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Long Branch Election Candidates Tackle City's Biggest Issues

Long Branch Council candidate David Pizzo
The incumbent Long Branch Council team of Kathleen Billings, Michael Sirianni, Mary Jane Celli, Mayor Adam Schneider, Joy Bastelli and John Pallone
Long Branch Mayor candidate Avery Grant

LONG BRANCH: The city's municipal election is just over one week from now and campaigns are in full gear.

Word on the Shore reached out to each candidate running for a seat on the Long Branch Council or the mayor's seat and asked them all the same three questions. Each candidate was given a 500 word limit each answer and a 1-week time limit to submit their responses.

The questions were:

1) What is the biggest issue facing the city?

2) What will you do to either lower or stabilize taxes

3) What is your vision for the future of Lower Broadway

The candidates' responses are printed verbatim below:

Mayor Adam Schneider (Chose to submit his answers as one campaign statement)

Taxes, public safety, Sandy repairs, and the continued revitalization of the city are all major issues. Every day the council and I solve problems and make decisions impacting the residents of Long Branch. In last two months we’ve adopted a budget that added two new police officers, hired the engineer for the second phase of pier design, paid to repair Manahasset Creek Park, Pinsky Park and the promenade, hired the bands for the summer concerts, met with the new owners of Lower Broadway, participated with the housing authority for the building of new affordable senior housing, and kept working on plans for the new Boardwalk.

There isn’t a day that goes by the council the staff and I are dealing with these issues and more, so I would suggest that the biggest issue in this election is our professionalism, experience, accomplishments, work ethic, and dedication to the job of running the city. No group works harder than we do. During my years in office the city has grown safer, with more parks, activities and a revitalized oceanfront. That took hard work and dedication.

The council, professional staff, and I work towards the common goal of making Long Branch as great a place to live as possible. Sharing that common goal and respecting each other is why we still want to keep serving.

The people I’ve worked with over the last twenty-four years have become my closest friends. That list includes parents in the schools, business people, and members of the boards, the fire department, and many of the employees. My favorite teams play for Long Branch.

Re-elect the Schneider Team and we’ll keep working for the people of Long Branch.

Avery Grant (Mayoral Candidate):

1) The Mayor and the City Council members do not respond to requests or concerns by residents for services. At public City Council meetings, residents will speak about their concerns, and the only answer they get is “Your five minutes are up!”

Concerns such as, please clean the streets; when will the boardwalk be repaired?; no activities or restaurants for me and my family on the boardwalk or in Pier Village!; why are my taxes still increasing after the Pier Village development?; why do we have beach fees and soon to be parking fees?; why Lower Broadway has not been developed?; we need a handicap ramp to the beach, even it is a temporary one for this summer season!; why the city is not helping to get the contaminated gas plant site cleaned up?; why no amusements, and jobs for the youth?; why is the city’s debt so high?; why are you closing firehouses?; how can the city officials help me get FEMA aid for my Sandy-damaged property?; These are just a few of the residents’ concerns to which the Mayor and City Council have not responded.

2) Equalize property tax assessments. There are some apartment complexes with assessed property values much lower than their actual property values. Would terminate the proposed 25-year tax abatement for Pier Village Phase III. Would develop Lower Broadway as an attraction to bring people/tourists to Long Branch to spend money—not to live in Long Branch. Would offer residents who upgrade their property, a 5-year exemption from property tax increases. Would eliminate city wasteful spending. Would not offer large , expensive incentives to attract developers. Would negotiate lower interest rates for our bonds, based on improving the financial status of the city.

3) A tourist, family and community oriented area. Instead of demolishing the buildings, the build- ing would be renovated to house indoor amusement arcades, bowling alley, haunted house, one- screen movie theater (like Bradley Beach’s), dance hall, and a family buffet or theme restaurant. Construct a parking lot/parking facility on Union Avenue. It may be possible to build a medium sized roller coaster on the vacant lot between Second Avenue and Ocean Boulevard. This type of development would provide entertainment and jobs for our residents—and bring in tourist tax dollars.

David Pizzo (Council Candidate)

1) Stop broken promises of the developments on boardwalk, broadway. Its has been too long for Broadway not to be developed. 

