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RED BANK: Q&A WITH LINDA SCHWABENBAUER

election_2014_qa-6705267schwabenbauer-102814-500x375-1533741Republican council candidate Linda Schwabenbauer. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

In Tuesday’s election for Red Bank council, incumbents Juanita Lewis and Ed Zipprich, both Democrats, face Republicans Sean Di Somma and Linda Schwabenbauer. Here are Schwabenbauer’s answers to questions sent to all four candidates by redbankgreen.

Name: Linda Schwabenbauer

Age: 49

Where did you grow up? Downingtown, PA

How long have you been a resident of Red Bank? Since May of 2005 – just shy of 10 years

Did you graduate from college? If so, which school, with what degree? BA from University of Pittsburgh, MBA from Cornell

What do you do for a living? (Title, employer, brief description of your responsibilities.) Chief Accountant, Plymouth Rock of New Jersey – I ensure the quality of financial statement reporting for a $700 million insurance company. I’ve also balanced the budget there for almost ten years – even in years when revenues dropped sharply.

Party affiliation: Republican

How important is party affiliation to you? What does it mean to you to be a member of your party? At the local level, I don’t think party affiliation is important. I think the candidate is what voters should really consider – what can the person do for Red Bank? We’re not appointing Supreme Court Justices – we’re looking at ways to improve the quality of life for local residents, and we’re looking for ways to cut spending to hold taxes in check or bring them down. These aren’t opposing goals, by the way. I’ve heard some Democrats describe their party as having a genuine concern for “the people” and as being “inclusive and nurturing.” While I wouldn’t have put it in exactly those terms, I do think the local Republican party has those same people-oriented values – with an added financial focus to make sure we can continue to afford the services our residents need and want.

What should Red Bank residents expect of a council member? Red Bank residents should expect their Council members to consult with them on important decisions, to obtain their input regarding key votes, and to listen to them respectfully and be responsive to concerns.

What should Red Bank residents expect of their mayor? Red Bank residents should have the same expectations of their Mayor as they do of their Council representatives, with the added requirement that the Mayor ensure that opposing viewpoints within the Council are fairly heard and discussed. The Mayor sets the tone for local government, and therefore must treat all constituencies respectfully.

How would you describe your approach to budgeting and taxes? Red Bank’s government should be in the business of providing the best services to its residents at the lowest cost. My approach to budgeting is ground-up – meaning we take a detailed look at every area of the budget, understand what we need, and add only those specific components to arrive at our final spend. This is a no-frills approach that guarantees every dollar we spend is reviewed before we commit to it. This contrasts with a typical approach, often referred to as “top-down,” that starts with last year’s budget and make adjustments for changes. That can work when you’ve got a budgeting process with a good track record of success, but I don’t think that’s where we are – we’re in a situation where we’ve had to raise taxes repeatedly to keep up with spending. That’s got to stop, and the best way to make it happen is to stop overspending everywhere we can – it all begins with the budget.

Are there any borough operations or services that should be reduced or eliminated? I don’t get the sense that our budget problems stem from providing too many services – we just might not always be providing them at the lowest cost possible. So at this point, I would answer by saying that services and service levels don’t appear to be excessive.

What are the primary criteria you have used or would use in deciding whether to approve a tax increase? I feel strongly that Red Bank residents already pay more in taxes than they should. It is my stated goal to balance this budget by matching expense to revenue, not the other way around as it’s been done for years. To vote for a tax increase, I would need to understand what extraordinary item is giving rise to the increase, how the increase fits into a long-range budgeting plan, when we could foreseeably reverse the increase, and whether we’ve explored every other option first. A tax increase is the very last place we go.

Red Bank has a large number of charities that don’t pay property taxes, accounting for ownership of an estimated16 percent of the borough’s aggregate valuation, far more than nearby towns. What if anything should be done to address this? This year, Red Bank will collect $317 thousand of payments in lieu of taxes from non-tax paying entities, so many of these non-profits do contribute financially to our town – if we someday decide that’s not enough, we should renegotiate. Non-profits also pay for the services they consume, such as water and sewer. More importantly, these institutions – churches, synagogues, Lunch Break, the Y, and others – contribute meaningfully to the lives of our residents and add important texture to the fabric of our town.

Regarding the borough water utility: should it be sold? I spoke with representatives from NJ American Water to understand rate structures, and during our talks they made a case for Red Bank to sell our water utility – and I can see benefits for our residents – but I think it’s too soon to make that call. We have to look at the water utility as one piece within a larger puzzle. If we someday decide that selling the water utility does make sense, we’d need to assess the impact on other parts of the budget and make sure the sale works within the context of a long-range budgeting plan.

