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Fierce Democratic primary in Willingboro

A fierce primary election battle is wrapping up among the five Democrats competing for two seats on the Willingboro Township Council.

A fierce primary election battle is wrapping up among the five Democrats competing for two seats on the Willingboro Township Council.

Burlington County party leaders have taken the unusual step of backing challengers Nathaniel Anderson and Ken Gordon over Councilmen Paul Stephenson and Jim Gray. The fifth candidate is Dennis Tunstall.

In a town with the county's largest pool of Democratic voters, the GOP is fielding no candidates for the general election, meaning voters will effectively pick their new council members on Tuesday.

At stake are how decisions will be made over the next few years on Willingboro's problems: high taxes, foreclosures, and a growing presence of gangs and crime.

Gray said he and his running mate had worked to improve roads, revitalize the Route 130 corridor, and delay or stop foreclosures through outreach programs and seminars.

"We want to make Willingboro the best town it can possibly be and help it regain the luster and pride it had over the years," said Gray, a retiree who stepped down as the township's longtime special events coordinator after being appointed in March to fill the seat of a departing councilman.

And the township has given all it can to the police department to enable it to stem gang activity, including putting special officers in schools, Gray added.

Anderson and Gordon also cite a desire to restore pride in Willingboro, but they think the current leadership has not done enough to take residents' input into account.

People come to the microphone with suggestions at council meetings, "but at the end of the day, to me, it's my feeling and my understanding that they're not really being heard," said Anderson, who works for a security services company. "Any solutions to rectify the problem are not coming from the people in the community that it affects - it's pretty much coming from council."

Anderson voiced dismay at how financial problems led Willingboro to cut holiday parades and the jazz festival, and pledged to review the budget line by line to cut wasteful spending. He also vowed to strengthen neighborhood-watch programs and work to bring more businesses to Willingboro.

He and Gordon say that if elected, they will approve halving the $14,000 council salaries and accept none of the health benefits they are entitled to under the part-time positions.

Gordon, who until recently was president of the Willingboro school board, said Willingboro has the highest tax rate in the county and addressing that problem "is the primary thing."

The root of the town's foreclosure trouble, he said, is high taxes.

The council this year adopted a budget that hikes the local purpose tax by 14 cents, which amounts to a 5 percent increase, according to data provided by the acting finance director, Barbara Lightfoot.

Gordon presided over tax hikes on the school board - school spending forms the biggest chunk of the overall property tax - but explained that his responsibility in the position was to ensure a quality education for students, rather than to cut taxes.

He also wants the town to develop a long-term vision.

"We've got to stop being myopic," he said. "We have to start looking with strategic vision into the future and decide where exactly it is that the town wants to go, and where we want to be."

Tunstall could not be reached for comment, but has told the Burlington County Times that he wants to bring in more tax ratables through economic development, offer more programs for seniors and children, and open up communication with residents.

The race has been particularly bitter, with the incumbents and Mayor Jacqueline Jennings claiming the county party is backing challengers who will try to get favored professional firms jobs with the township.

"Gordon and Anderson were foisted on local Democrats to do the bidding of county bureaucrats and party bosses - not the bidding of Willingboro's families," reads one campaign mailer.

The challengers, along with Jeff Meyer, treasurer of the county's Democratic committee, counter that the charges are false. Anderson, the vice president of the township Democratic club, said he was initially interested in being appointed to the position that opened up after Councilman Jeff Ramsey took another job. But Willingboro Democrats told him the seat was owed to Gray, and to wait his turn, he said.

So he called the county party to talk about his concerns about wasteful spending and patronage in Willingboro, he said, and the leaders eventually decided to back him and Gordon.

"The fresh, young candidates that came forward provided us with a real choice. . . . We believe Willingboro needs change," said Meyer.

But the mayor and others find the move particularly galling.

Said Jennings: "Willingboro has more Democratic votes than any municipality in Burlington County, so that's like a slap in the face to us."