There wasn’t much friction but there were many memorable moments as the three candidates looking be the next mayor of Morristown sat down at the same table Thursday night at the Alexander Hamilton School for a debate sponsored by The League of Women Voters of the Morristown Area.
The candidates covered many topics over the course of the 90 minute forum and each had a recurring theme that they repeated throughout the night. France said often that to improve things, you need to admit they are wrong and wanted to freeze taxation. Dougherty said he has a record to run on that includes unprecedented engagement, real tax reduction as well as transparency, inclusion and smart development. Babcock extolled the virtues of shared services.
“Shared services is one of the if not the most effective ways to cut spending and as a result cut taxes. Our most natural partner is Morris Township,” Babcock said.
Dougherty said that the animal control deal with Morris Township fell apart due to an issue with billing.
“They didn’t pay their bill,” Dougherty said. “You should really know your facts.”
Questions were taken from the audience and posed to the candidates throughout the evening and the topics covered included development, taxes and administrative favoritism.
When a question came in about the future development of Morristown, France said he wanted to see more affordable housing. France’s view was that the ratio for affordable housing needed to be increased to 20 percent for each new housing project.
Dougherty pointed out that the current council policy is 12.5 percent but that anyone could lobby for more. The current mayor also said that in developing Morristown there has to be a careful balance, one that not only provides housing for those who want to live in town, but brings in jobs as well.
Babcock said that it was a “wonderful thing” that people want to come to Morristown, but the focus needs to be on the quality of life for the people who already live there. Babcock also said Dougherty declared that he would take foreclosed upon homes and make them into affordable housing and that would open it up to halfway houses for sex offenders, drug abusers and ex-cons to move into established neighborhoods. That assertion is something Dougherty was quick to rebuke.
“That is just politics talking. Said for shock value,” Dougherty said.
Taxes and Lawsuits
When discussing taxes and spending, Dougherty said that for the last three years taxes have gone down and encouraged residents to look on their tax bills. That wasn’t enough for France, who said more extreme measures needed to be taken.
“If Morristown is going to be the best town in Morris County. We can’t bury our head in the sand. We have high taxes for many reasons. One of them is the hospital and county pay nothing. If I was mayor I am going to go after them,” France said. “There are many people who have paid off their mortgage but their property taxes are almost the size of their mortgage. I am going to put a property tax freeze on people and you won’t lose your services.”
Babcock agreed with France, in theory.
“While I am encouraged of the sentiment that Mr. France has expressed, it is easy to say but it requires a lot of hard work and you are going to need to be very specific about how to accomplish that,” Babcock said. Shared service is a big part of that. Shared services is the future of how we control our taxes.”
Dougherty noted that while the county does not pay taxes, Morristown has been in litigation with the hospital for over eight years over the tax issue.
France responded to a question about the cost of lawsuits on Morristown and he said that as mayor he would speak to every employee and make sure everyone way happy to avoid future legal action. Babcock said that all municipalities or large organizations deal with lawsuits from time to time and they needed to be reviewed on their own merits. Dougherty said there were no suits that he was aware of.
“I don’t think any lawsuits have been filed. There are two TORT claims I know of and I cannot comment on that,” Dougherty said. “You should know that the opponent on my left and the opponent on my right filed a lawsuit when I first took office and it was thrown out of court. And it cost the taxpayers money.”
Morale and Favoritism
When asked about employee morale and administrative favoritism, Babcock was split on the issue.
“The premise of the question is morale is down and I don’t know that first hand. I think there is always a mix like there is everywhere.” Babcock said.
But Babcock also said has heard of inequities and certain communities or people were being favored but under his administration it would not be a “squeaky wheel gets the grease scenario.”
Dougherty said he didn’t feel Morristown employees had a morale problem, and that he hears from the people on the front lines of the community tell him they love their job and he is happy to be their mayor.
France said that he had spoken to employees and their morale is an issue.
“If you are not in with administration you are on the outside,” France said. “That is sad. I never thought I would have to see that.”
Dougherty said that Morristown is a civil service town and that anyone with an issue can file a grievance. France said the favoritism issue extends out into the communities.
“People feel there is a clique and there is no room for cliques,” France said.
Dougherty said that is why the people are represented by council members.
“Go to your council members,” Dougherty said. “The council members bring it to the administration.”
France said that if he was blessed and the lord puts favor on him to lead the town he would invite Dougherty to work with him. For his part Dougherty lauded his part in moving Morristown forward in the last four years, which is something he would like to see continue.
“The key is planning. Its also about making sure we have a strong police department, code enforcement and strong services,” Dougherty said.
Babcock said he wanted to make sure that development was done in a way that respected the historic nature of Morristown and he also wanted ratchet up engagement of the community even more.
Some of this outreach needs to be done directly to the community. We need to go out to where these people live and get people involved who haven’t been before,” Babcock said. “You can’t be passive.”
The election for mayor will be held on Nov. 5.