The city of Lambertville has a highly-contested Democratic Primary for two City Council seats on Tuesday, July 7.
According to 2019 data, about 57% of registered voters in the municipality are Democrats. No Republican has filed to run, meaning a victory in July would provide large momentum for the winners going into November’s general election.
The Free Press reached out to locals for questions to ask the candidates. The questions have been edited here to provide clarity.
Where do you stand the mayor’s original plan to consolidate the municipal buildings?
Asaro/ Urbish: We are committed to pursuing community dialogue and studying the city’s needs and opportunities for smart development – we have not endorsed any plan. Again, the newly formed Community Advisory Team will lead the way. We will only support a future plan if it (1) has public support, (2) addresses the city’s budget challenges and reduces impact on taxpayers, and (3) meets the city’s current and future needs. We have reduced new debt by 97% and have proposed the lowest budget in four years. Funding studies to inform important decisions about our future is the responsible thing to do. In order to make these big decisions, we need facts and figures.
Stegman/ Lambert: We believe a consolidated municipal complex is unwarranted. The ACME site is not appropriate, it has numerous environmental and traffic issues and is flawed in concept. It forces the sale of our historic landmarks as well. In such challenging economic times, with the looming financial impacts of the pandemic, we cannot afford this unnecessary and unwarranted pursuit. Our opponents have been doing some flip-flopping on their positions over the past few weeks, only time will tell where they wind up, but we are clear in our position on this topic.
Ringer: My primary goal is to provide leadership that is responsive to the needs of the Lambertville community. As an Architect, listening to the client is the only way to successfully provide a solution to their needs. The residents of Lambertville deserve a Governing Body that listens to the citizens and responds accordingly. My secondary goal is to promote efficient and effective government. Recently, we have seen political appointees struggle with the unforeseen challenges they face. As an experienced manager, I know how to plan and execute successfully.
How do you feel about the police station at its current location? How do your plans keep us compliant with our affordable housing settlement agreement?
Stegman/ Lambert: The police station question has been partially addressed by the city by the adoption and submission to the court of the plan. The judge has kept jurisdiction over the police station redevelopment. So the question is, if the site has problems, how does the city provide those five units? The court is waiting for additional information on the suitability of the police department site. If approved, the question is moot.
If there is an issue, we would look to zoning and overlays. There is a current ordinance that requires a 20% set aside for fair-share housing units, under certain conditions. By adding a “change of use” to that ordinance, the city would be able to capture more units to satisfy our obligation. If we had “change of use” in our current ordinance, the YMAC project would have been required to provide those units.
The relocation of the police station out of town does not meet the basic test of common sense. This is no simple endeavor, and it is costly. Moving computers and IT equipment, retrofitting a building, structuring functional is costly. The City has forced the police station move without a solution. There has been a changing discussion about moving to West Amwell, parking cars in town, but no solid plan.
Ringer: The police station is basically a sound structure, but it has one issue that can be corrected. The building was constructed adjacent to Alexauken Creek on fill material. As a result, the floor slab is settling unevenly. When I worked with the Corps of Engineers, I addressed a similar condition at a New Jersey National Guard Armory, and know what needs to be done.
Prior to the current administration the City had a solution for affordable housing that had been accepted by the Council On Affordable Housing. There were issues with the condemnation of the old High School site which has been resolved. There are also ongoing issues which can be resolved by working with the owner fairly and honestly to resolve the problems.
Asaro/ Urbish: We support the city’s new affordable housing settlement agreement, which includes relocating the police station. The future location of the police station will be determined through community-driven conversations, learning from and listening to the soon-to-be launched Community Advisory Team.
To be clear: this does not mean the city is committed to a consolidated municipal complex. We believe this agreement is the best option for both meeting our affordable obligations (after several other options were no longer viable for numerous reasons) AND for creating appropriate new ratables for the city to help ease the burden on taxpayers as the budget deficit looms.
Do you think this election is a referendum on Mayor Fahl’s work, or do you see it as something else altogether or more than one singular issue?
Ringer: The mayor’s proposal for consolidating government functions into an oversize modern building that is out of character with Lambertville has galvanized public opposition. I am running for council in order to do my best to see that this building never gets built.
Asaro/ Urbish: We are independent individuals who make informed decisions based on facts and information from the city’s professionals, on public feedback, and on their own expertise. It’s clear at our city council meetings that we have our own opinions, and that diversity of opinion is what allows the council to continue to make inroads with tough issues. This election should be about getting the city’s finances on the right track and correcting the mistakes of the past to keep Lambertville affordable and ensure it continues to be a great place to live, work, and build a business.
Stegman/ Lambert: We believe this election is about our residents and wanting to be heard in a meaningful way. All of our residents have their individual voices. We embrace all aspects of our history, and look forward to a united future. Given these uncertain times, we believe it is important to bring a responsive ear to government and engage in a dialogue that meets our neighbors needs and concerns. We think this election is a referendum on listening and being heard.
