Four candidates face off for two four-year terms on the Hamilton Township council.
Incumbents Ralph Mastrangelo and Ileana Schirmer, both Republicans, have chosen not to seek re-election to council. Republicans Richard Balgowan and Vinnie Capodanno and Democrats Pat Papero, Jr., and Nancy Phillips hope to fill their seats.
The winners will join three Democratic councilmen on the township’s governing body.
Richard M. Balgowan, 65, is the founder, CEO and engineer for RM Balgowan Forensic & Engineering Services. The former Hamilton Township public works director for the Glen Gilmore and John Bencivengo administrations, Balgowan is a graduate of Steinert High School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is a past executive board member at Nottingham Little League, and he coached baseball teams at the Little League level, Babe Ruth level and competitive/travel baseball up to U17. Balgowan currently serves as administrative liaison for the Hamilton Township Environmental Commission. He has never held public office.
Vincent “Vinnie” Capodanno, 72, is a retired union representative for Local 831 Teamsters New York City. He previously served terms on the Hamilton Township council as a Democrat and an independent. He volunteers with City of Angels.
Pasquale “Pat” Papero, Jr., 42, is a Mercer County sheriff’s officer. A lifelong Hamilton resident, he graduated from Hamilton High West in 1995. Papero earned an associate’s degree from Mercer County Community College, and a bachelor’s in health and exercise science from Rowan University. He has volunteered with Hamilton Little Lads and Hamilton PAL football league, as well as various PBA community events and fundraisers. He has never held public office.
Nancy Phillips, 44, is a public school teacher for the South Brunswick Board of Education. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications with honors in humanities from William Paterson University, and her teaching degree and certification from New Jersey City State University. Phillips is a member of the Reynolds Middle School PTA. She is an advocate for special medical needs children with the American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders, having worked with legislators at the local, state and federal level on guaranteeing special needs children have the treatments and coverage needed in the rare disease community. She is also an advocate for children and adults with food allergies. She has never held public office.
The Hamilton Post provided the same five policy questions to each candidate, who then had a week to formulate written responses. The questions and responses appear below:
Question 1: The fire consolidation process has taken many turns in the last four years, and has seen its share of challenges. How will you actually make it happen?
Balgowan: I, along with my running mate, will vote to dissolve the existing fire districts, without any contingency, to ensure State approval. If we can sway one of the remaining members of Council, we can make consolidation a reality, under one municipal department, and achieve significant savings for our taxpayers, while maintaining safety.
Capodanno: Being a former member of Local 831 Teamsters and being on their negotiating team, I would be very stern to tell both parties to sit down, forget the politics and bargain in good faith.
Papero: I will utilize my extensive experience in public sector collective bargaining to mediate negotiations between township government and the fire union to arrive at a fair and equitable agreement for all parties involved resulting in the best possible service for Hamilton residents at the best possible cost. I believe that a well structured deal could see a tax savings for residents when compared to the existing fire tax structure.
Phillips: Fire consolidation is long overdue and will happen with Jeff Martin as our mayor. The first step to make fire consolidation happen is to negotiate a fair agreement between the township and our firefighters. By working together towards a common goal of providing the best possible service to residents and creating a structure for consolidation that is the most efficient, we will be able to save taxpayers money and give the firefighters the tools they need as a unified unit to best serve all of Hamilton Township equally. We must prioritize the safety of all Hamilton residents and our firefighters above all else.
Question 2: The township animal shelter was the center of a county prosecutor’s investigation that led to animal cruelty charges against two township employees. A township council investigation found several deficiencies in the organization, procedures and training at the shelter. A state investigation led to proceedings to strip the township health officer of his license. Regardless of your opinion on these investigations, because of them the animal shelter now has a tarnished reputation. What changes would you make to restore the animal shelter to good standing?
Balgowan: First, I think it is very important to acknowledge the fact that over a year ago, Mayor Yaede’s administration addressed the inspection citations by taking corrective actions, as well as hiring a new supervising veterinarian, implementing electronic records and expanding volunteer opportunities. I support all of those measures. These corrective actions earned a satisfactory status following State re-inspection. Further, the shelter moved to a no kill model, which I also support. Additionally, I would support a shelter office manager position to oversee future compliance and oversight.
Capodanno: The animal shelter has made changes to move ahead. A new vet has taken over, and everything has been taken care of.
Papero: I will work to regain the confidence of Hamilton residents through the hiring of the most qualified personnel to tend the animal shelter and put in place a method by which the operations of the facility would be monitored and periodic reports made to the mayor and council. Public input on how the operation of the complex might be improved along with comments on that operation going forward would be encouraged.
