council candidates 2 101713Cindy Burnham, left, addresses the audience as Sean Di Somma, Kathy Horgan and Sharon Lee listen at the Westside Community Group’s annual candidate’s forum Thursday night. (Click to enlarge)


Election_2013_wDebatesThe question of whether to keep or sell Red Bank’s municipal water utility was among a handful of issues that split the four candidates for borough council at a debate Thursday night.

Republican newcomer Sean Di Somma said he’d sell it, one of several moves he’d make to “bring the council into the 21st century” and end the “fuzzy math” surrounding local taxes.

Incumbent Democrats Sharon Lee and Kathy Horgan contended the water system wouldn’t find a buyer willing to take on the debt and expense of upgrading a system, parts of which are 100 years old, and that Red Bank was better off keeping it anyway.

Cindy Burnham, the environmental activist who shares the GOP ticket with Di Somma, suggested that “the water utility could be a moneymaker’ for the town, but what really hits homeowners in the wallet is the sewer portion of their bills.

Differences over that issue, taxes and the fate or a piece of borough-owned waterfront property dominated the 17th annual candidates forum organized by the Westside Community Group at River Street Commons Thursday night.

Di Somma, a renter who moved to town about two years ago from northern New Jersey, said that when he was seven years old, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to hold things together with two jobs.

“One day, she opened up her tax bill, and realized she was going to lose her house,” he said. “That’s something that never leaves you.”

Taxes in Red Bank, he said, were up 37 percent in the past five years, and 70 percent in the last 10. “This is a big reason I’m running,” said Di Somma.

Horgan and Lee disputed Di Somma’s figures.

“We have been very fiscally responsible, and in fact we have kept our tax levy lower” than Middletown, Little Silver, Fair Haven and Shrewsbury, said Horgan, who is seeking her third three-year term on the all-Democrat governing body.

Lee, seeking her fourth term after nine years on the council, defended the governing body’s of vacation and sick-time payouts to retiring borough employees, which Di Somma attacked as badly managed.

“These are contractual obligations,” and contrary to Di Somma’s assertion to the contrary, “we are planning for the future,” she said.

Burnham, best known for saving Maple Cove from possible sale to a private owner, described herself as “quite a little activist. I’ve ruffled a lot of feathers, but I’ve gotten a lot of things done.” A longtime landlord in the borough, she moved into town from Fair Haven last year with the express aim of getting elected to the council, she has previously said.

Former Environmental Committee member Andres Simonson opened up the citizen Q&A portion of the forum asking why the council was preparing to have a parcel of land between the library and Maple Cove removed from the state Recreational and Open Space Inventory, or ROSI.

Lee said the property had been acquired by the borough to serve as a parking lot for the library, and “it can’t be the ROSI list and used as a parking lot.” She said the state Department of Environmental Protection had endorsed the change.

Burnham, calling the riverfront site “my forte,” disputed that claim, citing DEP correspondence that she said instead urged Red Bank to keep the property on the ROSI list.

The candidates also split along party lines on whether elected officials should be paid salaries and health benefits. Burnham and Di Somma said they would take neither; Horgan and Lee said they don’t take the health benefits because they’re covered at their regular jobs, but defended the availability of both perks.