Community News and the Hopewell Express asked Hopewell Township Committee members Michael Ruger and Kevin Kuchinski to take part in our annual election coverage even though they will be running unopposed for re-election in November. Republican candidates Ed Jackowski and Kevin Johnson withdrew their names from the ballot after the primary elections, with no one stepping forward to take their places.
This means that across Hopewell Valley there will be no contested races for township committee or borough council. In Pennington, Catherine “Kit” Chandler is up for re-election, while Kennen Gross stands unopposed to take the seat of Glen Griffiths. In Hopewell Borough, Republican C. Schuyler Morehouse and Democrat Ryan Kennedy will stand unopposed for re-election to council.
We asked Kuchinski and Ruger to reply to our questions despite the fact that they would be our only respondents, and they graciously agreed. Below please find our questions and their answers. We were only able to include our school board election coverage in the October issue of the Hopewell Express, so these Q&As will appear in print in November.
Kevin D. Kuchinski, 51, has been a member of the township committee since 2014, serving as mayor from 2016 to 2018. In his professional career, he currently serves as managing partner and chief operating officer at Princeton Partners, a consulting and strategic marketing firm working with companies and brands to innovate and deliver out-sized revenue and profit growth.
Since 2016, he has also worked with Ray Disch on the launch of Sourland Mountain Spirits, now New Jersey’s premier fam distillery. Prior to this, Kevin was vice president of marketing at Church and Dwight, leading a $1 billion division. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke University.
Kuchinski is vice president of the Hopewell Valley Education Foundation, co-chair of the advisory board for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed, chair of the St. James finance council and a past-president of the Honey Lake Homeowners Association. He has lived in the Hopewell Valley since 2003. Kevin also serves on the boards of New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the NJ Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Kevin is married to Leslie, who has a doctorate in astronomy. She currently works with Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and volunteers with the Hopewell Valley Music and Theatre Parents Association. They live the Elm Ridge Park neighborhood.
Son Ryan is a graduate of Georgetown University and currently in his third year of law school at Duke University. Son Brennan graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in mechanical engineering. Son Liam is a sophomore at Rutgers University and daughter Kaitlyn is a sophomore at Hopewell Valley Central High.
Michael Ruger, 57, has lived in Hopewell Township since 1998. He is vice president of government affairs at Comcast. He graduated from Penn State University with degrees in political science and psychology, and also has a law degree from Georgetown University.
Ruger was elected to the township committee in 2017. He has served as deputy mayor for the past two years and is township liaison to Public Works, the Agricultural Advisory Committee, the Open Space Advisory Committee and the Citizens’ Equity Advisory Committee. He is also on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Mercer County and a member of the Penn State Department of Political Science Board of Visitors.
Ruger lives in the Harbourton area of Hopewell Township with wife Tracy Vogler, an attorney who grew up in the home where the family now lives. Son Teddy, 22, is a geologist, and twins Billy and Bobby, 15, are sophomores at Hopewell Valley Central High School.
Community News: Why are you running again for township committee?
Kevin Kuchinski: We have accomplished a lot during my time on the Township Committee – lowering the average tax rate increase from 6.3% in 2013-15 to 2% this past year, working to protect the environment, including the preservation of Mt Rose, Woosamonsa Ridge and the HV Golf Course, and steadfastly fighting to stop the PennEast pipeline – but there’s more we need to do.
I will continue the fight to keep Hopewell Township green and affordable. First, we have an opportunity to use PILOT monies to retire the township’s debt, eliminating interest and principal payments which currently account for almost 25% of township spending. We also must work to reduce our reliance on residential property taxes by bringing the right corporate tenants to the current BMS site, attracting new small businesses to the Valley and increasing tourism.
On the environment, we will continue to protect Hopewell Township’s rural character. This includes limiting new development to existing sewer service areas and parcels adjacent to Interstate 295. Additionally, we must enforce the strong environmental protections in our existing ordinances, work towards new stormwater management solutions, and expand our walking and biking trail network.
It has been a great honor to serve the residents of Hopewell Township to help them solve problems. I look forward to continuing to fight on their behalf.
Michael Ruger: I am running again because I want to continue to do my best to help make Hopewell Township an even better place to live. My colleagues and I have made progress in many areas, notably finances, and I want to continue making progress. Having the opportunity to help the community by serving on the Township Committee is an honor.
One of the true joys of the position is getting to know the Hopewell Township staff. I am continually impressed at how hard they work for all of us. I also appreciate having the opportunity to hear from so many township residents on issues that they feel passionate about. I always listen to every side and explain why I make the decisions I do.
Community News: Grade the committee on the work it has done in the last year.
Michael Ruger: This has been a year like no other. I’ll focus on three issues—finances, Covid-19, and the Police Department.