2)  I would like to stop unfair taxes to our city residents and local business. Lets get prier village to pay its fair share of taxes. No more taxes abatement's on long term agreements with developers. We need to cut our cost in legal fees in our city of long branch.

3) I would like to bring back the local store fronts and also would like to attract developers to create Long Branch for indoor activities for children of Long Branch. I believe this will bring Long Branch back as well attract business to our town and bring some of our residents back to Long Branch.

Councilwoman Joy Bastelli

1) We have several issues. We must encourage growth and revitalization in all of our business districts, Broadway, Third Avenue and West End; repair our Boardwalk, while simultaneously satisfying all federal and state requirements as well as making it pleasing to our local resident’s needs, and lastly storm water management and drainage. We have recently hired a city engineer and together with him we have created the first-ever comprehensive review to analyze the problems to investigate solutions and prioritize the improvements to an antiquated storm water system. We aim to prioritize this mammoth task into manageable, cost effective steps.

2) This is an important issue that affects all of our residents and I am especially concerned about seniors on a fixed income. I keep this in the forefront of my mind while making spending decisions. We have increased our revenue, beach fees are up, we have initiated a new source of revenue with parking meters. We continue to look for more feasible revenue sources such as agreeing to rent space on our city hall roof for a cell tower. We have increased our special event fees while offering discounted rates to our local residents. We have increased building fees and now service West Long Branch in our building department which has increased our revenue. We are careful to control spending and our departments are at level spending. We have one of the lowest tax increases in the county with a tax collection rate over 98%.

3) The good news is that we are finally out of litigation for the properties that were included in the Broadway Arts project. We have a beer garden/micro brewery coming as well as a new CVS drugstore and a new developer that has purchased all of the other available properties and has submitted sketches that, so far, comply with our guidelines. We have acquired the old Chandler and Maps property and will be using that to increase public parking. I will encourage businesses that are relevant to our entire city’s population, that comply with our design guidelines, and will increase employment, such as a dinner theater, a culinary school, a dance studio, music instruction, sidewalk cafes with live music, art galleries, wearable art shops, upscale shoes and accessories store, gourmet bakery, coffee roaster, specialty wine shop, restaurants with dancing and live music, even a specialty kite shop. These types of art-related businesses are renowned for bringing people from outside of our city who are interested in the arts and good entertainment.

Councilman John Pallone:

1) There are several important issues facing the City, but perhaps the most important is the rejuvenation of lower Broadway. Long Branch’s future growth is linked to the strength of the neighborhoods around it and that begins with a revitalized business district on lower Broadway.

Lower Broadway has been a sore point for several years because the Broadway redevelopment district has been tied up in litigation. There is now light at the end of the tunnel as a new owner is in possession of the properties, taxes have been paid, the legal issues have been resolved, and preliminary development plans have been presented to the administration.

I think the city has great potential right now and in the future. With regards to other important issues, we must continue to be fiscally responsible, we need to keep taxes stable, have open communication with our residents, continue to improve upon our parks and natural resources and always provide a safe environment for all of our residents.

Finally, it’s always important to have a vision for the future and to explore all that is possible. There are so many exciting things on the horizon in our City. A huge expansion of our beaches, a new boardwalk, additional oceanfront development with beachfront attractions including a large carousel, and the potential for a new pier are all integral ingredients for a better community in which to work and live.

2) In order to keep taxes stable, first and foremost, we must continue to always be fiscally responsible. Operational expenses have not increased over the last 2­-3 years. Budget increases have been contractual or as a result of increased insurance premiums. We have been able to do more with less and will continue to do so.

Our already high credit rating has been improved this year as a result of sound fiscal management, and an improved financial position due to a sizable tax base and increased ratables from new development. This financial improvement comes despite the loss of 38 million dollars in reduced assessments primarily from the effects of Super Storm Sandy.

We have been very successful with shared services, inter­local agreements and grants. We have also initiated creative ways to save taxpayer dollars. For example, we have saved thousands of dollars in energy costs by participating in on­line auctions for gas and electric.

We have new and ongoing inter­local agreements with neighboring communities for everything from animal control services, purchase supply agreements and building inspection departments.

We have received millions of dollars in Federal, State and County grants for road improvements, preservation of natural resources, parks and recreation. This has been accomplished through an expert staff and working together with federal, state and local officials to get things done.

