Joe Krakoviak for Mayor Kick-Off Speech, September 15, 2014 (prepared text)
Hello and welcome, thanks everyone for coming out. Looking around here now, from where I was almost six years to the day, we have come a long, long way. Do you remember where you were in October 2008?
I’d just been laid off by Accenture. The Great Recession had grabbed New York. I wasn’t having success finding a job or consulting work. so I had a lot of free time on my hands.
My wife Clare got a call from Rosary Morelli looking for help in figuring out what was going on with downtown redevelopment of the Edison Battery Factory. I looked at redevelopment and saw a significant transparency problem. Actually, what I saw was a black hole almost devoid of accurate and understandable information about the project. I didn’t think that was a coincidence.
I said, We can do better.
So I started a website to help solve this transparency problem and put my investigative and financial journalism skills to work – and created West Orange Grassroots. I kept going to council meetings, saw many other problems with transparency, and kept writing.
One day after church, Carl Ianiro, who many of you know, suggested I run for council. I remember laughing out loud. For 30 years, I’d disliked politics and politicians, and I didn’t trust government to serve the people. That was part of why I became a journalist, to help people make informed judgments about the issues that were important to them.
But knowing what I knew about municipal government, I said, We can definitely do better, and I ran for office. You thought we could do better, and you elected me to the town council in November 2010, and I’ve been working as hard as I can for you since.
So where we are now? We are doing better. Now you know a lot more about what your government is doing in your name and with ever more of your tax dollars.
You know about the $60,000 we ‘re spending to improve the sight line on the third-base bleachers at the high school baseball field. You know the school board didn’t know anything about this. You know the bleachers are only eight years old, but we’re going to have to build a retaining wall to get those bleachers higher.
You know what a disaster Prism and downtown redevelopment have been. It’s been just sitting there for years, becoming a bigger and bigger eyesore. You know Prism got a great deal, pushing much of the deal risk onto the town and including $6.3 million of a bond that -- because it’s guaranteed by the taxpayers -- is at the lowest interest rate Prism could ever dream of getting. Still, no progress.
You know Prism is delinquent on its property taxes more often than not, now at more than $700,000. You know the tax delinquency is an event of default, if only the mayor and council majority would take the simple steps to hold Prism accountable.
You hear the administration and council majority now saying litigation is holding up progress. But Prism and the mayor were saying just the opposite in a January 2013 news release issued well after the litigation started, that said construction would launch in the spring – of 2013!
You know we spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars for 11 surveillance cameras. You know they’re proprietary, meaning we’re locked into one vendor’s technology and are at the mercy of his pricing and repair. But before you do the math and ask why an average of $22,000 per camera, you have to remember the $50,000 we spent for a software program. It was supposed to be distributed to one individual – one “secret” local resident to allow this person to go to their computer and find a digitized still photograph of a street location seen from the resident’s window. Instead of dialing 911 and telling the police what and where the trouble is – more quickly and for free -- the “secret” resident is supposed to put the computer cursor on the spot in the picture where something is happening and send it directly to the police. For $50,000. If you don’t believe me, go to the video section on my campaign website and see the council meeting excerpt with your own eyes.
We now have 11 cameras and multiple monitors, but we have zero people actually watching the monitors. The cameras haven’t contributed to a single arrest in nearly two years of use.
You know the mayor and council majority have approved spending a total of $400,000 to remediate, acquire and renovate the abandoned gas station at Valley and Mitchell into a police substation for the traffic bureau. Except the traffic bureau is right next door with a lease for $3,600 – not $3,600 a month, $3,600 a year. This project contracts $12,000 for signage and $15,000 to pave the parking lot about half the size of this room.
You know we’ve paid our insurance broker well over $1 million in commissions in the last few years. With absolutely no competition, Fairview Insurance has been the broker since before the turn of the century. I introduced legislation proven to increase competition and cut costs, but opposed by the administration, I couldn’t even get a second to my motion to introduce.
You know that the mayor gave his tax and budget presentation this year to the council and to various community groups – but he refused my request to put the presentation online.
In that presentation, he said he’d managed debt levels. That simply isn’t true. Our debt is up 19% under the mayor, to an all-time high of nearly $71 million on a budget of $73 million. If you include the $3.5 million pending from emergency appropriations to cover successful tax appeals this year, that increase would be 24%.
I believe we can do better than that.
And just as important, our repayment of that debt is up 30% under the mayor. We now have $1.5 million less to spend on our day-to-day operations because we’re spending it on more debt service.
In his presentation, the mayor took credit for helping Llewellyn Park residents lower the cost of fixing their sewers and roads by allowing them to borrow on the town’s strong credit rating and dedicating repayment just from Llewellyn Park. We have no legal responsibility to help a private community with this, but I thought it was a good way to help. It wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything, but it would save our neighbors as much as $5 million in interest. But at the very next council meeting, the mayor came back with a request for $550,000 borrowed cash from the town’s taxpayers to cover project cost overruns. Not the way it was done the first time, but just writing them a check that you and I will be paying for years to come. We certainly can do better than that.
And these are just a few examples of the countless instances in the last four years where I’ve seen and told you about very large sums of money paid out to vendors for projects that don’t appear to benefit our community as a whole. This wasteful spending goes on all the time. And because you put me on the council, now you know about all of this.
Do you think we can do better than this? Yes, together, we can do better.
