By Benny Sun
Running for re-election, incumbent Mayor James Baldassare is a Republican candidate for the Bernards Township Committee. His main stances include making Bernards Township debt-free, eliminating overdevelopment, and improving transparency. To better understand Mayor Baldassare as a candidate, here is more information about his beliefs, background, and insights.
Q: How did you get your start in politics? What is your background?
I got involved in politics because I enjoy helping people, finding solutions to problems and want to make our community a better place to live. I was elected to the Bernards Township Committee in 2017. I am Bernards Townships’ current Mayor and I am seeking another three-year term on the Township Committee. I have over thirty years of experience in the contract surety industry from both surety company and agency perspectives.
I am a United States Marine Corps veteran and graduated first in my class from Parris Island. I attended Northeastern University studying economics and participated in the 2015 Somerset Leadership Program. I am also a licensed New Jersey Property and Casualty Agent- Broker. Both my wife Tracy, who serves as a Bernards Township Police Officer, and I are lifelong residents of Bernards Township, and Ridge High School graduates. We have six children all of whom have attended or currently attend township schools and one grandchild.
Q: What are the main local-level issues facing young people that you plan on fixing?
Managing overdevelopment is a challenge being faced all across New Jersey and Bernards Township is not immune from that challenge. We enjoy great schools, outstanding parks, wonderful open space and many other enviable public facilities which enhance the high quality of life that Bernards Township is well-known for. Overdevelopment has the potential to seriously affect our quality of life and have serious adverse financial impacts in addition to adverse impacts on our schools, traffic, and emergency services.
As noted in the October 29th 2019 Affordable Housing Taskforce report, the majority of Bernards Townships’ current residential development is being driven by court-mandated affordable housing obligations. Under the Affordable Housing Law and associated mandated obligations, municipal zoning laws are preempted and municipalities are forced to comply. In our view the courts should not be deciding how local zoning works.
We can only make progress on the challenges of overdevelopment and finding solutions for meeting future affordable housing mandates if we work together in a collaborative manner. I am fortunate that my running mate, Kate Grochala, is an attorney knowledgeable about the Affordable Housing Legislation. We urge all voters to review the Affordable Housing Taskforce report which is available on our Bernards Township website. The Taskforce report includes information on how to contact the appropriate New Jersey State Officials and elected representatives. This is especially important during this critical election year.
Q: A major part of your campaign has been remaining financially responsible. What is an example of wasteful town spending that would go away under your candidacy?
Kate and I are fiscal conservatives and we will work hard to control taxes and keep Bernards Township 100% debt free. Avoiding debt is one of the ways Bernards Township controls taxes. We enjoy outstanding parks, open space and other public facilities. These are some of the things that affect the high quality of life that Bernards is well known for and which we will continue to support. Working with Bernards Township staff, we will continue to make prudent improvements and investments in our infrastructure and protect our open spaces. We do not believe that BT engages in “wasteful” spending. We believe it would be “wasteful” to enter into debt.
When municipalities borrow, they are robbing the future for the present. Every taxpayer dollar spent on interest is a dollar squandered, a dollar that could be spent on something else, a dollar that you could be spending on your family and your future. Through good Republican leadership, Bernards Township has avoided debt. Looking ahead to the future, “paying as you go”, carrying no debt, keeping adequate reserves on hand, maintaining accurate and current tax base valuations, exploring shared services with other municipalities, sound long term planning, and vision are the keys to good governance including managing the effects of unforeseen events such as the COVID-19. This is the approach BT has taken through solid Republican leadership and should continue to follow.
Q: Voter engagement has been a crucial part of your election. How will you continue to get residents in Bernards Township involved in committee affairs?
One of the many great things about Bernards is the high level of engagement by many of our citizens. Their service is a testament to their commitment to the community and its improvement. For example, volunteers have undertaken many laudable and successful initiatives to help our community, including our senior citizens and businesses, cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are numerous ways for residents to initiate, sponsor, or otherwise support a variety of community service-related activities. We will continue to encourage all residents to become engaged and we will support opportunities for engagement. Similarly, we will continue to recognize those who have dedicated their time and resources as volunteers to make our town the great place that it is. Our campaign website recognizes that voter engagement is a crucial part of what makes Bernards Township such a desirable place in which to live.
It is interesting to note that community engagement and transparency go hand in hand. We believe that openness, accountability and honesty coupled with community engagement define transparency in government. Therefore, we will encourage our residents to follow the issues, attend public meetings, and become engaged. We will listen to our residents and their concerns with an open mind, encourage honest and candid discussion and respond to questions, to the best of our ability. In particular, we will ensure that proposed municipal budgets are published well in advance with ample opportunity for review and discussion by the public prior to any approval.
Q: As the only incumbent in this election, what is your most proud accomplishment over your career as the mayor of Bernards Township? What is your biggest regret?
During the pandemic, I worked hard to keep everyone apprised of the situation and evolving events surrounding COVID-19. My letters to the Township residents have been well received and intended to both provide residents with information but also to be a reassuring voice in an uncertain time. I am also very proud of the work that our health department has done in providing vital information to the public regularly. In addition, because the Township’s finances are in such a strong position, we have been able to weather this storm without having to curtail essential municipal services. I have done my very best in everything I undertake on behalf of Bernards Township and have no regrets.
Q: How will you balance the safety of Bernards Township residents during the COVID-19 pandemic while also ensuring that our economy keeps chugging along?
The health, safety and welfare of all residents is of course our primary concern as elected representatives. The Township has strictly complied with all of the Governor’s mandates concerning COVID-19 and has encouraged all residents to likewise comply. However, during the pandemic, the Township took judicious actions to ease certain restrictions on business while still maintaining high standards for the health, safety and welfare of the public. We continue to actively look for ways to help our businesses and residents during these challenging times.
Q: What are some ways we can get Ridge High School students to get more involved in local politics?
The best way to be productively involved is to be informed. I would encourage everyone including high school students to follow the issues, understand what the municipal governments role is and be aware of what is happening in the community. One of the best ways to do this is to attend the Bernards Township Municipal meetings where the Township’s business is discussed and various issues addressed twice monthly, usually on the second and fourth Tuesday. It is best to attend in person but all meetings are also televised and recorded for future viewing. In addition, there is a great deal of information on the Bernards Township website including opportunities for volunteering.