Street level Levine: governor should have proposed cutting state workers’ jobs

FRANKLIN TWP. – There’s a woman at a town hall microphone and she’s mad.

“We need more cricket fields,” she cries, and she hardly appears pacified as the Franklin Town Council kicks around some answers before At-large Councilman Rajiv Prasad leans over and hands her his card and tells her, “I’m a cricketer.”

“Good,” she exclaims. “I need a cricketer.”

The exchange causes a man in a soccer jacket to come out of his chair and now he’s up at the microphone and telling Mayor Brian D. Levine and the council that cricket consumes an entire day to play.

“Cricket is a dominant sport,” he explains, not angry but forceful. “It takes an area and it dominates it for eight hours, and it is played eight or nine months each year.”

The man treads cautiously because – as he wearily reminds the council and the crowd behind him – this is a touchy subject considering the turf clashes of the Board of Education and the town’s Department of Recreation.

Meanwhile, there’s another battle here, as parents living in the low and moderate income Parkside neighborhood want a place for their children to play and feel overrun by cricketers.

But some of those parents happen also… to be cricketers.

“We know we don’t have enough active recreation in Franklin Township,” concedes Councilwoman Kimberly Francois, a former mayor. “We have dropped the ball in terms of keeping up with our recreational needs. We made the decision last year to take the cricket out (of another park). Maybe we need to revisit that. I don’t want it to appear that there’s any discrimination going on.”

Prasad suggests a new plan.

“Respectfully,” objects veteran Councilman Robert Mettler, another former mayor, “we have plans coming out of our ears. We need money to build the fields. There’s a plan to more fully develop Middleworth Park, for instance. We need to look at ways to fund fields. We have a shortage of fields in all areas – a shortage of cricket fields, ball fields. Perhaps we need to look to the open space fund. Some might be dedicated to recreational purposes.”

And as yet another battle line unfolds in this diverse and sprawling eastern Somerset County town, Levine, apparently in his street level element sitting on the mayor’s throne under a portrait of Ben Franklin, weighs all sides and digs in for a long meeting, where the issues in fact won’t be decided until they’re considered at another meeting – scheduled for the next evening.

Now in his second term as mayor in a town of mostly Democrats – “A mayor of the people, with a good heart,” in Francois’s words, Levine is receiving statewide exposure this year in a campaign for the GOP nomination for governor that to date has turned few heads – at least among the ranks of machine Republicans.

Just a week ago, a shell-shocked Levine wondered how he could have done as poorly as garnering just one vote at the Middlesex GOP’s committee screening. Middlesex. It’s right next door to Franklin.

“I’ve got to find a way to do better, to get the message out there better,” said he bewildered Levine.

Two days later, the CPA mayor was again buried – only worse, receiving exactly zero votes at the Northeast Republican Organization screening as the campaign chariot of former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie trampled the rest of the Republican field, leaving Levine deepest underfoot after multiple successive and worsening losses.

Tonight he’s taking a break from the campaign trail by running the council meeting, and once he assures all sides they will have ample opportunity to discuss the cricket issue on the morrow, the council considers another topic.

An observer might wonder how something could be more contentious than cricket tonight and yet the next speaker arrives, steamed over the recent property revaluation. Soon, there is testy back and forth among gadflies in the crowd and the tax assessor – “You gave him a chance to speak. 30 minutes! Now, I want to speak, he called me a liar,” etc.

Once resolved, they’re onto the next issue, and surely it’s time for lighter fare.

Only it’s not.

The issue now is foreclosures.

A resident marches to the microphone.

Levine keeps cool.

He was down in Trenton earlier in the day for Gov. Jon Corzine’s budget address, and he knows that job is also tough – but he thinks he can do it better than Corzine, in part because he has experience weathering the blows of local government.

“A lot of what the governor proposed is too little, too late,” Levine tells later. “This goes back ten or 15 years when everything was a gimmick. Now we’re relying in large part on a one-shot $2 billion bailout to patch the problem. We’re deferring a decision.”

The mayor says Corzine should have dug in against the unions and cut state workers from the state payroll this year.

“He’s cutting back on people’s paychecks, giving them one furlough day a month for 12 months,” says Levine. “I think he should have cut people and let them go on unemployment insurance. You just have to do that. It’s been years in coming.”

During the meeting, Mettler, a town historian whose family has lived in Franklin since the 1700s, opens up on the state budget issue, sparking some smiles among fellow council members as he acknowledges the gubernatorial debate in the presence of Levine.

“Right now the governor wants to balance the budget by cutting property tax rebates, but they’ve refused to address our overreliance on the property tax,” says Mettler. “I would hope someone running for governor would address that.

“Chris Christie goes after the income tax,” adds the councilman, “but I want him to go after the property tax. Look, I’m nonpartisan in this. I will vote for anyone who says he will vote for property tax (reform) in New Jersey. …The truth is, there’s almost no local control. They have gradually over the years taken it away from us.”

Levine agrees.

“In New Jersey, more than anywhere else, we rely on property taxpayers,” says the mayor. “The state is putting more and more mandates on us. And the message is: get the money from property taxpayers, cut services or look for efficiencies.”

He appears in his groove going into a consideration of ordinances. A day later, he will be back on the road, car pointed northward, as he headstoa Republican screening committeemeeting, wherehe again will tryto make his case in the face of the Christie juggernaut, this time in Passaic. Street level Levine: governor should have proposed cutting state workers’ jobs