Six candidates are running for three seats on Hamilton Township council.
Anthony Carabelli, Jr., 41, is a business advocate for the County of Mercer’s Office of Economic Development and Sustainability. He has a bachelor’s degree in politics and culture from Georgetown University, and a master’s in international law and economics from Johns Hopkins University. He has never held elected office. Carabelli is a coach at Sunnybrae Little League and Hamilton Township Recreation Soccer, and a member of the Hamilton Partnership, the Economic Development Association of New Jersey and the Sunnybrae Little League Board of Trustees.
Jeff Martin, 34, is an attorney, and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He received his bachelor’s from The College of New Jersey, his law degree from Rutgers Law School, and his master’s of law from the University of Connecticut Law School. He has not held elected office. Martin is a member of American Legion Post 31.
Gino A. Melone, 50, is a member of the Hamilton Township Economic Development Advisory Commission, and a first-time candidate for township council. He previously served on Trenton City council for 16 years. Melone attended Mercer County Community College, and works for the Mercer County Division of Consumer Affairs as a investigator, and the Mercer County Tax Board as a commissioner. He belongs to many charitable and civic associations.
Dennis Pone, 59, has served on council since 2006. He is an optician and a small business owner. He earned his bachelor’s degree from LaSalle University. Pone belongs to the Hamilton Partnership and the Hamilton Redevelopment Commission, and is a former member of the Hamilton Environmental Commission and a former coach at HTRBA and HTRSA.
Rick Tighe, 46, is a wealth manager and an undergraduate student at Columbia University. He has not held elected office. Tighe is president-elect of the Hamilton Kiwanis.
Dina Thornton, 46, was appointed to Hamilton Township council this year, following the resignation of Ed Gore. She is running for her first full term on council. A former member of the Hamilton Board of Education, Thornton is a hairstylist at Salon Cusato, and a realtor with Weidel Real Estate. She attended the Capri Institute of Cosmetology, as well as the Princeton School of Real Estate. She is an officer with the Mercerville PTA and the Crockett PTA.
The Hamilton Post posed the same four questions to each candidate. They had a week to write their responses, which are below:
1. Fire consolidation has once again become a focus during an election season. Do you believe the process has gone as it should? Has it become too politicized?
Anthony Carabelli, Jr.: Fire consolidation is the best option for Hamilton. It would increase response times; reduce duplicity of services; and better ensure the safety of firefighters and residents. Both parties support fire consolidation. Unfortunately, the issue, which has gone through several public hearings, council meetings, and a State study, has been delayed for almost two years. This delay should have been avoided and a transitional period of negotiations should have started months ago.
Jeff Martin: It is a shame that fire consolidation is still an issue that needs to be addressed. Consolidating our nine fire districts makes sense because it increases safety and makes a unified fire department more cost-effective for taxpayers. The fact that nearly two years after this process has started, it has not been voted on by the current council shows the lack of leadership of our current elected officials.
Gino A. Melone: Consolidation is a complex process, but the process is proceeding in the right direction. The Township Council is doing their due diligence to examine how we can make a consolidated fire service as efficient as possible, while maintain safety. The firefighter proposal that would create a $10.6 million tax increase is not in the best interest of our taxpayers. There is no place for politics when it comes to public safety.
Dennis Pone: The process has gone exactly as it should, benefiting the residents and taxpayers of Hamilton. It has been clear and thorough. Our goal is to provide the best fire service at the least cost. Politics has creeped in. Our opponents accepted an endorsement from the fire unions, who have called for a plan that would increase fire taxes by $10.6 million. We are going to represent the best interest of our taxpayers while providing excellent fire service.
Rick Tighe: Fire consolidation will give Hamilton a safer, more efficient fire service. Credit needs to be given to our firefighters. Without the work our firefighters have done, there would not have been any progress on this issue. I support getting the consolidation process done as quickly as possible. Using the numbers in the Yeade team’s own report, the delay by council in implementing consolidation is costing the taxpayers over $7,000 per day.
Dina Thornton: Public safety is a priority for all of our families. We owe it to them to implement a consolidated system that ensures the safety of our residents and firefighters while keeping the costs as low as possible. Consolidating a decades old system requires a thorough process including an audit of all fire facilities and equipment to gather all information needed. I believe that we are addressing this in a responsible manner.
2. Slates from both parties promise to increase economic development in the township. What areas of town need to be developed? What will you do on council to make that a reality?
Anthony Carabelli, Jr.: I have served over 10 years of my professional career as an economic development professional. Since Hamilton is almost 90 percent built out, I would focus our attention on redevelopment sites such as the former Congoleum property and the Cost Cutters strip mall. As councilman, I would support measures to encourage re-development on these sites and others through rezoning and, as a result, bring greater economic activity to Hamilton.
Jeff Martin: The priority for me is not development, it is redevelopment. We do not need to keep destroying open space when we have acres of blighted commercial and residential properties. By focusing on redeveloping properties like the old Cost-Cutters through re-zoning efforts, we increase our tax base and increase the values of all the properties adjacent to it. By redeveloping that property, we also help local businesses nearby by bringing increased business to the area.
Gino A. Melone: There has been significant economic development—particularly the redevelopment of several commercial properties—all across Hamilton. This has yielded $45 million in increased property values and over 2,000 new jobs. Township officials are targeting revitalization projects, such as Hamilton Lanes, the former Cost Cutters and commercial properties along Arena Drive, which will pay dividends. By keeping taxes stable, investing in our roads and maintaining an easy process for business, we will continue to achieve positive results.