On finances, I give the committee a grade of outstanding. We kept the municipal tax increase to a minimum, saw continued progress on reducing debt, and saved money by bidding out contracts earlier than we have in past years. I give the same grade to our Covid-19 response. The township committee found an excellent acting health officer to advise us.
We recorded videos to keep residents informed and posted Township Covid-19 statistics when neighboring communities chose to not do so. We kept our trails open for recreation. And we kept the Township government functioning.
On the police department, I give us a grade of satisfactory since our work is still in progress. When faced with a challenge, we responded immediately. We hired a consultant from outside our community to advise us, as someone local could have been accused of bias. We are in the process of hiring a civilian police director on a temporary basis who will help us communicate with the community and implement community goals.
I look forward to continuing to work on this issue along with my fellow committee members.
Kevin Kuchinski: Hopewell Township has seen unprecedented challenges in 2020. This includes the ongoing fiscal challenges of striving to keep taxes low and doing more for less, as well as a host of extraordinary challenges: the Covid-19 pandemic, addressing climate change as well as troubling remarks by members of our police department, to name just a few.
Starting with finances, I think the committee’s work speaks for itself. We have lowered the average rate of tax increases significantly, reduced debt by over 20%, and Hopewell Township has the lowest municipal tax rate in Mercer County. A.
On Covid-19, the Committee’s response has been strong – B+. We hired an excellent acting health officer to steer us through the early days of the pandemic, while ensuring the latest information and safety protocols were distributed to the community, and we adapted how the township government to continue functioning throughout the crisis.
Additionally, we have taken a number of steps to address climate change. Hopewell Township won Sustainable NJ’s Solar Challenge, by helping educate residents on cost-effective solar energy systems and having the highest proportion of residents convert. We have begun the conversion of our police fleet to hybrids, saving money and reducing our carbon footprint. And we are working with Mercer County and local non-profits to replant stormwater basins with native plants and also to restore trees lost to Sandy and the Emerald Ash Borer. A.
I would give us an incomplete score on dealing with the police issues. The committee responded quickly to the initial incident and has held extensive community outreach meetings. We have also hired an outside consultant to advise us on how we can proactively address potential bias and are hiring a civilian police director, while we work towards longer-term reforms.
Community News: Revenue shortfalls are a fact of life for municipalities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Add to this the fact that Bristol-Myers Squibb is leaving the township and taking a substantial chunk of tax revenue with it until new tenants are found. Take us through the next three years. How will you and the rest of the committee lead Hopewell through these challenges?
Kevin Kuchinski: Since I joined the committee, we have been fighting to rein in spending and keep municipal taxes low. In fact, our 2020 municipal budget is lower than 2015, even as we have brought back bulky waste, expanded communication, and repaired/repaved a record number of road miles.
We have also worked to identify new sources of township revenue to reduce the reliance on residential property taxes. This includes completing new PILOT agreements that will deliver $112 million in revenues to the township over 30 years, versus $18.5 Million, if we had proceeded conventionally.
The PILOT agreement for the Woodmont development on Federal City Road alone will cover revenue losses from the BMS site. We have also rented space on a new police communications tower to interested cellular carriers and have expanded shared service agreements with neighboring municipalities and the Schools, to save additional dollars.
On the BMS site, we are proud to welcome PTC Therapeutics to Hopewell Township. We are working with the new owners of the campus, Mercer County, and Choose NJ to find the right tenants to reoccupy the remaining space and I am hopeful we will be able to announce more progress shortly.
Michael Ruger: As a township resident, I don’t want to pay higher taxes and I want to be sure necessary Township services are provided. We are in the process of doing what we can to make the BMS campus attractive to additional tenants. This is a great space for the pharma industry, for example, and we are hopeful companies will take advantage of this opportunity.
We continue to market Pennytown so we can use the money to reduce debt. In the coming years we’ll start to see money coming from PILOT agreements and that will help our finances. And we’ll continue to see how we can make the provision of services more efficient. For example, the Public Works Department recently purchased a tandem truck. This allows crews to collect twice as much brush in one trip, which means they can provide even better service to our residents.
Community News: Diversity and inclusion are major topics in Hopewell at this time. There have been multiple incidents of racism, in the police department and in the school district, and many community members of color have spoken up in the past year about bias in our community. Is Hopewell really a great place to live for all residents?
Michael Ruger: The past few years have been a wake-up call for all of us about the problems we have in our country, and Hopewell Township is not immune. If straight white males like me have not understood that they have benefited from inherent privilege, they have not been paying attention.
I am honored that so many residents have shared their experiences in public meetings. I hear the emotion in their voices and understand that they have told their stories time and time again, with the same result—nothing changes. So, we need to figure out how to break this cycle.