We work closely with the Board of Education for shared services and facility use. Working together, the Housing Authority has created hundreds of affordable housing units for Long Branch residents, and the fire department has saved thousands of dollars in equipment repair through the Department of Public Works maintenance facility.

We also have great relationships with churches, non­profits, volunteers and community organizations all working together with the goal of making Long Branch a better community. The services provided by these groups and organizations also save taxpayers significant amounts of money.

Finally, a vibrant oceanfront, expanded beaches, new development and the growth of business throughout the city will improve the City’s financial position in the future and hopefully will continue to keep taxes stable. 

3) As mentioned previously, the revitalization of lower Broadway is perhaps the most important issue facing the City. I see the development of lower Broadway as the gateway to the entire Broadway corridor. It would provide a link to the neighborhoods around it, an extension of the oceanfront development and a family friendly destination for visitors and residents alike.

Lower Broadway should maintain the fabric and diversity of the community through affordable mixed use residential and commercial properties. Development should expand upon a cultural arts theme that is currently supported by the New Jersey Repertory Theater. Lower Broadway’s future growth could be tied to neighboring learning institutions such as Brookdale Community College, Monmouth University, Monmouth Medical Center and the Long Branch School System.

Access by car, train, bus and ferry could easily make a developed lower Broadway a popular regional destination. The proximity to the train station and the City’s goal to achieve Transit Village designation could incorporate “walk to work” opportunities. In short, a rejuvenated lower Broadway could again be the center of community activity that it once was years ago.

In the meantime, some exciting things are taking place right now along lower Broadway that the Mayor and City Council have been actively involved in. A CVS drug store at Ocean Avenue and Broadway should begin construction shortly, A beer garden, brewery and event space complex at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue is in the advanced planning stages, and the Pinsky Fountain Spray Park should be re­opening soon.

Councilwoman Kathleen Billings:

1) People are always concerned about the expense of local government which has become acute in these recent challenging economic times. We’ve worked hard to stabilize our portion of the local tax burden on residents. Our stabilization efforts are generally successful because we have actually cut costs in the face of rising mandatory spending on contractual obligations and normal inflation. Through these efforts, we have kept Long Branch’s operating budget flat over the last four years. Other important issues we’re focused on are the rebuilding of the oceanfront and the development of lower Broadway. The rebuilding of the bluff, seawall and boardwalk are crucial to the economic health of the oceanfront. Even though the City has been awarded $14.2 million dollars to rebuild the boardwalk, there is a mandated preliminary review that must be coordinated with FEMA and Army Corp of Engineers before the actual rebuilding of the boardwalk can occur. Most Jersey Shore boardwalks are built even with roadways, but this is not the case in our city. Our unique beachfront with the bluff and seawall, which saved the oceanfront residences during Super Storm Sandy, have been badly damaged. These repairs are going to require an adapted solution that will be compliant with state and federal standards.

2) As noted previously, the Council has worked hard to keep operating expenses flat. Stabilizing operating expenses without reducing services is a challenge which the Council has accepted and achieved. Items such has medical insurance premiums are a cost which are out of the control of the City. To address this issue, the City has launched an initiative entitled “CityWell 2014”. This initiative will promote individual good health and wellness. A local health practitioner has volunteered to work with City employees to improve their health through nutrition, exercise and a better way of life. Better health will decrease the number of insurance claims; thereby, decreasing health insurance premiums that are borne by taxpayers. Also, we are constantly investigating alternate ways to increase revenue to the City.

3) The development of lower Broadway has been an extremely frustrating challenge for the City. Unfortunately, until the bankruptcy litigation regarding the Broadway Arts Corporation was settled, little could be done. Recently, the litigation ended and we immediately started working with the new owners to discuss forward progress. Through these efforts, we were able to come to an agreement which resulted in the payment of $412,000 in back taxes as well as a preliminary preview of the developer’s plan for the area. It is my hope that the area will be developed in the very near future. We’re working to ensure that the project is viable as a downtown area featuring retail and residential units along with cultural venues for theatre, concerts, art shows, etc. that would provide recreation for the families of the City.

Councilman Michael Sirianni:

1) I would say it has to be the development of Lower Broadway and the Boardwalk.

