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Medford money woes incite GOP upheaval

The local Republican Party has splintered into two factions for a contentious council primary June 7.

DenisePizoliRead more

Medford is a tight-knit community where traditions die hard.

For many years, taxes stayed flat, fireworks lighted the Fourth of July sky, and the Republican Party ruled without dissent.

Then along came a new fiscal reality.

Like other municipalities with money problems, Medford is wrestling with change, and that has led to political upheaval.

For the first time in 24 years, the local GOP has splintered into factions for a primary for three seats on the five-member Township Council. Six newcomers - divided into two slates - are battling for control of a governing body that came under nonstop fire this year after it proposed a 25 percent tax increase to cure a $5 million deficit.

Two council members, citing busy lives, decided against running again. A third was ousted by her colleagues for violating a residency rule during a divorce.

Democrats, who only rarely hold a seat on the council, are not fielding any candidates in the June 7 race.

"We're not used to this sort of rift," said Dottie Spellman, chair of Medford's Republican Committee for most of the last 22 years.

She blamed the township's money crunch for creating much of the noise: "People have really started getting interested in politics. They are asking questions and want answers."

A budget closing much of the gap is expected to be introduced next month, but whoever wins the election will have to make hard choices to keep spending under control.

Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton said it was time for new faces because the Medford Council had failed to control spending and had not been accountable to taxpayers in the town of 23,000.

Both slates have "excellent candidates," he said, but he endorses Brad Denn, Chuck Watson, and Denise Pizoli, who are running under the banner of Reform Medford Council.

The challengers - James "Randy" Pace, Chris Buoni, and Frank Czekay - counter that "handpicked," endorsed candidates will continue policies that benefit party contributors, not taxpayers. They point out that Denn was Mayor Chris Myers' campaign treasurer when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008. The challengers' slogan is Medford First.

Garfield DeMarco, a retired longtime chairman of the Burlington County Republican Party, who lives in Medford, said challengers had a hard time beating endorsed candidates. But in Medford, he said, he sees a different scenario: an opportunity for an upset because of the public's frustration and impatience with the council.

Council members have been "so inept at administering the municipality and communicating with the citizenry that they have engendered an amazing amount of ill will," he said. "So I think the dissidents are going to gain many, many votes, and I wouldn't be surprised if they win it."

Unlike other races, in which candidates play it safe and deflect questions about what they might do differently if elected, this contest has emerged as a heated debate over how to rein in spending.

In April, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have allowed the council to exceed a state cap on property taxes. On a home assessed at the township average of $200,000, taxes are about $9,000.

After casting their ballots, many voters criticized the council for negotiating a land deal that would have brought 750 high-density homes to a site off Route 70 in return for a $7 million payment from the developer that could have helped balance the budget. Residents feared that a tax abatement promised to the developer could have increased their taxes in the long run.

The deal recently was tabled.

Now the candidates must come up with other ideas to solve the financial crisis.

The endorsed candidates have suggested merging the Police Department with a neighboring town's - an idea once considered political suicide in a state that values home rule.

"Home rule is a very archaic, inefficient system," said Denn, a certified public accountant. His slate would consider merging police, public works, and school services if necessary, he said.

What's also needed is better financial planning, Denn said. He blamed the council for allowing the deficit to grow the last five years: "You had to see this coming. It's a major problem."

The other slate suggests that thousands of dollars could be saved by capping legal fees and reviewing contracts with Parker McCay, a politically connected law firm, which has been accused of double-billing the town.

"People get fed up and have had enough," said Pace, a retired Navy engineer, who regularly attends meetings and pores over township documents.

Parker McCay lawyers have said at meetings that their bills are in order, and Myers has said the allegations are untrue.

Denn said his slate's opponents did not have the "temperament or patience to be on council," based on their behavior at council meetings.

He said Pace threw papers in the air and engaged in "public argument instead of public comment."

Pace chuckled at the criticism. "I don't think there's anything wrong with my temperament," he said. "As long as you're following the rules, I'm the nicest guy in the world."