Last week, Local Talk began its series of interviews with West Orange’s mayoral candidates with Eldridge Hawkins, Jr. and Rodolfo Rodriguez. This week we interviewed current West Orange councilman Joe Krakoviak. We reached out to Mayor Robert Parisi for an interview, but he did not honor our request.
Dhiren Shah: Why have you decided to run for mayor of West Orange?
Joe Krakoviak: I’ve been on the council for four years, and I think I’ve driven a huge increase in transparency. So people know a lot more now about what their government is doing with their tax dollars. If you follow West Orange government, you know that on all of these, what I would call wasteful spending plans, I was regularly outvoted 4-1. I get up at the council meetings and explain to everyone why we shouldn’t be doing this, and yet I still lose 4-1. Even when I tried to introduce legislation that has been shown to reduce costs significantly in other municipalities and school districts, like for insurance procurement, I can’t even get a second to my motion to introduce. The other four councilpeople vote somewhere between 99 to 100 percent of the time with the mayor. I still vote with him on things that make sense, but I don’t vote with him on things that don’t make sense. But, being outvoted 4-1, is not why I’m in government. I’m here to make West Orange better for people, and the only way to do that from what I see is to become mayor and not propose the wasteful spending in the first place.
DS: If you become mayor and the council is against you, how will you proceed?
JK: You do have a supposition that the council won’t change. You also have a supposition that the council would not recognize that the majority of the voters in town want a significant change in their government. So, I am expecting that once I become mayor I will be able to work with this council, whether it’s the two incumbents that win the council elections or if two of the competitors running the council elections in November win.
DS: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as a councilman?
JK: My greatest accomplishment has been transparency. When I first got involved in local government affairs, I discovered that there was a huge issue with transparency. It started out with the downtown redevelopment project, which was essentially a black hole of useful easily understandable information. I used my journalism skills, research skills, municipal finance skills to figure out what was going on with redevelopment. I started a website to try and explain to people what was going on. I have to take at least part of the credit for the council not approving redevelopment six years ago. That’s because transparency, as you know as a journalist, one of your main goals in being in this business is to give people the information they need to make informed decisions about important aspects of their lives. I did that as a journalist, and now I’m trying to do that with the government.
For example, they know that Prism, the designated redeveloper for downtown, is more than $700,000 delinquent in their property taxes. They know because of me that is an event of default, and they can be defaulted out of their designation anytime we want. They know because of me that Prism hasn’t paid their mortgage on the CVS property on Main Street for multiple years, and that they’re actually trying to sell that property, which doesn’t make any sense. You’re the designated redeveloper, and you have prime Main Street property. Why are you trying to sell it?
They know that Prism did not pay their mortgage on the Barton Press property on Lakeview Avenue for years. It went through foreclosure, and now they own the property because no one wanted the property because Prism is the designated redeveloper, and no one else can develop in the area. They know all of that because of me.
We now know that we spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on 11 surveillance cameras - proprietary technology - that are not watched at the police station, and have never figured in any arrests let alone any conviction. We’re spending $400,000 to refurbish an abandoned gas station on Mitchell and Valley Streets for a police substation for the traffic bureau, when right next door we already have that traffic bureau on an annual lease of $3,600. We’re spending $3,600 a year on lease property, and instead of that, we’re spending $400,000 on the abandoned gas station, including $12,000 for signage and $15,000 to redo the paving for the parking.
DS: What is the main issue in West Orange?
JK: There are four main issues in our township. Number one is transparency. The more you as a voter know about what’s going on in the government, the more you can make an informed decision. Transparency also serves accountability. If you are the government, and you know someone is watching you, the more you are willing to do the right thing. Transparency also gives voters and residents more confidence in their government so they’re not so cynical. They’re more likely to believe you because you have proven yourself to be trustworthy through transparency.
The second issue is rising municipal property taxes, wasteful spending, and our increasing problems with debt. They’re all financial issues. The third thing is our support for law enforcement. Law enforcement is the single most important thing local governments can provide to their residents. That’s something we can do a better job of doing. The fourth thing is economic development. In a town like West Orange where there is a relatively high percentage of residential property that’s being taxed, you have to do everything you can to make the commercial ratables as valuable as you can.
DS: The council approved the $6.3 million bonding for the developer for the site. What was your vote on that?
JK: I was on the council when this happened, and I lost by a 4-1 vote. Prism, as a private entity can borrow money, but they borrow at a much higher interest rate than a municipality. So West Orange can borrow money long term at maybe 4 percent, whereas Prism can borrow at 10 percent, maybe more. So providing Prism $6.3 million in 30 year bonds saves them millions of dollars over the life of the project. That goes right into their pocket.
The theory behind redevelopment and the theory behind the bonds is that you have to subsidize a redeveloper in order to induce them to develop in the area, generate economic activity, and long term, it will be a net positive for the township. That’s the argument why we had to give them $6.3 million to make all their numbers work.
