Democrat Jason J. Varano Seeking a Fourth Term as Mayor
Republican Township Councilman Carmen F. Amato Jr. is challenging Varano for the four-year term.
Jason J. Varano cut his political teeth earlier than most. He was just 26 when he was appointed mayor, following the sudden death of former Democratic Mayor Bill Zimmerman Jr. in 1998.
The young man that some thought would be the easiest of the three replacement candidates to control during Zimmerman's unexpired term went on to win three full terms as mayor.
Varano, now 39, is seeking his fourth full term. He is being challenged by Township Council Vice President Carmen F. Amato Jr., who is in the middle of his second term on the Township Council.
"My number one goal is to keep the community together," Varano said. "We have one town with many different areas."
It's a complex undertaking. Berkeley's 42 square miles include the oceanfront and bayfront in South Seaside Park, Pelican Island, all the waterfront communities in Bayville, Pinewald, 11 senior communities in the western section of the township and Manitou Park.
The township has lost $1.8 million in state aid over the past five years, including $1.3 million in 2010. But Varano says his administration has continued to maintain Berkeley's road infrastructure through a disciplined paving program and added more parks in a number of areas in the township.
Preserving open space, staving off development
Berkeley also has been able to ward off a number of proposed developments during his administration, with the help of the Trust for Public Land, state Green Acres funds and the Ocean County Open Space fund, Varano said.
"I consider myself an environmental-friendly mayor," he said. "Over 3,500 acres of land has been preserved."
Some of the developments that thwarted by the Planning Board and township administration included Lifetime Homes' proposed 1,600 homes across from the H&M Potter School on Veeder Lane; Toll Brothers 150-home development on Eugene Furey Boulevard; and Hovnanian's massive plan back in 2000 to construct thousands of homes west of the Ocean County Utilities Authority and north of Northern Boulevard. Hovananian filed a Mount Laurel lawsuit against the township and the township won.
"That was a big win," Varano said. "It (the proposed development) would have been devastating."
Town Center and Route 9 Redevelopment
The dilapidated Beachwood Shopping Center on Route 9 has long been an eyesore in the township. Critics don't understand the process involved in redeveloping a site with environmental issues and the lengthy wait for state approvals, Varano said.
"One of my eventual goals is the revitalization of Route 9," the mayor said.
Once the state endorses the township's redevelopment plan, developer Donato Donofrio and the current owners can begin to negotiate who will pay for what portion of mitigation costs associated with cleaning up the site. Donofrio has not yet signed a contract until the scope of the cleanup costs and the mitigation responsibility can be determined, Varano said.
Berkeley officials are hopeful that the state Planning Commission will finally endorse the entire Route 9 redevelopment plan at a meeting in two months. Once that happens, the township will be able to attract more business and much-needed ratables, Varano said.
The endorsement of two of the areas - the Beachwood Shopping Center and the ShopRite mall - would allow the owners to develop 70 percent of the space instead of the current 30 percent, both Varano and Roberts have said.
The redevelopment plan includes several areas along the Route 9 corridor in Bayville. The phrase Town Center refers to the Beachwood Shopping Center section of the township's redevelopment plan.
The controversial revaluation resulted in assessments that skyrocketed along the oceanfront and waterfront communities, while assessments in some mainland areas of town and senior communities dropped.
The revaluation was the township's first in 20 years. Varano was hammered by members of the Berkeley Township Taxpayers Coalition at Township Council meetings for months.
"I didn't order the revaluation," Varano said. "The county tax board orders it because your numbers are off."
The majority of the assessments were "right on," the mayor said.
Varano criticized the GOP-controlled Township Council earlier this year for hiring an outside auditor to review the results of the revaluation and hiring a special attorney to determine if the contract with Certified Valuations Inc. had been followed correctly.
Richard J. Carabelli, president of Martin Appraisal Associates, concluded that Certified had done the bulk of the assessments correctly. But his report also recommended that township Tax Assessor Eric Zanetti take a closer look at assessments in some areas of town and development an assessment maintenance plan.
Municipalities throughout the state were prohibited from doing periodic maintenance assessments from 2001 to 2009. State law has since been amended to permit maintenance assessments. Varano urges any homeowner who feels they have an incorrect assessment to file a tax appeal.
Taxes, ratables and spending
Amato and his running mates say that the amount to be raised by taxation in the municipal budget has increased 146 percent during the years Varano has been mayor.
But Varano and township Chief Financial Officer Frederick C. Ebenau say Berkeley's municipal tax rate is one of the lowest in Ocean County.
"The amount to be raised by taxation has not been increased in three years," Varano said. "I think I've done a good job on holding the line on spending."
Berkeley residents still have municipal garbage pickup, unlike other large municipalities like Jackson and Manchester townships, where residents have to pay for private garbage collection, he said.
A number of municipal positions have been eliminated through attrition, although the township recently hired three police officers. Berkeley currently has 66 officers on the force. Several years ago that number stood at 74.
Varano's administration reluctantly cut twice a week garbage pickup in all areas except South Seaside Park. The move saved $200,000, he said.
Bulk pickup was cut from once a month to four times a year
Varano says Amato has to abstain on some votes, like the Ocean County Utilities Authority, where he is a commissioner, the Berkeley Board of Education, because his wife is employed there and Ocean County, where he is director of the county's Printing and Graphics department.
"He's conflicted out," the mayor said.
Varano also questions how Amato's wife received a part-time job with the Berkeley Board of Education this year at a time when teachers were being laid off and programs cut.
Although Amato has said his wife's job is a Civil Service position, Varano says the job was "newly-created" for her.
"Shame on you," he said. "It was a newly-created position. She's also being paid at a higher pay scale. We pointed out the facts."
Varano was previously employed as a director of local government services for the state Department of Environmental Protection. He lost that job soon after Republican Gov. Chris Christie took office last year. He said he is currently interviewing for jobs and expects to have one soon. He graduated with honors from Rutgers University with a degree in political science. He lives on Hannah Place with his wife and two young daughters.
Berkeley Patch will profile Republican mayoral candidate Carmen F. Amato Jr. on Friday.