say he is.”

Singleterry countered that Palmer was being dismissive of concerns over how taxpayer money is spent.

“I’m not going to say so what when it comes to control of your tax dollars,” he said.

Just by nature of the location, the Republicans are the favorites in this race. No Democrat has held a seat on the freeholder board of this once-solidly Republican county in 28 years. But some political observers think that the Somerset County race could a surprise race this year – the one that, having gotten scant coverage beforehand, creeps in with an upset on election night.

It’s not like Monmouth County, where Democrats have been gradually encroaching on the Republicans’ traditional hold, and where the Democratic State Committee will likely contribute significant resources.

Genteel Somerset Countyis more of a long-shot than Monmouth, but recent trends have given the Democrats hope.

For one, Democrats outnumber Republicans there for the first time ever, or at least as far back as any living person can remember. As of October 13th, they had a razor thin registration advantage of 677, while last November they trailed by about 15,000. In all, the Democrats gained about 25,000 registrants this year, while Republicans took on about 9,500.

Certainly some of those new registrants were unaffiliated voters who already tended to vote Democratic, but it’s possible that a large part of the 16,784 new registrants in the district went with the Democrats.

Democrats are also hopeful based on their candidate’s performance last year. In a year without any federal races at the top of the ticket, and when only one-third of the electorate turned out to vote, Democrat Melonie Marano got 45% of the vote to Republican Pat Walsh’s 48%.

“I think it’s just the independent-thinking nature of Somerset County,” said Birge.

Palmer acknowledged that Democrats had made gains in registration, though many of the new registrants probably already leaned Democratic.

“The question is just how much of that surge was because people wanted to vote in the primary in February,” he said.

Somerset freeholder candidates debate taxes, ethics