Paramus mayor’s race: Candidates in closely-divided Bergen borough spar over taxes, towing issues

PARAMUS – When voters go to the polls in November to pick between the two Paramus mayoral candidates, the decision could come down to two issues starting with the letter T: taxes and towing.

The Democratic incumbent, Mayor Richard LaBarbiera, and the Republican challenger, Tom LoCicero, at one time served on the six-person borough council together. They both completely agree that Paramus’ blue laws, which mandate that all businesses are closed on Sunday, except grocery stores, restaurants, and certain entertainment venues in order to give the 26,000-person-town that straddles Route 17 one day of needed relief from traffic, should not be touched.

But things get touchy between LaBarbiera and LoCicero when it comes to taxes, the bete noire of politics in the statewide election bellwether, Bergen County. 

“Taxes were frozen for the first three years I was mayor. This year, we’ve actually reduced taxes,” LaBarbiera, 47, a civil engineer, said, referring to the unanimous passage of a $57.1 million spending plan in June that includes an average tax decrease of $105 per household. “We’ve done a great job at controlling costs, and our tax base continues to expand. We’ve got an approximately $10 million surplus.”

“In 2010, when Republicans had the majority on the Paramus council, we started trimming all the fat,” LoCicero, 54, said. “All this was going on while Mr. LaBarbiera game us the blessing. It was Republicans who made the hard decisions, and it was Republican policies that turned this borough around.”

LoCicero is taking his second stab at Paramus politics this election season. Not long after being appointed councilman in late 2011 to fill the seat of another councilman who resigned, LoCicero resigned himself in May 2012. LoCicero made the move after the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) ruled that his position as owner of one of four licensed tow-truck companies in Paramus could have the appearance of a conflict of interest. 

In retrospect, LoCicero thinks he should have stayed on the council, which now has a 4-2 Democratic majority, and fought the decision.

“I don’t understand what happened,” said LoCicero, stating that he recused himself from all towing matters that involved borough vehicles during his time on the council. “After I stepped down from the council, I spoke to a few attorneys. If I conceivably win the mayoral election, we would file for an emergency show cause hearing [with the state Office of Administrative Law]. I would then have a reason for a quick decision. That’s why I chose to put my name back in. You can’t give the incumbent a free ride.”

“I’m not aware of anything that’s changed. I don’t know how we would work around this conflict issue,” LaBarbiera countered. “If it doesn’t apply, why didn’t he challenge it when he still was a councilperson? If he was so strong in his position, he should have challenged the DCA then.”

The political sniper fire that is now whizzing through the air in Paramus is happening concurrently with the larger shell fire of the Bergen County Executive’s race in November. Republican incumbent Kathleen Donovan still has strong county-wide name recognition. But her opponent Jim Tedesco, who served as Paramus’ Democratic mayor from 2003 to 2010,  has used his platform as a Bergen County freeholder to question Donovan’s ties to some of the players in the ongoing Bridgegate scandal, including former Port Authority Chairman David Samson.

Tedesco also tallied more votes in Paramus than all of the other three freeholder candidates in last year’s election, demonstrating that he still has a strong base in Paramus, a closely divided town on partisan lines that is often seen at the bellwether town in a bellwether county. 

“I think people tend to come out for a mayoral election, and I think traditionally people like their mayor, unless there is some pressing issue, which I don’t believe exists in Paramus. We also have a former, very popular mayor running for Bergen County Executive,” said LaBarbiera, referring to Tedesco. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people come out in Paramus, more than you would ordinarily see.” 

But LoCicero sees a potential spike in Paramus voter turnout for the mayoral election as going against Tedesco in the county-wide race. 

“One of the things that worries me about Jim Tedesco is that he has connections to the old regime of Joe Ferriero,” LoCicero said, referring to the former Bergen Democratic chairman who was convicted on corruption charges in 2009. “I see 20 signs with Tedesco’s name on it now off of every exit ramp in Paramus. When he was mayor of Paramus, he didn’t like that much. To me, that’s pollution. We don’t need that.” 

“We don’t need a Tea Party approach to government,” LaBarbiera replied. “We’ve been able to get things done with a bipartisan approach.”

Paramus mayor’s race: Candidates in closely-divided Bergen borough spar over taxes, towing issues