Dennis Pone: Stable taxes, infrastructure investment, and maintaining a high quality of life is our formula for successful economic development. In 2016, 39 new businesses opened creating 2,000 new jobs. These efforts have encouraged revitalization across Hamilton, such as the ongoing Congoleum redevelopment, the former Suburban Plaza, Hamilton Point Center, and Independence Plaza. Standard and Poors cited these projects when reaffirming our AA bond rating. Commercial portions of Whitehorse-Mercerville Rd., Arena Drive and Olden Ave. remain the focus of future redevelopment.
Rick Tighe: There have been election-year announcements by the current administration regarding economic development that have never come to fruition for Hamilton. Does anyone remember the go-cart publicity stunt? We will bring accountability in holding both developers and the Mayor to the highest standards as we look to proactively redevelop Hamilton in a way that will bring good local jobs for local workers.
Dina Thornton: A vibrant local economy benefits all off our hardworking families; and with 39 new businesses and 2,000 new jobs, we are continuing to move Hamilton’s economy forward in the right direction. Standard and Poor’s recently recognized the growth in our local economy. Maintaining low taxes, quality roads and a high quality of life will allow us to attract more businesses as we focus on opportunities in the commercial zones along White Horse-Mercerville Road and Arena Drive.
3. Municipal taxes have been relatively flat for a decade now, which has required increasingly creative ways to balance the budget without a tax hike. Should voters expect this trend to continue? What else can be done to keep taxes low?
Anthony Carabelli, Jr.: I am fiscally conservative. I believe that we need programs and services that increase the quality of life for Hamilton residents but, at the same time, do not break our budget. Through redevelopment initiatives and shared services, we can offset our growing expenses and ensure taxes are controlled. I am concerned with our over-reliance on issuing debt and would welcome the opportunity to work with the administration on finding cost effective solutions.
Jeff Martin: With the amount of debt the current administration has authorized, residents should not expect relatively flat property taxes. This administration has authorized over $65 million in debt over the last 4 years; increasing our debt by over 25 percent over the last 6 years. Like any bonded debt, the payments have to be made in the future. Without new leadership to step in and stop this, the current administration is only mortgaging our future.
Gino A. Melone: When you do the right things for taxpayers, it yields stabilized municipal taxes like it has in Hamilton. By continuing to meet the highest levels of state recommended best practices, pursuing shared services and keeping debt low, and by maintaining “strong management” and “strong budgetary performance”—which Standard and Poor’s touted when reaffirming Hamilton’s credit rating—there is no reason why Hamilton cannot retain the lowest property tax impact in the entire county.
Dennis Pone: Our stable taxes are due to our strong local economy, strong management, and strong budgetary performance. Standard and Poors affirmed this with a AA bond rating with a stable outlook. We have also kept municipal debt 61 percent below the state law allowance. We are a leader in shared services, such as through our Ecological facility. Continuing these measures will ensure that Hamilton taxpayers have the lowest property tax burden in Mercer County.
Rick Tighe: I am concerned that the Hamilton council has authorized $65M in borrowing over the last four years. We will all be paying off this debt for the next 30 years. As your councilman, one of my top priorities will be to balance our budget without mortgaging our future. There are alternatives to cutting services or borrowing money to balance the budget. Redevelopment can increase the tax revenue coming into the township.
Dina Thornton: Keeping municipal taxes stable, like we did this year is so important to all of our families. But the fact that Hamilton has maintained the lowest property tax burden in Mercer County puts into perspective the job we are doing in Hamilton. We can continue to enjoy this distinction by continuing to practice fiscal responsibility and strong budgetary management, by keeping debt low and by sharing more services.
4. What is the most pressing issue facing Hamilton Township now? How would you fix it?
Anthony Carabelli, Jr.: We need to bring into our township more living wage opportunities. Whether it’s hiring local workers for construction projects or hiring Hamiltonians to new employment opportunities, we must ensure that Hamilton becomes a more attractive place to live, work and raise a family. Redeveloping our underutilized sites provides that opportunity. In addition, I would also be an advocate for maintaining and expanding our open space and farmland, which advances our quality of life.
Jeff Martin: We need to attract new businesses and stop businesses leaving Hamilton every year. We need to attract businesses to empty store fronts like Shoppes at Hamilton; we need to encourage small business growth to fill our empty office spaces; and we need to ensure our local workers are working local jobs. By doing this, we raise our tax base, get local people good-paying jobs and control property taxes.
Gino A. Melone: Property taxes continue to be the most important issue; and by continuing to deliver to our residents the lowest property tax impact in the county, as well as looking for other cost saving measures like more efficient fire services and decreased electricity, we can keep Hamilton moving forward in the right direction.
Dennis Pone: The greatest impact on Hamilton’s hardworking families, our seniors, and our quality of life is always taxes. We will continue our work to maintain the lowest tax burden in Mercer County. We will continue to look for cost savings such as making fire service more efficient and cost effective, as well as providing residents the opportunity to save on their electricity. It would be an honor to continue moving Hamilton in the right direction.
Rick Tighe: As your councilman, public safety will always be my top priority. Completing the long-overdue fire consolidation process is currently our best opportunity to improve public safety and to save taxpayers money.
Dina Thornton: Property taxes remain the most important issue to our hardworking families. By maintaining stable taxes and working on other ways that we can save our families more of their hard earned money, we can preserve a vibrant community and robust local economy for our future generations.