Many of the staple issues of local elections in other towns - crime, zoning, even potholes - are largely absent in Cherry Hill.
As the eight council candidates crisscross the township to knock on doors and drum up support, they are increasingly asked about just one item: rising property taxes.
The township's proposed budget for 2010 totals $63.3 million, a 27 percent increase from five years ago. The township tax on a $140,000 home would rise from $814 to $1,150 a year. The total tax bill on such a home would be $8,100, which includes county, school, and fire district taxes.
The tax hikes have come as state funding to municipalities has decreased and as the recession has taken a significant toll on Cherry Hill revenue, according to Township Controller Debbie Campbell.
The four Republicans, who are trying to break their party's 15-year absence from the Township Council, characterize the budget figure as the result of runaway spending. For the Democrats, it's a budget that reflects the rising costs of doing business and residents' expectations of top-notch facilities and services.
"We're proposing 10 percent cuts across the board," said Republican candidate Phil Guerrieri, the owner of an engineering firm who unsuccessfully ran for mayor four years ago. "There's so much waste in this town, which is what happens when you have one-party rule."
According to Campbell, the budget increase came through a series of spending increases: a state-mandated hike in municipal contributions to employee pensions; the annual debt paydown, now $13.5 million, from big capital projects, including the new town library and athletic fields; higher costs for trash collection and employee health insurance; and a recent contract negotiation with the police union that increased employee costs from $11.8 million to $14 million a year.
Over the same five years, traditional cash cows like building-permit and sewer-hookup fees dropped off, a development Campbell attributed largely to the recession. State aid, which peaked at $12.6 million a year in 2006, is projected at $11 million for 2010.
"There's always room for improvement, but the town is operating very leanly," said Democratic Councilman David Fleisher, the lone incumbent running. "If you look at things like Croft Farm [a township recreation area], which people really enjoy, debt service is the cumulative impact of these sorts of projects."
Running on the Democratic ticket are Susan Shin Angulo, a community activist who lives in the Charleston Riding section; firefighter Jim Bannar and teacher Jacquelene Silver, both from Erlton South; and Fleisher, a financial-services executive who lives in Siena.
On the Republican side are Nancy O'Dowd, a nurse, and Susan Badaracco, a community planner, both of the Barclay area; Dan Loveland, an engineer who lives in Locustwood; and Guerrieri, of Erlton South.
In Cherry Hill, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1, according to the Camden County clerk. But the majority of the township's almost 50,000 registered voters are not affiliated with any political party - though, like most independent voters in New Jersey, they tend to vote for Democrats.
Since 2006, the council has cut 26 staff positions; township ranks now number 325 employees, according to Campbell. Mayor Bernie Platt has announced plans for a 4 percent decrease in township property taxes for next year.
While the Democratic candidates say they are considering further cost cuts, they also say they believe Cherry Hill residents expect a higher quality of life and are willing to pay for it.
"During the door knocking, the question of taxes has come up," said Bannar. "But the strength of this town is its neighborhoods, and we're going to maintain that quality of life."
In Cherry Hill, the median family income for 2007 was estimated at $83,143, more than $30,000 above the national average, according to U.S. census data.
Cherry Hill is not the only municipality spending more, said Bill Dressel, president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. With insurance costs increasing and a number of new state regulations in such areas as employee pension and salary negotiations, he said, municipalities have little choice but to raise taxes.
"These are state-imposed costs, not costs the towns have a whole lot of wiggle room on," Dressel said. "People say you have too many employees, but with the unions you can't do anything about it."
Cherry Hill's increased spending is in line with other New Jersey municipalities. From 2005 to 2008, the last year for which data are available, municipal spending increased 15 percent statewide, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. During the same period, Cherry Hill's spending increased 14 percent, according to township budget data.
Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers' Association, attributed the spending increases to poor management by elected officials at all levels of government.
"I call it the cancerous culture of deception. Everyone is looking for someone else to blame," he said. "No one questions anything. Go to a council meeting. People are just sitting there, and they don't understand what their role is."
Guerrieri and his running mates say they can bring the budget down. Their plan for savings include cutting administrative staff in the short term and, in the long term, taking a harder line in negotiations with employees and town vendors.
"Look at the cost of living, and look at the wage increases," Guerrieri said. "Do we just roll over and say, 'Take what you want'? We're not talking about cutting police, but how about we negotiate real contracts?"
But for Fleisher, the township needs to look beyond simple staff cuts and salary reductions and consider consolidating services with other towns. He said officials also should implement more sustainability initiatives, such as recycling and reducing energy use, programs that are under way and expected to provide long-term savings.
"What we do needs to be reflective of the true priorities of the town," he said. "It's not just about cutting. You have to look to opportunities to see that you grow in the right way, too."
Voter turnout in Cherry Hill is likely to be high Nov. 3, with what has become a closely contested governor's race.
In 2005, when Gov. Corzine was elected, 51 percent of Cherry Hill's registered voters went to the polls - compared with 33 percent for the mayoral election in 2007, when there were no highly publicized state or federal races, according to the county clerk.