I am very happy that the legal issues pertaining to Broadway are over. That is step one. Now we have to work with the new owners to see what their plans are for developing the property. This is exciting and can be demanding depending on the plans they are submitting to the committee.

The Boardwalk is very important and special to all of us. Mayor and all council members are very following the development of the Boardwalk. We know the residents of Long Branch are all looking for the boardwalk to be back, and so are we. As explained in public meetings and media interviews there are many things we have to do to ensure we receive the full funding from FEMA. We will work closely with them so the project is done correctly and with no regrets for having it done right. It would be easier to rebuild if our boardwalk was flat with the road and the beach, but in Long Branch there are various elevations along the shoreline.. The bluff saved shore area property from Super Storm Sandy and now that too has to be repaired the right way now as well. This is an important project for next year and is our top priority in our next term.

2) It’s important to understand the City of Long Branch is one of three government authorities that cause the taxes to rise, stabilize, or lower. The City of Long Branch, Long Branch Board of Education, and the County of Monmouth manage the taxes. The City is working with a zero increase to its operating expenses. We have mandated contracts and commitments to the staff for salaries and health benefits. These we have to honor and we are working within the 2% cap increase. To offset these expenses we have to look to other areas where income can be redirected to offset these expenses. That why we are looking to the parking meters in their first stage to assist in raising revenue as well as providing for better parking management. Development of land will increase the number of taxable properties. The one thing I and the Mayor and Council do not want to do is to cut staff more and reduce services to our residents. We had to do that 3 years ago and I don’t want to do that again.

3) We have to see what the new owners are planning to do with the property, but from our first meeting they are looking at mixed-use development with retail stores on the first floor and then apartments on the higher floors. They are open to suggestions and plan to meet with the local business community may be interested in locating to Broadway. We are at the beginning stages of working with the new developers. I am looking forward to working with them and share our opinions with them. The Gateway area will have the New CVS and the Beer Garden leading people from the oceanfront to Broadway. We want this to be welcoming to all the people of Long Branch and our guests. 

Councilwoman Mary Jane Celli:

1) The biggest issue facing the city are really two fold – trying to keep taxes down to a bare minimum and repairing our beloved boardwalk. It is very hard to keep taxes down when you have some constant increases yearly such as contractual obligations, health insurance and others. Our boardwalk was severely damaged with “Sandy”. It is going to take a lot of time and money to get it back into shape. Long Branch is different than other shore towns because of our bluffs; some are as high as 30 feet. How can you rebuild on something that was washed away! It is not a matter of just fixing the boardwalk but the bluffs must be rebuilt first before the boardwalk can even begin. Design guidelines and engineering studies must be done before we put a shovel in the ground. Everything must be built to approved federal regulations if you want to be reimbursed. If you don’t, that means the taxpayers would have the pay the bill. The city is doing it the right way to protect its citizens from more taxes. Everything takes time to build up again once it is washed away. 

2) It is almost impossible to lower taxes without giving the residents less services. We have kept taxes down without cutting services. A couple of years ago we had to have a layoff of personnel and that was a hard decision to make. We have done more with less but not without problems. During the snow storm crisis, we did not have the personnel to clean the streets right away but it did get done. It just got put off until the personnel were able to get to it. Each department suffered with less people including the police, fire, public works and others. We do review the yearly budget but there is just no more places to cut without cutting services. The city must replace equipment as it breaks down, the streets have to be repaved, and general everyday things happen that must be taken care of on a daily basis. Long Branch is a big city and it is being run like a business. I have never said I could lower taxes but have always worked hard to keep them stabilized.

3) My vision for lower Broadway is to have a vibrant shopping district. It is not easy to find a developer who has the money to build and build to the city’s specifications. It must have stores that people can afford and make them want to come to Long Branch to shop. My vision is to keep it clean and build what is needed perhaps a business, nice places to eat, clothing stores, the old fashioned variety store and others. Perhaps apartments or lofts above the stores would be a viable solution. We need to find people interested in investing in the city to accomplish these goals. Everyone who lives here should be proud and keep their property clean. We do have some plans for lower Broadway including CVS and the beer garden. In time it will come back I hope. It takes everyone to assist to bring it back to what it was.

Cynthia Branch (Council Candidate) 

* Did not respond to questions after attempts to contact her were made during the last week.

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