Mayor Fahl has brought up the city’s debt quite a bit even before becoming mayor. Both candidate Stegman and Council President Asaro have been on council for many years. Did either of you have past concerns over the debt, and how did you handle these concerns?
Asaro: That is true, both former Council President Stegman and I sat on the council during the last administration. I was on the council for 10 years, Mr. Stegman for 17. As you would expect, I leaned heavily into the mayor, council president, city CFO, bond attorney and auditors for financial guidance. Red flags were not raised. The former administration kept information too close to the vest, was not transparent, and didn’t like to be challenged. As we now know, collectively they didn’t possess the financial savvy that was necessary to keep the city out of long-term debt. We now know we should have 5-8% debt, but yet we have almost 30%. We also now know that our city’s tax base should cover 60%+ of the overall budget, but ours is down in the 40% range, leaving us vulnerable in times such as this. When the rubber hit the road and the new mayor opened up the financial problems our city is facing, I stuck around. Mr. Stegman quit.
Stegman: I always had concerns about the debt service and that it should addressed. The last budget I participated in left the city with money in the debt service account and in surplus to address this. I am not sure what the current administration did, but it was provided for. I can only guess that increased hiring and spending we have seen lately dismantled this plan. When I was on council, each annual audit would provide a clear picture of the city’s financial position and provide a full rundown on our finances. They are posted on the city’s website. At the end of 2018 the reserve for debt service was $1,377,203. The surplus was $892,400. Both were passed to the new administration. The city’s bond rating was upgraded to AA by S&P and was reaffirmed in 2018. Even New Jersey’s Governor Murphy values bond ratings as a precursor of a healthy budget.
Since covid-19 has hit most local businesses extremely hard, how would you feel about creating a BID (Business Improvement District) in Lambertville? Flemington and Somerville have these and this would involve a paid professional to devote themself to the economic development of the business area. Some people have written that it’s more than what a volunteer chamber of commerce could do. Do you agree or disagree?
Stegman/ Lambert: A BID has been successful in many municipalities through New Jersey, however the mechanism used to fund a BID adds additional taxes on commercial buildings located in the improvement district. At this time of so much uncertainty the last thing that we would propose is a further increase of taxes to any property in the city. No new spending and no increases. However, we believe the city should apply to be designated as a member of Main Street NJ. The Main Street New Jersey program is a place-based economic development effort targeting New Jersey’s historic commercial districts. It offers free technical support and would help us set up a program to promote the business district. Designation would also qualify us for state grants.
Ringer: The Lambertville Area Chamber of Commerce recognized in January of 2016 that promoting the area as a destination included New Hope and Stockton and changed its name to the Delaware River Towns Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. Under its capable leadership it is doing an effective job supporting area businesses. Change is not needed.
Asaro/ Urbish: This is actually an issue that Maddy and Beth have been researching and believe it is an option Lambertville should consider. A BID or community improvement corporation (CIC) can provide support for businesses such as financing, grants, technical support, and more. Any type of effort to create a BID or CIC should be done with significant community and business engagement to ensure it best meets the needs of Lambertville.
According to the Star Tribune, 92% of Minneapolis’s police officers do not live within city limits. Some have written it is better for a community to be policed by neighbors, while critics have pointed to this hurting recruitment. Considering current events and with all of the local discussion surrounding affordable and moderately-priced residential units being built, should Lambertville police (or other positions) be subject to residency requirements?
Ringer: While living in the community that one serves as a police officer is ideal, more important is community policing, being a part of the community while on duty. We have Officers here in Lambertville that know and are known by the folks that they serve. Other public officials whose jobs impact the residents should live in the city.
Asaro/ Urbish: Lambertville is blessed that many of its public servants in the police department, city hall, and public works department are residents. Additionally, this city is what it is because of the dedicated volunteers from the community that contribute their time, talents, and passion. That being said, making residency a strict requirement, whether for police officers or other municipal employees, limits the city’s ability to encourage competitive hiring practices that allow for bringing the greatest talent to serve our community – we are seeing this in other cities across the state, like Trenton. Thankfully for us, the greatest talent is often found right here in Lambertville!
Stegman/ Lambert: First off, we are thankful for the work our officers and first responders do everyday to give our residents and business owners the invaluable peace of mind they need and deserve. We do not believe there should be a residency requirement for the police, or any of our first responders as Lambertville simply does not have the population size to support that. Finally, as a community we embrace that “hate has no home here,” and affordable housing is a welcome asset to our town.
A Democratic Primary Sample Ballot can be found here. Candidates might expand upon their responses to these questions on their Facebook campaign pages.
For the full, unedited, list of questions and in order of how they were asked to candidates, please follow this link.