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    Sussex commissioner candidates debate school aid, COVID relief, bad cell service at forum

    By Bruce A Scruton, Newton New Jersey Herald,


    SPARTA — Lowering taxes, increasing cooperation between the county's college and technical school and eliminating "dead spots" in internet and cell coverage in Sussex County were among the topics Thursday discussed during a forum of candidates seeking the Republican line in November's election for county commissioner .

    The event at the Sussex County Technical School featured incumbents Chris Carney and Earl Schick as well as would-be challengers Alan Henderson, Robert Kovic and Harvey Roseff. The forum was hosted and run by the Sparta Independent newspaper.

    The top two vote-getters in the June 4 primary will run in the fall for two, three-year terms as commissioner, in a county that heavily favors Republicans. A Democrat hasn't won a seat on the five-member board in a quarter-century.

    Carney is seeking a second full three-year term on the board while Schick was selected in a January GOP convention to fill the unexpired term of Dawn Fantasia, who was elected to the state Assembly.

    Roseff is a member of the Byram Town Council while Henderson is on the township committee in Lafayette, where he serves as mayor. Kovic, a Sparta resident is a former elected town official and former executive director of the Sussex County Republican Party.

    Roseff and Kovic are running as a team as are Carney and Henderson.

    The primary will also select two Democrat ic candidates. Although nobody has filed to run in the Democratic primary, a candidate or two could emerge from write-ins.

    Thursday's forum gave the candidates a chance to present their platforms and answer written questions from the approximately 50 people who attended, but there was little debate among the five.

    Fixing cell, internet service in Sussex County

    All agreed that the county needs to step up efforts to bring internet coverage to all of Sussex County and stressed the importance of full cell phone coverage.

    Henderson, a retired Hardyston police officer, said cell service is almost non-existent in some parts of his town. "Imagine there not being service at the school," he said. "It's not enough to recognize the problem, we must all work together to solve that."

    Henderson said that the county's geography of mountains and valleys is an impediment to full cell phone coverage, but noted emergency services radio coverage has been improved by putting in more "repeaters" which direct transmissions into valleys.

    Roseff noted how he, as a member of Byram's council, has been able to expand the availability of utilities, including natural gas, in his town, located in the southeastern part of the county. Elizabethtown Gas has been working over the past decade on expanding its service northward into Sussex County.

    Friendly fire toward all-GOP board

    Kovic struck out at "incompetency at all levels" of government, criticizing both President Joe Biden and Gov. Phil Murphy − both Democrats − but also the current, all-Republican board of commissioners. "This county needs tax relief, better internet and utilities."

    When Kovic decried how the county is moving on those issues, Carney responded: "If you came to our meetings, you would see what's going on."

    Up until they declared their candidacy, neither Henderson, Kovic nor Roseff had been a presence at commissioner meetings. Until his selection in January, Schick was also seldom at the board meetings, which normally meet the second and fourth Wednesday of the month.

    How county deployed federal COVID relief

    Also discussed was the county's use of grants from the American Rescue Plan Act , the $1.9 trillion relief package passed by Biden and Congress in the depths of the COVID pandemic in 2021.

    Schick, who owns Byram Jewelers and Rare Coins, said the ARPA funds "fortified" many of Sussex County's programs but that, with those funds expiring, the county is seeking more federal and state funds.

    Carney said the county has distributed more than $2 million worth of grants in $15,000 increments to small businesses around the county to help them recover from the pandemic. It's also invested its own grant money in new equipment that will last several years into the future.

    Henderson agreed with that strategy, noting that his town used funds to buy a new fire truck.

    Budget woes at county Tech School questioned

    Perhaps the biggest issue among the candidates was concern about budgets and management at Sussex County Community College and the technical high school, both overseen by the county.

    Sussex Tech last month proposed a budget that would have eliminated three career fields of study, provoking outrage from current students, alumni and parents. The cuts were averted earlier this month after Commissioner Director Jill Space arranged for $100,000 that was earmarked for the college to be shifted to the high school budget.

    On Thursday, the candidates agreed there should be more "shared services" between the two schools, but did not offer specifics. The college offers a culinary arts program, which the technical school and some of the other high schools in the county do as well.

    More: Sussex Commissioners vote 'no confidence' in Tech School leaders over proposed cutbacks

    What they'd do for Sussex farmers

    One audience member asked what the commissioners are doing to help farmers and to keep open space in Sussex County.

    Carney said "our youngest commissioner" − a reference to Jack DeGroot, who is in his mid-20s and comes from a farming family − has made a point in his first year on the board to focus on agricultural issues. The county has also made new hires in planning and is concentrating on its open space programs, Carney said.

    Kovic used the question to note that dairy farming , once a thriving industry in the county, "is gone." He blamed taxes and cost of fuel as major factors.

    Roseff responded, "Well, the farmers I know just want us to get out of their way"

    Schick also noted that the cost of transporting farm products "is through the roof, and so is insurance and utilities."

    Declining aid to school districts

    On education funding, the candidates lamented cuts to state aid for local school districts. "We're not a blue county," said Schick, with fellow Commissioner Carney seconding the explanation. But Roseff noted that a "reduction in student population is leading to reduction in state aid."

    Henderson said there was little county government could do about it and said putting pressure on the governor "is more on the school boards."

    Kovic noted the commissioners can "stay engaged on how to help and assist" in lobbying efforts.

    June 4 primary: When, where and how to vote

    The polls are open on June 4 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. but voters must be enrolled in either the Republican or Democrat party to cast a ballot.

    In the Democratic primary, any write-in candidates must receive at least 100 votes, agree to run and meet other requirements, such as age and residency, to secure a nomination.

    Independent candidates can also be included on the November ballot by filing a petition with the County Clerk's Office by 4 p.m. on June 4. The petition must include at least 100 valid signatures of registered voters.

    That 100 minimum applies for the commissioner's race. In local municipal elections the number varies by the population of the municipality. More details are available on the elections tab at .

    Early voting details

    Early voting begins Wednesday, May 29, and can be done at the Cochran House Building, Level PL, 83 Spring St., Newton; at the Sussex-Wantage Branch Library in Wantage or at the Louise Childs Branch Library in Stanhope.

    Polling hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Sunday.

    Email: Twitter/X: @brucescrutonNJH

    This article originally appeared on New Jersey Herald: Sussex commissioner candidates debate school aid, COVID relief, bad cell service at forum

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