West Deptford’s mounting debt weighed heavily Tuesday night in the debate between five candidates vying for two township committee seats.
Nearly every question posed to the candidates related to the township’s current $133 million debt.
And each candidate had an answer for plugging the gaping hole in the township’s budget.
They also agreed the time for excuses is over.
"The state of New Jersey did not tell us to accumulate that much debt, nor is that debt exclusive to the high cost of living," said candidate Ray Chintall, who is running on the GOP slate with Sam Cianfarini.
An unexpectedly large crowd of about 400 people packed the auditorium for the debate, which was moderated by John Barna, editor of the Gloucester County Times. West Deptford Patch Editor Bryan Littel and Gina Bittner, a reporter for the Times, served as panelists.
About a quarter of the township's current debt is tied to , a sprawling public recreation complex, which each of the candidates agreed is an important part of the township's identity.
"RiverWinds is a great complex," said Len Daws, a Democrat and the township's deputy mayor. "I don't have any regret proceeding with the project. What we've been really struggling with is the revenue side."
Chintall and Cinafarini have proposed creating a board of directors, that reports to the township, to oversee RiverWinds' operations.
Democratic candidate Hunter Kintzing said RiverWinds is "a downtown for a township that otherwise does not have a downtown. It's something that distinguishes your home from a home in another municipality. We need to look beyond that community center we see when we drive down RiverWinds Drive" and find ways to attract commercial developers to build within the complex.
Kintzing is running with Denice DiCarlo on the Democratic ticket.
The five candidates are seeking two seats on the township committee. Daws is running to retain his seat, and the second seat is now held by Hugh Garrison, who is not seeking reelection.
Democrats hold four of the five seats on the township committee. One additional seat will be up for grabs next year.
Earlier this year, Daws with local Democrats after the party endorsed Kintzing and DiCarlo instead of him.
Cinafarini, who along with Chintall founded the watchdog website wdtruth.org, said a long reign of one-party rule has left township government lacking in transparency.
"For more than 20 years, our township has not had a balanced, opposing point of view," he said. "Our elected officials, employees and vendors are made subservient to the party machine. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our community, we are the rightful owners of West Deptford. We need to take back this community and give it back to its rightful owners, and that is you."
The candidates said they each are following closely a filed by Sunoco, owner of the shuttered Eagle Point Refinery. (Coastal, the former owner of the refinery, has also filed a tax appeal on the property. In both cases, the companies are seeking tax reductions dating back to the late 1980s, according to Daws.)
The assessed value for the 978-acre Eagle Point complex, prior to a revaluation by Gloucester County, was $92,615,500, which produced a property tax bill of about $3.83 million in 2009. Sunoco also owns a number of vacant lots that buffer the refinery, which added up to another $85,971 in property taxes in 2009.
Daws said he expects the appeals to be resolved early next year and warned that the township could lose millions of dollars if the companies' appeals are successful.
"It is the issue, ladies and gentlemen," he said.
DiCarlo and Kintzing said the township needs to do more to speed the re-use or redevelopment of the riverfront property.
Responding to a question from Littel about attracting business to the township, DiCarlo said West Deptford has about 2.3 million square feet of developable industrial space, and needs to come up with a specific plan to take advantage of that.
Daws said he's hopeful that LS Power's to build a 620-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant in the township will come to fruition next year, with the company potentially breaking group early in 2012. That power plant would bring $107 million in revenue as part of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program.
Another topic of concern among the candidates – and the public – was the bankrupt apartment complex at RiverWinds.
When Barna read a question about Rivercove submitted by a member of the public, the audience groaned knowingly.
Daws said he's opposes a to lift the over-55 age restriction at Rivercove because the complex is not set up to accommodate families with children.
He also said that through receivership, the township will collect a combined $740,000 in payments in lieu of taxes by next year from Rivercove.
Following the debate, Joan Ravenna, a township resident for 40 years, said she's unhappy with one-party rule.
"You need a breath of fresh air, and you need to know what's going on," she said of her reasons for attending the debate.
Despite her political leanings, "I think all five of them represented themselves well" during the debate, Ravenna said.
Bob Hunsberger, a 21-year township resident, said he took something important away from Tuesday night's event.
"I'm much better informed than I was before the debate," he said.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the current political makeup of the township committee.