For all of the differences on party platforms, the four candidates for Bergen County Freeholder: Republican’s Freeholder Robert Hermansen (Mahwah) and former Mayor Margaret Watkins (River Edge) with Democrats Councilman Steven Tanelli (North Arlington) and Tracy Silna Zur (Franklin Lakes), showed they are more alike than many have realized during Tuesday afternoon’s debate at Bergen Community College.
From questions on consolidating the Bergen County Police and Sheriff’s Departments to tightening the Pay-to-Play ordinance and making sure to keep Bergen Regional Medical Center, the candidates touted similar ideas on how to best move the County forward for the benefit of taxpayers.
While the Freeholders voted down an ordinance earlier this month for the dissolution of the County Police and the officer's to be merged with the Sheriff's Department, all of the candidates were in favor of some sort of consolidation so long as a plan is in place first.
"If you look at consolidation, you have to do so with a plan and not haphazardly," Hermansen said. "We've started to consolidate and save money for the County with IT and computer purchases."
Zur and Tanelli echoed Hermansen's call for a plan to be in place and hope that the Freeholder Board would begin working on a new ordinance to create such a plan.
"People want to see their local police departments exist," Zur said. "There is a duplication of service. We don't need two swat teams and two K9 units. Yes, we need a plan and to make sure safety comes first, but we also need to get moving to save money for the taxpayers."
Pay to Play
One year ago the current Board of Freeholders adopted a Pay-to-Play ordinance that limits political donations from anyone seeking a no-bid contract with the county to $300 a candidate or $2,500 per election cycle. Those same limits also apply to candidates from the local level up to the federal one and include county political committees.
"I believe the pay-to-play ordinance is working but there are some things that have been identified that could use work," Tanelli said.
Among those potential changes that the Democrats proposed would be to include 501c4 organizations and Superpac's as being required to disclose their campaign contributions.
Only Watkins expressed the lack of a need for the ordinance, citing state guidelines already set in place.
"If every municipality and county follows these state guidelines then there is no problem," Watkins said. "The pay to play ordinance is totally unnecessary and is against your First Amendment rights. No one here should tell someone else how and where to spend their money. You have the right to make a decision on how to spend it."
Bergen Regional Medical Center
In three years the Freeholders will be set to renegotiate a contract with the Colorado-based Solomon Health Services for the continued operation of the Medical Center.
Once known as Bergen Pines, Bergen Regional offers psychiatric treatment, detoxification and substance-abuse treatment, acute medical care and longterm care in its 1,000-bed facility.
"Bergen Regional must stay a county hospital," Zur said. "We need to continue to provide services for our most needed residents."
The 19-year lease between the County and Solomon is set to expire in the coming years but the facility requires a hefty amount of capital amounts, totaling $13.2 million as of March.
"This is something we can bipartisanally agree on," Hermansen said. "The hospital must stay and function as a county hospital. We need to figure out a way that the hospital can function better than what we have now."
Bringing more jobs to Bergen County is also a priority for each of the candidates starting with the Northeast Upgrade by Tennessee Gas. The company received approval in May for the expansion of a 7.6-mile natural gas pipeline from West Milford through Ringwood and into Mahwah not far from a sacred Ramapough burial ground.
The $400 million project would run parallel to an existing Tennessee Gas pipeline to increase capacity for the abundance of gas being mined in Pennsylvania could provide employment for almost 700 workers.
"This is about putting pipeworkers back to work," Hermansen said. "This allows them to get back to work, taking care of themselves and their families. Job are so important."
Watkins agreed that creating jobs is important for the economy but the project must be mindful of the burial grounds location and find a way to run parallel to the area in the Ramapo Reservation rather than through it.
"Obviously the pipeline should move forward and create job, but I think it should be sensitive to the environment and the families in that area," Tanelli said.
Tuesday's debate at Bergen Community was the final debate between all of the candidates prior to the Nov. 6 election.