Three seats are open on Ewing Township council this year. Running for election are Democratic incumbents Kevin Baxter, Jennifer Keyes-Maloney and David Schroth. They are being challenged by Republicans James Ambrose, Christopher Haase and George Steward.
Ambrose, 56, is a 20-year resident of Ewing Township who works as an environmental specialist at Public Service Electric and Gas. A graduate of Hamilton High School West and Mercer County Community College, he also has certifications and training in environmental issues and dealing with hazardous materials.
His community involvement includes: the Elks Club since 1989; NJSIAA as a track and field referee; a USA Track and Field official; N.J. Special Olympics; the March of Dimes; Toys for Tots; collecting used cell phones for distribution by the Mercer County Prosecutors Office in domestic violence cases; collecting used eyeglasses for the Lions Club; and the PSE&G coat drive.
Baxter, 49, is a retired state Department of Corrections officer who has lived in Ewing for more than 40 years. He holds a degree in business administration.
His community involvement includes: Ewing Recreation Board; the Urban League Guild of Union County — Trenton Chapter; Sickle Cell Association of NJ; PBA 105; Town/Gown joint board between township and TCNJ; and Kingdom Church.
Haase, 35, was born and raised in Secaucus until age 10, when he moved to South River. A 2000 graduate of South River High School, Haase earned an associate’s degree in business from Katherine Gibbs School of Business in 2005.
A 10-year resident of Ewing, he has owned New Jersey DJ Services Inc. for 15 years. Community involvement includes: the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Trenton/Mercer Signal 22 Association. He was also the recipient of the Jefferson Volunteerism Award and a lifesaving award from the Coast Guard.
Keyes-Maloney, 42, has lived in Ewing Township for 24 years. She works as an attorney/government relations professional specializing in education and labor law with the N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association.
Keyes-Maloney holds a degree in history/public administration from The College of New Jersey and MBA and law degrees from Rutgers University. On council, she has served as liaison to the Ewing Drug and Alcohol Alliance, the Arts Commission and the Historic Commission.
Her community involvement includes: the Ewing Lions Club, where she was named Ewing Lion of the Year in 2010 and 2011; Trenton Elks BPOE; Ewing Historical Society; Ewing Kiwanis; vice president of the Mercer County Federation of Democratic Women; Ewing Democratic Committee where she served as vice chair; the New Leaders Council; and the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey.
Schroth, 49, has lived in Ewing for 11 years and grew up in Trenton within 100 yards of the Ewing border. An attorney with his own law office, he graduated from The Lawrenceville School and Georgetown University. He earned his law degree from Widener University School of Law.
A member of council for the last four years, Schroth has served as council president and currently sits on the township plannign board. Other community involvement includes: Ewing Township Drug and Alcohol Alliance; Ewing Township Redevelopment Agency; Town & Gown Committee to address resident issues with The College of New Jersey; and the Ewing Township Democratic Club.
Steward, 65, is retired from Capital Health’s patient access department. A resident of Ewing for 61 years, he graduated from Ewing High School in 1969. He attended Trenton Technical Institute and William Patterson College.
Steward’s community involvement includes: Our Lady of Good Council Church; Knights of Columbus, Ewing Council 3756; Knights of Columbus, Bishop Griffin Assembly 655; E-COPPS; the Central Jersey Choral Society; N.J. Choral Consortium; Ewing Township Recreation Commission; Ewing Kiwanis; and Ewing Green Team Bike Committee
All six candidates were asked by the Observer to answer a list of five questions. Their responses follow. Ewing Republican Committee Chair Judith Peoples said that Haase was unable to respond to the Observer’s request to participate in this roundup in time for our deadline.
Why are you running for election/re-election to council and what experience or perspective do you think you bring to the governing body?
Ambrose: Presently, there are no Republicans in office in Ewing Township. For government to operate as a real democracy, there have to be check and balances to make sure someone is there to speak up for the Ewing taxpayers from another point of view. I have stepped forward and am willing to fill that void if elected.
Baxter: I am running for re-election to continue moving Ewing forward. I would like to expand the progress we have been able to make throughout the town; whether it’s bringing more business to Ewing, continue economic development, improving recreation programs, and maintaining as well as improving upon Ewing’s AA credit rating. The experience I bring is five years of working on council and with various governmental agencies. I bring an even temperament along with an open mind and ability to work well with others of varying opinions.