Phillips: The top priority of animal shelters must be the humane treatment of the animals. Shelters shouldn’t be permanent homes for animals. Shelters should be safe, temporary places where animals receive needed care until adopted. The shelter needs strong leadership so animals are properly cared for, according to the law, and taxpayers dollars are being spent efficiently. I’d designate a shelter manager with experience to accomplish these goals. Coordination with rescue groups assisting with spaying and neutering and finding animals good permanent homes should be paramount. Increased promotion and public education regarding animals for adoption should happen frequently.
Question 3: 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?
Balgowan: Hamilton has been very fortunate to enjoy high commercial occupancy rates and revitalized retail centers during the past few years. But there are three key ways that members of Council can assist economic development and redevelopment. First, by helping to maintain a stable municipal tax rate that provides predictability for the business community. Second, by reviewing and updating zoning laws to help spur the revitalization of vacant or underutilized commercial properties. Third, by making sure ordinances provide a fair environment for all local businesses. In terms of areas, the former Congoleum site and the Whitehorse-Mercerville and Klockner Road commercial zone are the two areas I would focus upon.
Capodanno: Duck Island and across from the train station. Also, some of our older and vacated properties need redevelopment.
Papero: Vacant land zoned for new commercial development is quickly dwindling. Meanwhile, our older sections such as South Broad Street, Nottingham Way and others are in need of enhancement and redevelopment. I would invite property owners in these areas to a Township sponsored meeting with our officials to exchange ideas on topics such as how government might be able to assist in the redevelopment process for instance by removing any possibly unrealistic government instituted impediments to that goal. We could also work with real estate professionals for their input. We could apply for Federal or State funds to undertake street improvements such as trees, lighting, benches, etc to help spruce up these areas. I would work with the Mayor and have inspections personnel canvas these ares and cite instances of serious violations of our Commercial Property Maintenance Code. Absentee owners must realize their responsibilities in a meaningful redevelopment process.
Phillips: I feel very strongly about economic development because for years I have watched as our township has had increasing vacant commercial properties. For instance, the areas around Whitehorse-Mercerville Road, including the former Cost Cutters Shopping Center and K-Mart, which is slated to close. To bolster our economic development we must work with redevelopment professionals and property owners to bring in new businesses to the vacant commercial spaces before we begin developing new areas. By doing this, we will also get them back onto the tax rolls paying their fair share of property taxes and reduce the burden on Hamiltonians.
Question 4: Municipal taxes have been relatively flat for years 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?
Balgowan: Mayor Yaede’s leadership led to a municipal tax decrease at a time when the county, school district and most fire Districts increased taxes. Keeping municipal taxes stable moving forward is possible. But consolidating fire districts under one municipal fire district could help reduce taxes. Additionally, Hamilton has kept sewer rates flat for the past 10 years. If we make Robbinsville pay its fair share for using our sewer system, we can continue this trend.
Capodanno: We are 80 employees less than when Gilmore was there. Keep it that way. Also, keep spending under 2%, and that keeps taxes under the 2% cap. Taxes under Mayor Yaede are at 1.6% a year and spending is at 1.4%.
Papero: I will work to assure that the municipal tax rate is kept stable. Also, I would encourage the influx of solid commercial ratables which is essential to a healthy tax base with the caveat that approval of ‘just any’ commercial development for the sake of dollars would not be acceptable.
Phillips: Yes, voters should expect this to continue. First, through the fire consolidation we will be able to save taxpayers money and through property redevelopment we can increase ratables. By ending “creative budget practices” that have masked poor governmental practices, we will also be able to reign in the abuse of spending that we see in the current administration. I will work to restore good fiscal management in the township along with transparency to taxpayers so they can feel confident that their tax money is being spent responsibly.
Question 5: The township health department came under fire in recent months for failing to inspect every food retail establishment in the township in 2018. Only 40 percent had been inspected this year as of late August. This was despite prior assurances from department leadership that the township inspected every restaurant twice a year. Township code does not require the township to inspect businesses that sell food annually, but should it? What changes would you make, if any, to the process for inspecting and issuing licenses to food retail establishments?
Balgowan: It is important to understand that State regulations for retail food establishments treat Home Depot, Lowes and Bed, Bath and Beyond the same as any restaurant because they offer packaged food or beverages. I think every Hamiltonian recognizes the difference between those stores and true restaurants. I support true restaurants undergoing annual inspections, and additional inspections, as needed, based upon conditions or reported issues.
Capodanno: Keep it that way. Simple, hire another health inspector.
Papero: Inspection of and the issuing of licenses to food retail establishments should occur on an annual basis to help assure the safety of the public.
Phillips: I believe our food establishments should be inspected annually, if not semi-annually to assure the public that these establishments are following all guidelines and safety procedures. Changes required to make this happen start in the administration with good leadership and responsible staffing. With a township as large as ours, I would evaluate our budget and personnel to create a detailed plan to reach all of these businesses. I have confidence in our local family owned establishments and believe they deserve unbiased and regular inspections. Licenses issued will then be more valuable to both the business owners and the public.