Democrats eye control of Burlco Freeholder Board
MOUNT HOLLY - The Democrats have an opportunity Nov. 5 to take control of the Burlington County Freeholder Board, which has been controlled by Republicans for more than three decades.
Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, the GOP has long dominated the five-member board, enjoying a 23-year stretch of exclusivity broken in 2008 when two Democr ats were swept in on President Obama's coattails. After one Democrat switched parties, eliminating the threat that the next election could upset the GOP reign, Republicans soon regained both seats.
But last year, two Democrats won, setting the stage for this year's faceoff for party control.
One three-year seat is up for grabs. Reva Foster, a Democrat and political newcomer, is challenging Joe Donnelly, a Republican who has served on the board for six years and who is director this year.
The race is heating up. The well-funded GOP has produced campaign literature touting Donnelly's record of cutting taxes and has broadcast TV attack ads against Foster. The Democrats, who traditionally have fewer resources, are doing research and holding meet-and-greets. Not surprisingly, government spending and taxes are the major issues, though each side has a different tack on how to control them.
Foster, 67, executive director of Willingboro Township's Department of Senior Services, Veterans, and Community Affairs, says the Freeholder Board has wasted $17 million on cost overruns for projects such as the library expansion and the county fairgrounds during Donnelly's tenure. The Willingboro resident also accused her opponent of not being transparent about a $4.8 million courthouse and administration building renovation that was proposed last year and then quietly shelved after an architect received a $740,000 no-bid contract.
"I certainly wonder why the project has been pulled . . . or not put out to bid prior to the election," she said. A freeholders spokesperson said last spring that the project could go out to bid last June.
Donnelly, 47, of Cinnaminson, said Foster's facts were wrong. When the library was built, the contractor billed $1.2 million more than the bid, but this was due to "architectural and design flaws," he said. The county is now in court trying to recoup that money, he said. He said sometimes there are cost overruns due to "change orders" in projects but he didn't the total in overruns during his time on the board.
As for the courthouse renovation, he said that he had not seen the preliminary designs and that they still needed to be evaluated. He said he expected the project would not be approved or started until next year, saying he wants "the design done correctly." He said Lammey & Giorgio was chosen for the no-bid $740,000 contract because the county engineer determined it was the most qualified for the job.
Donnelly, a senior sales manager with Hubbell, an electrical manufacturer, previously served on the Cinnaminson Township Committee and before that on the Riverton Borough Council.
His biggest accomplishment, he said, is that he has cut taxes. "When I entered county office, the county was spending $227 million a year. This year the freeholders adopted a budget of $184 million; so in other words, we've reduced the tax levy by $23 million," Donnelly said. He also said that when he was sworn into office he decided to accept only half the $20,000 part-time salary paid to freeholders.
He said that Foster made $113,000 in her Willingboro job and that she had received a 32 percent pay raise over the past six years. "How can she say she's a fiscal watchdog?" he asked.
Foster dismissed the attacks as a "low blow" that fails to recognize that she worked for Willingboro for 20 years and now manages three departments. She also oversaw renovation of a former school to create a senior center two years ago. "I am working every day, helping people, and I have accomplished a lot," she said. "Donnelly and the Republicans want to use this as a distraction to win a few votes, but I don't feel it's really relevant because I am a candidate with ideas for improving the county."
Foster said she would do a complete assessment of each county department to see what each was doing and find better efficiencies. "We need strategic planning," she said, saying Donnelly and the Republicans kept taxes low strictly by using "quick fixes," such as selling the county's 100-year-old nursing home and reducing open-space funding that had been approved by voters.
Donnelly has said the sale of the nursing home was necessary because the home was losing money, placing a burden on taxpayers. He said that residents care more about keeping taxes stable than about fully funding the open-space program.