Keyes-Maloney: I chose Ewing as my home and feel I have a responsibility to it. My work for the community is far from done. Ewing is a great place to live and raise a family. My responsibility is making folks realize what a gem it is. That’s a small part of the work I’ll continue if re-elected. I’ll also continue to collaborate with groups like our Green Team to ensure we remain a sustainable community. I look forward to working with our community partners to showcase Ewing’s arts and culture. Additionally, my focus remains on ensuring smart economic development and growth.
What makes me unique is that I bring governmental, non-profit and business experience from having worked in divergent fields after graduation from TCNJ. As a government relations professional, I have a pulse on what’s going on in our capital and around New Jersey. That’s helpful in knowing what options and opportunities are available.
Schroth: I’m running for reelection in hope of continue the work I have engaged in over the last four years to continue positive economic redevelopment in the township, and to make Ewing a great place for people to live and work.
Steward: I am running for the same reason(s) that I ran for Council in 2012 — to give the voters of Ewing Township a responsible, practical, and independent alternative to the flawed and unhealthy condition of one party government. I want to restore balance to a system that is currently very out of balance. I want to restore the public dialogue, discussion and debate needed for the challenging process of managing Ewing’s future. Very simply, as a political entrepreneur, I want to build a better Ewing.
What are your feelings on redevelopment in the township, including Olden Avenue, the General Motors site and the old Naval Air Warfare Center tract?
Ambrose: I am particularly concerned about the plans for the General Motors site. Most of the proposed new town center at the GM site will be closed residential rental development. We have a lot of empty homes in the township. We need jobs and ratables to help the people living here with their taxes. As rentals, it will result in less ratables.
The proposal will create very few jobs. Where is all of the small and large commercial retail development? The area set aside for the train station is very limited and there is no additional parking.
Rather than invite Ewing residents onto the site, there is no open space for Ewing Township to have and hold events. What is proposed will do little to help the current residents. Any further development in Ewing should be for the benefit of those who already live here, no matter its location. New development should not just invite new people into the township. This does not build support for the community.
Baxter: I believe redevelopment is a vital instrument to the survival and advancement of our town. Olden Avenue’s redevelopment is very important; as it is one of the main corridors of the town. There have been many new businesses added along Olden Avenue my term. As we continue to develop, we need to blend older businesses with newer ones, so that the results give us a clean and neater facade; as well as calming effect on traffic.
Redevelopment of the General Motors and Naval Warfare Site are in the works. Redevelopment plays an important part in offsetting large property tax increases. Thus far we have been able to keep tax increases to a minimal level thanks to the economic development that we have approved and encouraged.
Keyes-Maloney: We have a duty to focus on redeveloping areas in need of rehabilitation. Unlike some communities, we’re “built out” to a large extent, so our focus must be on redevelopment, re-purposing and improvement. That includes Olden, GM and the naval site, but we must be smart about development.
It’s why we created redevelopment plans for each area to guide our actions as things move forward. It’s why we’ve modified our zoning to make connections between spaces more congruous. What we did in the “town center” zone surrounding the GM and naval sites is a good example.
It’s also why it’s essential to have a citizen appointed redevelopment agency who reviews developers’ ideas against the framework of each plan. This helps ensure that the choices made are consistent with what we’ve outlined as our vision for Ewing.
Unfortunately, nothing’s perfect and a developer’s project may not be exactly what we hoped. The fundamental question remains whether it’s consistent with what we outlined as our intent for an area. A project like Olden’s Senior Star is an example of where the project and plan meshed. An example of where some compromise was required is an establishment like Sonic. Both are beneficial to Ewing. Similar discussions and decisions have been, and will be had regarding the GM and naval site.
Schroth: I think it is a great thing for the township. Those properties have long been eyesores and to develop them will bring in business opportunities, ratables that will keep taxes under control and opportunities for quality living space as well as businesses to serve the community.
Steward: Recent information regarding the GM site has been very disappointing. Years of soliciting creative land use ideas and developing a plan that would benefit all Ewing residents has fallen short of expectations. The current plan now calls for a mostly “private” mixed use community of over 1,100 residential units. New retail space along Parkway Avenue is not expected to begin construction until Phase 2 of the five-phase project.
The Naval Warfare site across the street is no longer a component of the current plan and will now need to be developed separately. Ewing had a wonderful opportunity to develop something that could have been used and enjoyed by all of its residents but that no longer seems to be the case.
The Olden Avenue Redevelopment Plan was adopted 17 years ago in 1999 and updated in 2008. I recently reviewed the January 2008 document, which listed the visionary goals of the updated plan and found that many items on the list are still unrealized. While there have certainly been business changes and updates to the area, I believe that the fundamental nature of Olden Avenue has not changed. The transformation envisioned and advertised in 1999 and 2008 has, in my opinion, just not materialized.