The water utility generates surpluses that have been used in the past to bolster the general fund, thereby limiting tax increases. Is this a positive or a negative for taxpayers? I think it’s incorrect to say that surplus from the water utility limits tax increases, since the surplus itself is a tax that’s gone up over time. Note, however, that this ancillary tax we pay as part of our water/sewer bills isn’t deductible on our federal returns the way property taxes are. It’s also far less transparent than the stated tax rates – for example, there isn’t one Red Bank resident who has been able to tell me how much he or she paid in the form of the ancillary water tax or how much it’s gone up, whereas everyone knows how much they pay in property taxes and can also tell me how much their property taxes have gone up each year.

It’s pretty basic – residents should know how much they pay the Borough in taxes, and right now they have no idea – so it’s clearly a negative. I met with residents last Wednesday (in place of the canceled Borough Council meeting) to talk about exactly this topic, and one man was very concerned that reducing or removing the profit margin from the water/sewer bills would simply result in higher taxes elsewhere – and he’s right, unless we cut spending. That’s why it’s important that we tackle both sides of the equation, paring down the profit margin on the water/sewer while at the same time finding spending cuts we can make elsewhere to offset the drop in revenue. This won’t be easy, and it won’t happen immediately – but with a solid three to five year plan, we can get ourselves on a glide path to a budget that works for Red Bank.

What is your view of the borough’s permitting and licensing procedures for new businesses and existing businesses that wish to expand? Is the process business-friendly? I’ve spoken to several business owners and gotten a mixed bag of responses to this question. In straightforward situations, where a business comes in and doesn’t make changes to the existing space, the process seems to work– and business owners stressed that it’s a two-way street, meaning the business has to be willing to work with the town. On the other hand, I’ve heard some less positive stories about parking fund payments and other non-business friendly requirements that sometimes have even resulted in a business choosing to open outside of Red Bank just to avoid the red tape.

And we do seem to have a bit of red tape problem in Red Bank – I recall reading that Roger Mumford, who renovated that whole block near the intersection of Bridge and Drs. James Parker, called the process of working with the Borough “non-stop torture.” And look, we’ve tried – in July of 2011, we announced that we were rolling out the red carpet for new businesses after a “red-tape review committee” spent several months studying the problem, and we thought we had found ways to make it easier. In the fall of that year, Lucky Break Billiards opened on Front Street – only to be suddenly shut down two years later while hosting a private party, when we couldn’t figure out what ordinance governed BYOB establishments. This was a business that had been operating successfully and hadn’t caused anyone to complain, but suddenly someone got worried we might be in violation of an ordinance somewhere – though we couldn’t identify which one. James Hertler, the owner, lost so much business during the months-long shutdown that he eventually had to close. That storefront was vacant for 4 years before Lucky Break moved in, and I think it’s been vacant ever since Lucky Break closed in late 2013. So do I think we can do better for our business owners? Yes, we can. The Mayor and Council need to be open to hearing about what we can do to help new businesses ramp up, and need to also stay focused on making sure we aren’t creating roadblocks that hamper the success of existing businesses.

Does Red Bank need a downtown parking garage to secure its economic future? We should definitely look at the parking situation. As a resident, I opposed the proposal made many years ago to turn the entire White Street lot into a parking garage, because the proposal lacked financial viability and would also detract from the open area in the center of town. I’ve discussed this with several residents as I’ve gone door to door, and I’ve heard some interesting ideas – I think it may be possible to expand parking via a smaller-scale project that wouldn’t take up the entire space. Development of such a facility opens the door again to a public/private partnership opportunity, and so I don’t view the decision of private developer v. municipal project as necessarily an either/or proposition – we have to consider all options.

Having said that, I don’t believe we necessarily need a parking garage to secure our economic future, but in the short term we do need to figure out how to increase use of the lots east of Broad Street. And, as noted above, I wouldn’t completely rule out a parking garage somewhere – a proposal of the proper scale, in the right location, might make a lot of sense in the longer term.

Would you vote for a garage that was not paid for by private investment? Please see my response to the previous question – I don’t necessarily think that private developer v. municipal project has to be an either/or decision. A lot would depend on how the costs and benefits were shared, just as with any project.

How do you rate the work of Red Bank RiverCenter at attracting businesses and visitors to central business district? I think Red Bank RiverCenter has stepped up its game over the past couple of years. RiverCenter seems to be increasing its use of social media to reach out to visitors (and residents!) to promote the town, and they’ve also developed an Only One Red Bank mobile app that includes a pretty good directory. Don’t forget we just got some great press across the state when we were named as the people’s choice for Best Downtown in Central Jersey, a designation I believe is largely due to RiverCenter’s campaign to create awareness of the competition. I’m also seeing plenty of in-town events to draw visitors – sidewalk sales, street fairs, music festivals – and I know RiverCenter is behind them. I think it’s great that Red Bank has an organization like RiverCenter to coordinate promotion across the business community and essentially create scale for many of the smaller businesses that otherwise wouldn’t be able to hold these kinds of events for themselves.

