NORTH ARLINGTON – In some ways, the Bergen County borough of North Arlington is better known for its dead than its living – about 15,000 people live in Bergen’s southernmost town, while more than 250,000 people permanently reside in Holy Cross Cemetery.
But in this year’s North Arlington mayoral election, the key issue focuses on how residents hope to live better through redevelopment that will spark economic growth in the largely blue-collar, middle-class town on the banks of the Passaic River and next to the Meadowlands.
Both Democratic incumbent Mayor Peter Massa and his Republican challenger, Councilman Joe Bianchi, voted with the rest of the evenly-divided six-member council to introduce a municipal budget with a 6.2 percent tax increase for homeowners, expected to be passed later this month. Massa and Bianchi both pointed to the after-effects of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, as well as last year’s nasty winter weather, as the phenomenon that created more costs than expected.
What separates the two candidates is how redevelopment, the practical vehicle that will allow North Arlington to recoup from this unexpected spending, should be carried out. North Arlington has been trying to find the right path regarding redevelopment since the controversial EnCap project collapsed in 2008 after the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, of which North Arlington is a member, cut ties with the project’s developer.
Massa, 69, is a former North Arlington police officer who now does background investigations for the federal Department of Homeland Security. First elected in 2006, Massa believes that another layer of government to get North Arlington’s redevelopment done is unnecessary.
“I don’t think we need a redevelopment authority,” Massa said. “We’re talking about bringing in a consultant to help us market North Arlington more effectively. They had a redevelopment authority when the Republicans had complete control and they didn’t accomplish very much of anything, other than put together a redevelopment plan that never went anywhere. Elected officials who are directly accountable to the people should make the ultimate decisions on redevelopment, rather than a crew of political appointees. Then we can generate some rateables so we can go forward with some tax relief.”
Bianchi, 73, a hair stylist who owns a salon on Ridge Road and who has been elected to the council three times, said that he had “a different outlook” than Massa regarding redevelopment.
“In order for you to stabilize taxes, you have to have revenue. In order for you to lower taxes, you have to have redevelopment. The mayor and council are now the redevelopment board. We must have an independent redevelopment that will institute those plans. The mayor and council have enough to do to run our town,” Bianchi said. “We need big-box stores, like Walmart, and warehousing to come into our town. That will bring our revenue up, and it will bring more people to work in our town. On the other side of Route 7 in Kearny, redevelopment is flourishing. We have to do the same.”
Massa and Bianchi are well aware that the North Arlington mayoral election will take place at the same time as the election for Bergen County executive, a campaign contested between Republican incumbent Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan and Freeholder Jim Tedesco.
“Tedesco has come into North Arlington quite frequently, and he’s been very well received. There is a very strong Democratic mood this year because there is a lot of disenchantment with the [Christie] administration,” said Massa, referring to the Republican governor’s problems regarding the ongoing investigations into the Bridgegate scandal and lingering questions about the distribution of post-Sandy aid. “It’s always a possibility that they’ll take it out on Donovan.”
“Kathe Donovan has always helped me, and I’ve always helped her,” Bianchi responded. “I might think about Kathe Donovan in the county executive’s race, but North Arlington is my main concern, first. People are worried about their homes and their taxes, period. And if people come out to vote for me, they’re going to vote for Kathe Donovan, too. You have to remember – Kathe Donovan grew up in Lyndhurst. She went to school here in North Arlington at Queen of Peace High School. She lives in Rutherford. Her name is big here in south Bergen, and her name is big here in North Arlington.”
Both Bianchi and Massa think voter turnout from the borough’s 8,000 registered voters will be higher this year in North Arlington because of the mayoral election. The sitting mayor referred back to the most unique feature of his town regarding how in a place with real issues, a lively election can spring from where some jokingly call the city of the dead.
“Voters are looking for accountability. They want to see bipartisan action. They want to see things accomplished,” Massa said. “People have accepted that cemeteries cover about 25 percent of the developed area of the community. That’s 25 percent of the developed area that does not generate tax revenue. And those people in the cemetery? They don’t vote.”