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Somerset County Freeholder Patricia Walsh and Democratic Challenger Melonie Marano Square Off

From left: County Freeholder Incumbent Patricia Walsh (R); League of Women Voters’ Moderator Sandy Matsen; and Freeholder Candidate Melonie Marano (D) at the only candidate’s forum scheduled for this election.

Will the Somerset County Balance of Power Swing to the Democrat? You Decide.

Montgomery and Rocky Hill voters will play a key role in deciding who will call the shots in Somerset County.

Two candidates are running for one three-year term on the Somerset County Board of Freeholders. County services include: higher education, road and bridge maintenance, curbside recycling, parks and recreation, employment training, social services, and recording of deeds and wills

Republican Somerset County Freeholder Patricia L. Walsh and Democratic challenger Melonie Marano — pitted in a contest that will determine which party controls county government — squared off on Sept.16 in the only scheduled public forum. Inside the Somerville High School auditorium, the women sat behind a table on a stage answering submitted questions from the audience and from the League of Women Voters Greater New Brunswick Area chapter, the sponsor of the forum.

They also got to ask each other one question, with Marano wanting to know whether Walsh would support her party’s candidate — President Donald Trump — in 2020.

“I thought we were here to talk about Somerset County,” Walsh said to applause from some in the audience. “I cannot do anything about what happens in Washington. I don’t have that power.”

She later said she did not know whether she would support Trump, who lost Somerset County and NJ as a whole in 2016 when he won the White House.

When it was Walsh’s turn, she turned to the immigration debate. She asked whether Marano supported Gov. Phil Murphy in making NJ a sanctuary state, where local law enforcement limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

As part of her question, Walsh noted Murphy has spoken of wanting NJ to become the California of the east.

“I would love to be the California of the east because last I checked, their economy was booming,” Marano said, adding she wanted to bring tech jobs back to NJ. “We follow the laws in this county. We follow the laws in this state. And what the laws are, we follow them. I respect people who are living here, Pat. I respect the jobs they do and I respect the work that they do.”

Walsh and Marano, both former mayors of Green Brook Township, faced off in a race for freeholder in 2007, with Walsh winning. This time, the stakes are higher.

Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the Freeholder Board, but Democrats in Somerset have been on the ascendency in recent years and lead the GOP in registered voters.

Out of 240,719 registered voters in Somerset, there are 79,817 Democrats, 62,453 Republicans and 96,244 unaffiliated voters, according to data at the state Division of Elections. The rest belong to other parties.

Last year, Democrats broke the all-Republican grip on the board and look to win control this year if Marano can beat Walsh, a freeholder since 2008.

In her remarks, Walsh said the quality of life county residents enjoy “did not happen by chance.” She credited Republican leaders for accomplishing it, and said Somerset has one of the lowest county tax rates in NJ.

“I’m running for re-election to continue the Republican-led board of chosen freeholders’ legacy of good government, to protect and preserve more acres of open space, to maintain our first-class services to our seniors and, above all, the county’s reputation of running a fiscally conservative government to keep Somerset County affordable for all residents,” she said. “Under the leadership of Republicans, Somerset has become the model county for the entire nation.”

She said the freeholder board had set a goal of preserving 20,000 acres and, so far, has reached 15,000 of that total. She said the county planning board is considering raising that target goal to 25,000 acres.

By contrast, Marano, a vice president for business development at her company, said Somerset can “do better.” As a freeholder, she said she would focus on the economy, the environment, and education.

“With my background in public service and business, we have the energy and the passion to do better in this county,” she said.

She expressed concern about businesses exiting the region, citing Johnson & Johnson’s recent announcement to close its Bridgewater facility to consolidate its Raritan offices in 2020.

“Our businesses are leaving,” Marano said, adding that when tax revenue does not come in from businesses, it’s left to residents to pick up the difference.

“Affordability is key in Somerset County, and we need to figure out ways to keep businesses here, to have them expand, and to have new businesses come here,” she said.

Candidates debated taxes, and mentioned the “stormwater utility,” a new state law gives towns and counties the ability to create stormwater utilities to charge commercial property owners fees for managing stormwater runoff from properties they have developed, while opponents pan it as more taxation.

Marano said: “It is a vehicle to protect our water quality and our water safety.”

Walsh called the concept “just another tax from Trenton.”

In terms of spending priorities, Marano called for supporting nonprofits that help battle drug addiction and for increasing funding to Raritan Valley Community College.

She said college tuition “is going up” and “kids can’t afford it. They’re taking time off from school so they can work extra so they can buy their books for the next semester.”

In response, Walsh said officials had increased the budget at the college by more than $1 million in the past two years.

Both women found an area of agreement. They said they opposed the proposed Transco natural gas pipeline, a project that calls for putting a compressor station in Somerset County, in Franklin Township. ■

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