How do you rate Red Bank’s commitment to conservation and environmental protection? The Borough is seriously entertaining a proposal to build a spray park in the Bellhaven Nature Preserve – we’re right now thinking about placing a giant concrete slab into an area slightly drier than a swamp, and despite the Environment Commission’s presentation about why this is bad, we’re still pursuing it. At the same time, we are not pursuing a living shoreline option in front of the library, despite passionate arguments from that same Environmental Commission. Maple Cove became a park instead of a junkyard (or condominiums) only because a motivated group of citizens volunteered to clean it up and then gave the Borough no peace until the designation was granted, and even now it’s maintained largely by that same group of citizens. I believe there are individual Council members who truly do care about the environment, but as a whole, Red Bank has not demonstrated a commitment to environmental protection.

On the question of the bulkhead at the public library, should there be some type of a “natural shoreline” created instead? Is this feasible under the terms of the Eisner deed? In 1937, the Eisner family donated its residence on the Navesink to the Borough for use as a library. One of the stipulations was that we maintain the bulkhead; failure to do so could result in Red Bank losing the estate. Our interpretation of the wording in 2012 was very narrow, and was designed to avoid a lawsuit – we decided that the word “bulkhead” meant “bulkhead,” not “shoreline,” and therefore we opted to keep the bulkhead as it’s stood since 1937 instead of moving to a more environmentally-friendly natural shoreline. In 1937, the bulkhead was state-of-the-art, and the deed didn’t contemplate advances in the field of environmental study.

So I understand why we made the decision we did at the time – it was legally bulletproof – but the bulkhead still isn’t fixed and so we’re at risk of violating the deed anyway if we don’t remediate soon. I think there’s an opportunity to revive the living shoreline debate. I don’t know if we consulted with specialists in this area to get another perspective on our actual legal risks. And I wonder – if the deed had been drafted 50 years earlier and required maintenance of the outhouse – would it be in use today? I’m betting the library would have indoor plumbing – and no outhouse – because any reasonable person would see that technology had moved on. I have to believe advances in other fields might be viewed the same way, and we should reopen this topic for discussion.

A mailing for the Democratic candidates this month said they “created a community garden for all to enjoy.” How is this an accurate or inaccurate statement? The Community Garden effort was led by Cindy Burnham, our Republican Councilwoman, who spearheaded this project exactly the way she did with Maple Cove – by mobilizing a group of interested residents, making proposals to the Council, and staying doggedly on top of progress until the project was completed. (Note that Cindy did this prior to her election as Councilwoman.) As a member of Cindy’s mailing list and someone who talks to her frequently, I believe that the Democrats actually made certain aspects of this project’s implementation challenging, particularly in terms of location – although Cindy and her group proposed three centralized locations where all residents would have access, the Council pushed back and declared the suggestions to be not central enough – and after lengthy delays, the Community Garden landed on the far eastern side of Red Bank, just one block from Fair Haven. It took Cindy and her group nearly three years to get from proposal to planting. I saw the mailing from the Democrats and was surprised to see the Community Garden mentioned as one of their initiatives.

How do you rate the conditions and maintenance of public facilities such as our parks and streets? What if anything needs to be changed? When I talk to residents about the streets, the first question everyone asks – all across town – is “when are they going to repave Drs. James Parker Blvd?”. A neighbor of mine has been emailing the Borough about the condition of the Boulevard every couple of months for nearly two years now, and he keeps hearing it’s going to be repaved, but nothing has been done yet. There doesn’t seem to be a set schedule for street work in Red Bank, and perhaps just having dates put against projects would be helpful – residents would know what work the Borough was planning and when, and the Borough would be held accountable for meeting published dates or explaining why not. Park maintenance is an issue in some areas, too, and I think the problem is that we do a better job reacting to issues instead of preventing them – perhaps it’s a budget constraint. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, as with damage from Sandy, but other times we seem to let things drift unscheduled. Park maintenance should be a basic function, since it directly impacts quality of life here, and our parks provide low cost recreational opportunities for all Red Bank residents.

Does Red Bank practice transparent governance?What if anything might be done to enhance the public’s insight into decision-making? There are certainly areas where we could be more transparent. I’ve mentioned the profit load in the water/sewer billings as one area where residents are kept in the dark. I do think that interested residents can easily locate information from Council meetings on the Borough website, and I like how Cindy Burnham has assembled an email list and sends out messages regarding issues of interest to residents who might not visit the Borough’s site regularly. On Council, I would emulate Cindy’s strategy of keeping interested residents educated about what’s going on in the Borough.