It’s not something that the township committee can do alone. We need help. That’s one reason why I had the idea for and championed the Citizens’ Equity Advisory Committee. And it’s why I asked in a recent committee meeting, “What does healing look like?” The only way we are going to improve our community is by working together as a community.
Kevin Kuchinski: Hopewell Valley has a rich and diverse history, but recent incidents in our schools and police department suggest we have more work to do.
I am proud to have seen our community come together in the face of racial incidents at the national and local level, to have residents speak out against systemic racism and to demand increased accountability and monitoring. We (the township committee) have stood in solidarity with our community and affirmed that #BlackLivesMatter.
We are also in the process of reviewing all of our procedures, including how our police department interacts with the community, and have formed a Citizens’ Equity Advisory Committee. It’s important that we bring new voices forward to help us tackle these issues. Looking ahead, all township residents should feel safe and also that they are being heard.
On the school issues, I’ve worked with Dr. Thomas Smith and Dr. Rosetta Treece to support their ongoing efforts to promote communication, inclusion and equity in our district and the broader community.
Community News: In addition to its lack of racial diversity, Hopewell also lacks income diversity. Even small and older residences in the township are priced out of the range of young and middle-class families. An affordable housing agreement has been reached, but Hopewell remains a place where, for the most part, only the wealthy can afford to live. Can Hopewell’s government and its residents continue to justify preserving Hopewell’s “rural character” at the expense of providing people of lesser means with nice, affordable places to live?
Kevin Kuchinski: This is an important issue and also one of the first topics I spoke on, as a committee member. It pains me to see long-time members of our community, after their kids have graduated, move out of Hopewell Valley because there are not smaller, more affordable housing options in our community. This also impacts our children, not to mention our teachers, police officers, and firefighters.
Unfortunately, many of these folks want to move to the town they know and love, but can’t find an affordable apartment, condo or townhome in Hopewell Township. This needs to change. Our community will grow richer as we diversify our housing stock to create new, more affordable options.
However, we must balance the creation of more affordable housing options with protecting our rural character. That’s why we have limited development to existing sewer service areas and other parcels adjacent to I-295 where there is water and sewer infrastructure. Net, I see this as an “and” solution, with Hopewell Township creating new more affordable housing options AND protecting our rural character.
Michael Ruger: I believe that our plans for affordable housing will strike the right balance in this area. We will have a larger pool of housing that will be suitable for everyone, from young couples to senior citizens, and that will promote income diversity. At the same time, I think it is critical that we preserve the largely rural nature of the Township—it’s a big part of what makes Hopewell Township special.
Community News: There are plenty of people in the Hopewell Valley with something to say in public forums online. Meanwhile, with your Republican opponents withdrawing their names from the ballot, there are now no contested races for elected municipal office in Hopewell Township, Hopewell Borough or Pennington. What is your mandate? What do these things say about the state of civic participation in 2020?
Michael Ruger: I have seen some of the comments posted to online public forums, and to be honest the level of discourse frequently disappoints me. So often, there is no discussion—it’s just one side shouting at the other. And then there are the baseless accusations. There are so many examples of keyboard courage—people who will say things online that they would never say to someone’s face. I have had plenty of people stand up in meetings and disagree with me, and even though I may not agree with them, I respect them for speaking their mind face to face.
But it’s a microcosm of what we see throughout the United States. I can’t say why others do not run for office—I can only say why I am running, and that’s because I want to help our community. And one of the ways I can do that is to continue to listen to what people are saying and try to react in a way that brings people together.
Kevin Kuchinski: First, I want to thank all the residents of Hopewell Valley for their continued support and trust. It’s been an honor to serve on the Township Committee. Over the next three years, I will continue my efforts to keep Hopewell Township green and affordable, and I am committed to working on behalf of all Hopewell Valley residents.
Looking ahead, I look forward to seeing design and construction completed on our new Senior & Community Center, and to creating an expanded, Township-wide network of biking and walking trails. I believe we can make additional progress on the municipal budget, delivering the services our residents want, for less, and reducing the burden of residential property taxes. And we will continue programs on open space and preserved farmland, to help preserve Hopewell Valley’s rural character.
There are also opportunities for improvement that I would like to address. This includes fostering increased civic engagement and broader community participation. That’s why we started the new “Have Your Say Hopewell Township” engagement tool; stay tuned too for the next edition of our Township newsletter. I’m hopeful that by keeping residents better informed and getting the facts out on key issues, we can help address some of the negative discourse we have seen, both nationally and locally.
I am committed to serving the residents of Hopewell Valley, and would encourage them to get involved and to offer constructive thoughts on what we can do better.