The mayor and other council members are going around town claiming they’ve been passing “no tax increase budgets.” The mayor made this assertion in his tax and budget presentation.
It’s simply not true. I had to actually give a presentation at the council meeting where this year’s budget was passed – over my no vote – using an enlargement from a page in the budget clearly showing our taxes were going up and our tax base was shrinking again for the fifth year in a row.
Our municipal taxes keep going up, in part because our tax base has been melting away every year since 2009. As our tax base shrinks, it generates less revenue at a given tax rate. It’s shrinking because the market is saying owning real estate in West Orange isn’t attractive. It’s not a good value, so buyers are offering less and sellers will take it. It’s that simple.
More importantly, our shrinking tax base is telling us that we spend too much for our tax base to support. We can either cut spending or we can raise taxes. We’ve been raising taxes – and that risks setting up a dynamic where taxes go up and make owning property even less attractive -- causing more selling, lowering property values and raising taxes again. It becomes a vicious circle.
So where we need to go? Where can we do better?
West Orange used to have the reputation for the best home value in this part of Essex County. For your lower taxes, you got a great place to live with good schools. But with misplaced priorities and wasteful spending in recent years, we’ve lost that competitive advantage -- and we must get it back. We’re becoming increasingly unaffordable.
Show of hands – how many people here know someone who’s moved out of town in the last few years for no other reason than to get away from the taxes? [PAUSE] We can do better.
So you know I’m outvoted many times 4-1. Sometimes, when my proposals to save taxpayer money are really good, I can’t even get a second to my motion. So that’s why I need to be mayor.
First, as mayor, I won’t propose all of this wasteful spending in the first place.
Second, as mayor, I have significant control over the budget. To a large extent, I can control the level of spending and I can control where it is spent.
Third, as mayor, I have significant influence over the direction, management and execution of your municipal workforce.
So what will I do? I will do better.
- Fiscal responsibility
- Public safety
- Economic development
And here’s what that means:
We will reverse the shrinking tax base by making owning property here attractive again. To the extent that raising taxes reflects wasteful spending, mistaken priorities and inefficiency, we will do better.
We will manage the budget like we manage our households. We’ll have our must haves and our nice to haves. We will fund our must haves and prudently choose our nice to haves to meet our priority of fiscal responsibility.
We will look for ways to increase our revenue without increasing the tax burden.
We spend $300,000 a year to provide free jitney service to 225 riders – that’s $1,300 a year per person – in selected parts of the town. It’s a valuable service, but we’re the only municipality in the county that doesn’t charge for that.
The town refuses to provide day passes at our pool to the many people who want them. We’re leaving money on the table while our attendance and pool revenue stagnates. It doesn’t make sense.
We will certainly have much more transparency, so you can more easily know what your government is doing. You can hold us accountable and you can have a say in our major decisions. I will not fight a petition for referendum, as this mayor has done, to get voter approval of the $6.3 million taxpayer-guaranteed bonds for Prism. And I will not unilaterally make a major decision such as moving our elections without voter approval, unlike this mayor. Here, we can certainly do better.
We will provide adequate resources for public safety. If we don’t have enough police such that we frequently require forced overtime, where an officer has to work the next shift because no replacement is available, then we need to hire more. I don’t want any officer a second late on defending our town against armed suspects because he or she is exhausted from working 16 hours straight.
We won’t salvage a budget by not replacing officers that leave during the year. That’s been a constant under this mayor, where as many as six budgeted positions are left vacant during the year.
We will make sure our police and firefighters have the equipment they need when they need it, which has not always been the case.
We must recognize that a few of our own young people have been implicated recently in violent crimes. We need to address this issue by taking steps to keep all our youngsters on the path to becoming successful students and productive members of society. Community groups such as the Community House, Bethany Center for Champions, Mountaintop League and PAL are vital to this effort.
We will focus on growing the commercial portion of our tax base by target-marketing tenants for our empty store fronts and empty commercial buildings. More commercial activity means more services and jobs for residents as well as rising ratable revenue to relieve residential taxpayers.
We will identify the expertise we need to market our property and develop the right marketing program.
We will force Prism to live up to its property tax responsibilities. Either they will pay back taxes and stay current, and move forward on the project as approved, or we should recognize their apparent financial weakness and enforce their default of the redevelopment agreement and seek a better redeveloper, a better plan and a fairer deal.
We will seek ways to reverse the town’s reputation as unfriendly to business.
Our public schools are an important element of our success as a town. As a community, we all believe we need to educate our children to become productive adults. While the municipal government has very little statutory authority with the schools, we need to look for ways to work together to increase efficiency and lower costs where possible, seek revenue that can be shared to reduce the burden on taxpayers, and give our young people the social and athletic opportunities that build their character and help them contribute more to their community.
So how do we do better together?
The next 7 ½ weeks is our opportunity to restore our town to the affordable, resident-focused, vibrant, growing community we want it to be.
I ask that you continue to support me in the way you have by volunteering and making contributions. My rivals have access to huge amounts of money that I don’t. I wonder why. So I need what you can do to support me.
But we have something that they don’t have. We have supporters who are informed about their government and want to make it better, and that’s why they support me. You have supported me in the most invaluable and cost-efficient way possible – you have allowed me into your people networks and you have promoted me and the facts of this government to your contacts. That is a powerful force for positive change.
I ask all of this to continue – volunteering, contributions and networking.
Can we do better? Must we do better? Together, we will do better.