Are there any areas of the township budget where you would look to cut expenses? Are there any areas where you feel the township needs to spend more?
Ambrose: The township budget is a highly complicated document that needs to be presented in a more understandable way. It needs more explanation when it is presented so that the public, which receives no background detail, can better understand it. For example, why are we carrying such a high surplus, particularly when it does not earn any interest to speak of?
Baxter: As a member of Township Council, approving the budget is one of my most important tasks. Due to the seriousness of this task, I spend an inordinate amount of time combing through the budget. As a part of the process I try to make cuts in all areas, and then have administration or the department head justify the need. I then decide on what cuts are necessary and which ones are not.
I would love to spend more on salaries for our hardworking employees. I also believe we need to put money in the budget for a public information officer, so that we can put out the information of all the good things going on in Ewing. It would also serve as a vehicle in allowing the township to put out correct and factual information that may have been manipulated by other means.
Keyes-Maloney: We always look to find savings, but we must ensure we are not jeopardizing the quality of services we provide to Ewing residents. As elected leaders, we have an obligation to work with the administration and staff to find savings, whether it comes from shared services, joint purchasing cooperatives, exploring energy usage or even simply pooling office supply purchasing. These are all things that we’ve done and will continue to do.
Similarly, exploring savings on health benefits with our employees is essential. Health benefits costs are often the driving force of local government budget woes. While keeping faith with our employees, this is something we need to be focused on.
However, we have to be mindful about being penny wise but pound foolish. We have a duty to invest in the equipment our employees need to provide the services our citizens require. This includes upgrades to everything from the radio room and firefighting equipment to investments in our buildings to make them more energy efficient.
I believe we must invest in programming for students, seniors and everyone in between. Part of what makes a town strong is its investment in its community. Ensuring we have robust programming throughout the year is critical. I’m proud to say our recreation department does a great job, as do a number of our boards and commissions, in providing options for citizens. These must be supported and maintained.
Schroth: My first goal in this regard has always been to stabilize the tax rate and we’ve done a good job at this. Several years ago, just before we took office the budget was in regular turmoil. After that, for me personally, I look at everything for the potential to make cuts. Unfortunately, the last couple of years we’ve had some big ticket items where we had no choice but to purchase, for example, with the police, technology and vehicles. Going forward these investments should last a while and should allow us the opportunity to keep things under control with the real potential for cuts going forward. But there is no one department I am focusing on.
Steward: Each year, a budget is proposed by the administration and then introduced and passed by council. Of all the business that comes before council each year, passing the budget is one of the most important tasks they have to perform.
Here is my budget philosophy: I believe that if a budget gap exists, it should be filled by restructuring and streamlining township operations to offset or prevent a tax increase, not by raising more taxes. But this is not the approach that is currently taken. Over the past five years, municipal taxes have increased 8 percent from $1.23 per $100 of assessed valuation in 2012 to $1.33 per $100 of assessed valuation in 2016.
Over the same time period, Social Security benefits have only increased 4.9 percent. Senior citizens have good reason to be concerned. My opponent’s campaign ad states that there has been a “$120 million increase in ratables over last 4 years.” So where’s all the tax revenue? Why has Council increased our taxes 2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation every year for the same four-year period?
This year’s budget expects a first year PILOT payment from TCNJ/Campus Town of $395,000. Why then did Council pass a budget that raised an extra $400,000 in new taxes? Flat tax budgets are possible. If you don’t believe me, check out what our neighbors in Robbinsville and Lawrence Township have been able to accomplish with their budgets over the past 3 to 6 years. Tax increases are not a fact of life and can be avoided.
What is one challenge facing Ewing Township that you believe deserves more attention?
Ambrose: With all of the unoccupied homes in Ewing, it could be beneficial to all concerned parties if a plan or policy of getting the homes back on track were instituted. Unoccupied houses make Ewing neighborhoods look bad and run down. The banks should be encouraged to move the properties. If the outcome of such a plan were to result in more taxes and fewer empty houses, the bottom line would be good for the residents and taxpayers.
Baxter: One challenge that we face in Ewing, as well as nationwide, is empty or abandoned houses. There is a process that must be adhered to by the condemnation board, but I would like to see the process sped up. The township cannot afford to take ownership of these properties, but we need to be diligent in making sure the properties are kept up or boarded as needed. We also need to continue working with school administration; as we grow through development, to make sure our schools can handle projected growths.
