Updated: Thursday, October 29, 2015, 11:59 PM
In an election year where local races dominate the ballot, the four candidates for two seats on the Republican-controlled Burlington County Freeholder Board are getting attention by raising some unusual issues.
The Republican candidates, who have never sought political office before, are accusing the Democratic incumbents of being too friendly with their GOP counterparts on the board and for voting "yes" too often on agenda items in the last three years.
In the Nov. 3 contest between Republicans Kate Gibbs and Ryan Peters and Democrats Aimee Belgard and Joanne Schwartz, taxes are another issue, but the candidates differ widely on which of the three taxes controlled by the county freeholders should be raised.
All four say they support the increase in the farmland preservation taxes approved this year, since voters overwhelmingly favored the tax in recent referendums.
But the candidates disagree on the board's vote to increase the general revenue and library taxes, which the freeholders also control.
"We promise we will never raise taxes," Gibbs said last week. She faulted the board and her opponents for approving a $190 million budget that increased total taxes by $3 million.
"We can't have five tired politicians doing the same thing year after year," she said. She is the former executive director of the county Republican Committee, and helped develop campaign strategies and platforms for the three Republicans on the board.
Gibbs, 29, a Lumberton resident who is now an administrator with the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative 825, is running with Peters, 33, a lawyer and Navy SEAL from Hainesport, for three-year terms on the board. "We're going to take a new approach," he said.
Belgard, 41, a lawyer from Edgewater Park, this week called her opponents' remarks naive. She said that Gibbs and Peters lack experience and "have never had to deal with a municipal or a county budget in their lifetime. It's easy to point fingers."
Belgard, who voted for the budget, said it actually decreased this year, but taxes had to be raised slightly to offset a shortfall in revenues and state aid. She said her opponents seem insincere, because they have never attended a freeholder meeting.
Schwartz, 72, a semiretired health care administrator from Southampton, said the Republican candidates have misstated her record. "I'm against tax increases, that's it. I voted against the regular budget and the library budget," she said of the 4-1 votes by the board.
Control of the five-member board is not at stake on Nov. 3, but the race may have implications for the 2016 election when a presidential candidate is at the top of the ballot. If the Republican candidates win three-year terms this year, they will gain exclusive control over the board and be insulated against the heavier Democratic turnout expected in New Jersey next year.
Likewise, if the Democrats hold onto their seats, they will have a chance to dominate the board in 2016 for the first time in about 40 years.
The GOP has invested heavily in the race, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to campaign filing reports, while the Democrats had received only tens of thousands of dollars as of last month. The Democrats, however, point to their victory three years ago, when the GOP outspent them by 7-1.
Belgard, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Congress against Republican Tom MacArthur, was a member of her hometown's township committee before she became a freeholder. In response to her opponents' argument that she and Schwartz are not "good watchdogs," Belgard said she questions every bill and resolution that comes up for a vote, and that she and Schwartz persuaded the board to start video recording its meetings, and to hold meetings on the road for the public's convenience.
"We're proud of ourselves on being able to reach across the aisle. I got elected to do a job, and am proud I can work with my Republican colleagues," Belgard said. The bitter race between her and MacArthur, however, revealed a bigger divide between the political parties when both campaigns became nasty.
Schwartz, the former president of the Mount Laurel Emergency Squad, said the congeniality on the board is healthy. "The idea is not to attack each other, but to come to a consensus. The issues are important whether you're a Democrat or a Republican," she said.
Gibbs said that if she and Peters were elected, they would lobby to keep spending down and would vote against the three Republicans on the board if they decided to raise taxes again. "I think we can decrease taxes in 2016," she said. "We're young, energetic, and passionate."
Peters said, "Just because we're Republicans doesn't mean we are going to be a rubber stamp for the Republican Party." He also said layoffs of county employees would be considered, though only "as a last resort." The county should explore selling naming rights to corporations and enticing businesses to locate in the county as ways to lower taxes, he said.
The two Republicans also criticized Schwartz for voting against the library tax increase. They said they would have voted for the tax hike but then would have found something else to cut or would have found another revenue source to offset the increase.
Schwartz said she had proposed the board cut $500,000 from the county budget after that amount was allocated for legal fees for special counsel. She said that in-house counsel should handle legal matters more cheaply, and that the Republican majority did not fully explain the need for this line item and also rejected her recommendation.
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