Half of the money is going to be paid by West Orange taxpayers. And the other half, theoretically, is going to be paid back by Prism, or its successor. The half that goes to Prism is going to be secured by a lien on the property. Whoever owns that property will be required to pay it back.
The counterargument is that, we shouldn’t be giving them all of this subsidy. They should be able to make their project work with all the other subsidies we’re giving them. We’re offering them a tax abatement. The real issue with this is that a great number of people in town don’t agree with providing the $6.3 million and requested that is be brought to a vote by the voters, a referendum on whether we should do this or not. The mayor and council members who made the vote have fought this as hard as they can. This is an issue of whether or not the residents of a town have the right to help make major decisions about the future of their town. Adding $6.3 million to their debt load is a major issue for me.
DS: Prism is planning to build 600 apartments. How will they handle the additional children in the school system, traffic, policing, parking, etc.?
JK: I look at it in two different ways. I look at whether Prism’s ever going to be able to move the project forward, and then I look at the implications of that. For all intents and purposes, Prism could start construction today. They’ve had eight years of exclusive right to redevelop the area. They haven’t done it.
DS: Eight years?
JK: They’ve done some site preparation work, but they haven’t done anything in years. It’s a terrible eyesore in the middle of downtown.
DS: If they default, do they have to pay it back?
JK: Real estate development is a high risk, high reward. If it works out, you make a lot of money. If it doesn’t work out, you lose the money. What Prism has invested in is to acquire the property in the redevelopment and to invest in their development costs. So what they default on is the redevelopment agreement. They don’t default on any payments to the town. The town doesn’t own the property, and we can’t force them to do anything with the property. It’s not like they have a mortgage where they owe the town.
DS: The money is gone.
JK: Exactly. The money is spent, and it’s gone. However, the investors in the project want to get their money back, so they’re trying to figure out what kind of project would generate enough profit to pay them back. That’s the core of the problem. They could figure out the numbers in 2006, but it doesn’t work in 2014. That’s the bottom line.
The default is in the redevelopment agreement, and what we can do is say you defaulted on the redevelopment agreement, and yon are no longer our redeveloper. Then, we go out and find a new project and a new redeveloper. Prism would be sitting on all of this property they own, but they can’t do anything with it because they’re no longer the redeveloper. They no longer have the exclusive right to redevelop in the area. They can hold that property as long as they want, but they have to pay the taxes, and they can’t do anything with it. They have a huge incentive to sell the property at whatever price the new redeveloper wants. That’s how it works all over the state.
DS: What is your take on the mayor addressing education?
JK: Everyone in town shares the commitment and belief that the community has to provide the best education possible for our children that we can afford. We need to look at where we can share services and purchasing to reduce the costs. We need to look at where we can work to generate revenue; it could be sponsorships, advertising, and grants. When we work together, both the municipality and the school district, we’re much more attractive to an advertiser than if we do it separately.
We also need to push for accountability. What has happened over the last decade is that the school district has repeatedly sidestepped the state laws that requires any bonding by a school district to go for voter approval. They’ve used a separate law called shared services to set up sharing agreements with the municipality. That allows the township to borrow money without voter approval. By doing that we have spent roughly $8 million in borrowed money solely for the high school athletic facilities. We should let the people decide how they want their money spent on the school system.
Another issue is crime. Some of our young people in town have been implicated in some horrific crimes in town in the last few years. We as a community need to recognize that we need to do everything we can to make our children grown up as responsible and productive citizens in our township. We need to make sure our recreation and child care is as good as it can be.
DS: Using your financial background, how will you lower taxes for the residents?
JK: The first thing you have to do is to stop all of this wasteful spending. We’re spending at least $60,000 to improve the sightline of the third base bleachers on the high school football field. Now put aside the fact that we shouldn’t be spending money on school board property. We’re going to have to build a retaining wall to actually build the foundation because the field slopes down about thirty feet to the tennis courts.
I have a son who plays on that field. You know what we do? We bought $15 chairs, moved down the third base line and now we can see everything. People should not have to pay $60,000 to do that.
Another thing we’ve done is that we’ve just given $575,000 to the Llewellyn Park Property owners - the wealthiest people in town - to cover the cost overruns of their sewer and road project. We don’t have to give them a penny because they’re a private community.
DS: How can you reduce crime?
JK: There’s no question we need to hire more police. We need to stop the practice under this mayor of allowing police positions to be left open during the year. For example, let’s say we as a council budget for 92 positions at the beginning of the year, but let’s say six people leave during the first six months of the year. The mayor has left those positions open for the rest of the year. There’s a significant increase in forced overtime. A police officer serves an eight hour shift, but he has to take on the next eight hour shift because the police can’t find someone to take that spot. It is very bad for morale, and it needs to stop.
DS: What can you offer the people of West Orange that the other candidates cannot?
JK: My commitment to transparency, fiscal responsibility, and better government. I base that on my background as a journalist, as someone with a background in municipal finance, and someone who is focused on fiscal responsibility in our town. It’s a great town, but it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable, especially for seniors on fixed incomes, with the rising taxes. I’ve shown that I do understand how to do that.