Keyes-Maloney: Ewing’s sense of self. Over the last several months, the Arts Commission, in coordination with the Green Team has spent time focused on assessing Ewing’s “creative assets.” Several years ago, the Green Team had similar discussions relating to sustainability. All of this correlates to what we view as Ewing — a community in which to live, work and raise a family.
Part of our focus has got to be on promoting the things that make us unique. Things like our diversity and our location. We’re a diverse community of different faiths, ethnicities and socio-economics and that makes us stronger. We’re also situated in a great location with easy access to air, rail, roadways and centers of education. For too long, Ewing’s self-identification was a ho-hum “eh, it’s Ewing.” Pride in our community, our schools, our people, our achievements and our opportunities can change that identity to, “Hey! It’s Ewing!”
Schroth: I think the greatest challenge facing the township is smart, effective economic development that strikes the appropriate balance with quality of living and bringing in ratables.
Steward: If elected, one of the many items on my list of things to do is to restructure the Board of Health to include subject matter experts. Very few citizens are aware of the fact that the politicians they elect to serve on council are the very same individuals who make up our local Board of Health.
While this is an option allowed under our current form of government, the vast majority of municipalities in New Jersey chose to staff their boards with a variety of qualified healthcare professionals. I think the time has come for Ewing to do the same. I believe that the citizens of Ewing need and deserve a diversified Board of Health made up of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals charged with the responsibility to oversee and guide the policy decisions of Ewing’s Department of Health.
Communication between the township and its residents is important. How do you feel the township can better communicate with the people who live and work in Ewing?
Ambrose: Communication is a two-way street. From what I have observed, there is little attempt at two-way communication and practically no way to accomplish it with our government. I do like the calls from the mayor, but they are strictly one-way. There are many issues we don’t get calls about. The recent lack of communication about the tennis courts at Moody Park are an example. And that was between the administration and council.
A quick survey of our neighboring towns would clearly show how far behind the times we are. We have only one community television channel showing a very limited line up. The township website may or may not be current and often what you are looking for is not posted. There is no regular newsletter or annual calendar with important dates, programs or contact information. With a budget as large as ours, we can do better.
Baxter: I agree communication is the lifeblood of any relationship. The township uses newspapers, the Ewing Observer, its website, flyers and a reverse 911 system to communicate to residents. I would ask all residents to sign up for the reverse 911 system if they haven’t already, by contacting the townships technology department. I believe going forward we will have to use social media as another tool for communicating with our residents. I also would like to see a public information officer as I explained in an earlier question.
Keyes-Maloney: This is an area that will always require our attention. A recent “creative asset” discussion included ‘communication’ as a primary need for Ewing residents. While we benefit from having a great publication like the Observer, it’s unfortunately only monthly. The local papers have ever larger coverage areas and limited staff. Thus, they may not always cover news about Ewing. Filling some of that vacuum is social media, but not everyone is a digital native.
To provide citizens with information on important township events, we instituted the Honeywell or reverse 911 system that allows people to receive messages from the township. We also installed a digital sign at the Ewing Community Center to inform residents of upcoming events. School age parents and students also receive information courtesy of our partnership with the school district. In addition, the township has been actively revamping its website. Further, several township departments, as well as some boards and commissions, have Facebook and Twitter pages. All of this helps to a degree, but the work is never done.
I’d like to explore greater utilization of the Honeywell system to allow citizens to receive tiered messages via multiple means (i.e., cellphone/phone/email) based upon their interest (i.e., only emergency info versus events and opportunities). At the same time, internet streaming of our council meetings would, hopefully, enhance transparency and encourage citizen involvement.
Regardless of the medium, improving our communication with the community is an area of great importance to me and an area I will continue to focus on.
Schroth: I think the township has done a pretty good job in this regard with the new and continuously improving website as well as the mayor’s frequent outreach to the community through various means. The mayor and council are very active in the community and we make a concerted effort to attend events, discuss issues with members of the community on a daily basis, stay engaged, and most importantly listen to what people are saying to us and respond to their needs.
Steward: After many years of planning, zoning and redevelopment decisions, Ewing has evolved into a town that has three very unique but different sections or districts. For discussion sake, I will identify them as the Olden Avenue, Pennington Road and Parkway Avenue districts. In order to better communicate with and advocate for the special concerns that exist within each district, I think that the residents of these unique districts should be given their own elected councilperson.
This ‘new-look’ council would be made up of three district seats and two at-large seats. I believe that this would greatly improve and encourage better and more direct interaction between the citizens of Ewing Township and their elected officials and better serve the specific needs of all its citizens.