Do you agree or disagree that all mayoral/council email correspondence should be conducted in borough email accounts and subject to OPRA requests? That’s a tricky question – and I look at it this way: If a Council member writes and mails a letter to another Council member, would we expect the public to have a right to read it someday? I don’t think we would. It’s also not clear to me whether this would include email just between Council members (and the Mayor), or if email correspondence with residents would also be subject to OPRA requests. Would some residents then hesitate to use email as a means to reach out to the Council or Mayor, knowing their messages might someday be part of someone’s OPRA request? I would always vote in favor of things that keep communication lines open, not things that narrow the ways in which we hear from and respond to our residents. I’m not an attorney, and I’m sure that somewhere the legal scholars are working this one out. For Red Bank, though, I don’t think this makes sense.

How would you rate the borough website in terms of effectiveness? Can you identify specific changes that should be implemented? I like the Borough website. I’ve used it frequently over the years and find aspects such as the town directory and posted updates and agendas to be easily accessible and quite useful. One thing I would improve, though, is ease-of-use in locating town ordinances. They’re all there, but not readily searchable by topic. If you know the number of the one you want, you can find it, but if you’re searching for information on specific topics without an ordinance number, you’ve got to read through a lot of materials before finding what you need. (My librarian friends refer to this as indexing.) So I’d add that – or at least a link to another website where this might exist already. It would be interesting to brainstorm with residents regarding what they’d like to see, too.

What if anything might be done to improve the ability of pedestrians to cross Shrewsbury Avenue at Locust Avenue and other unsignalized intersections? First, we need to do a better job just keeping up with the painting – this past weekend, I walked up Shrewsbury from Drs. James Parker Blvd to Front Street, across to Broad, down to Monmouth, across to Bridge, and back down to Drs. James Parker. I was paying attention to crosswalks and general sidewalk repair. I noticed that, at many intersections, the paint in the crosswalks had faded to the point of near invisibility. This is a quick, relatively cheap fix we should implement in the short term. In the longer term, I like the pedestrian-controlled flashing crosswalk signal at Maple and Peters Place. As a driver, I always notice the lights flashing even when I don’t immediately see the pedestrian. We should evaluate where else to install those. I think the most dangerous intersection in Red Bank is where South Bridge and North Bridge come into Drs. James Parker Blvd – the dog-leg nature of Bridge there, combined with the Boys and Girls Club on one corner and the Karate studio on the other, means that drivers are negotiating a tricky crossing across a busy road while sometimes dodging children who are trying to do the same thing. It’s a miracle no one has been hit there yet. That would be the first place I’d install a better crossing system.

What role, if any, should the borough government have in the effort to save the T. Thomas Fortune House? Nationally, we haven’t done a good job of preserving sites of African American cultural significance. It would be a real positive for Red Bank to achieve preservation of the T. Thomas Fortune House – I believe it may already be on the National Register of Historical Places. At the moment, the site is privately owned, and there’s a group of residents who have organized an effort to raise funds to purchase it. Unless and until that sale goes through, there’s really nothing the Borough can do. Once the sale happens, though, the Borough can support our residents in this preservation effort by working hand-in-hand with them to come through zoning requirements and other ordinances, since these are areas that have sometimes frustrated even experienced developers in our town and would probably be unfamiliar to organizers of this grass-roots effort.

Where do you stand on the question of whether to build a children’s play area and spray park at Bellhaven Nature Area? I am fully in favor of building a park somewhere west of Shrewsbury Avenue so that nearby children would have a fun, safe place to play without having to cross such a busy roadway. We have a grant from the State to build such a park. I would envision something like what we have at Marine Park, with playground equipment that’s easily maintained and useful year-round.

The spray park, on the other hand, would have equipment that is neither of these things. The spray park will be useful from May through September at best, but will not see much activity once the fall chill sets in. In addition, building a spray park means maintaining a spray park, and while a grant from the State might give us enough money for the “building,” it doesn’t help with the “maintaining.” Water features require ongoing chemical treatment for sanitation purposes, and the equipment itself is expensive to configure and maintain in proper running order. Plus, there’s an ongoing cost for the electricity required to keep things running and prevent freezing. Last but not least, the proposed site was designated as a wetlands nature preserve just eight years ago, making the location itself problematic. We can get a better park for the same money, and just as much “smile mileage” from our children, with a simpler park designed for year-round use.

If there’s anything more you’d like to add, please do so here:

 

 

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