HAMMONTON — Town Council comprises three Republicans and four members of the independent Hammonton First Party, including Mayor Steve DiDonato. The group of seven works well together and often votes unanimously on issues.

But now that election season is starting in earnest, candidates are emphasizing their differences.

DiDonato is being challenged by Hammonton Board of Education president and Republican candidate Joe Giralo; and Republican council members Anni Carpo, Steve Furgione and Mickey Pullia are being challenged by Hammonton First members and former councilmen Tom Gribbin, Ed Marinelli and Ed Wuillermin.

Giralo said the biggest difference between the Hammonton First and Republican candidates is their approach to budget issues.

DiDonato said the town budget has decreased from $12.2 million to $11.4 million during the eight years that Hammonton First has led local government, but Giralo said some spending has been couched in the water and sewer department budget.

“I disagree with one-time fixes in the budget, and … using water and sewer money to balance the general fund,” Giralo said. The mayor “won’t allow discussion.”

Furgione said his biggest disagreement with DiDonato and the Hammonton First council members — Sam Rodio, Paul Esposito and Dan Bachalis, whose seats are not up for election this year — is over what he calls money taken from the water and sewer fund to balance the town’s budget. Republican members voted against the budget in May, but it passed with the support of all four Hammonton First members.

“Residents have the right to know. It’s their money,” Furgione said. “It really started this year.”

Furgione said that in excess of $400,000 in workers’ compensation insurance fees were charged to six employees of the water and sewer department, “and their salaries combined are only $290,000.”

He also disputes the size of an administrative fee paid to the town by the water and sewer department and the percentages of some town workers’ salaries being charged to the department. With successful water-conservation measures in town, the water and sewer department will not be collecting as much as in the past, he said, and that could lead to a budget problem in the department.

DiDonato, however, has said the town has borrowed money from the water and sewer department to settle a $227,500 lawsuit related to a polluted dump on South Second Road that has been closed for decades. DiDonato noted that the town will pay the money back, with interest, over 10 years.

“It seems like we make decisions together for eight to 10 months on a similar page, and then in election season … people change their attitudes,” DiDonato said. “It’s a serious time of year, but some people start to get a little silly with opinions and comments.”

He emphasized that Hammonton First has proved it is a good steward of the town.

“Hammonton First has first proven we are fiscally responsible and responsive. Over eight years, property taxes have pretty much stayed flat, and our budget has decreased,” he said.

And while the two parties have worked well together on council, more could be accomplished with a greater presence of Hammonton First members, he said.

“Like any good CEO or board, we need to have a management team in place to move forward in 2014 and beyond,” DiDonato said, adding Hammonton First is independent and made up of people from various party backgrounds. He is a registered Republican; Gribbin is a registered Democrat; Wuillermin is registered as a Republican but considers himself an independent; and Marinelli is an independent.

“The diversity among Hammonton First candidates touches all the residents in some way. It’s a good makeup for Town Council,” Gribbin said, citing DiDonato’s background as a businessman who owns DiDonato’s Family Fun Center in Hammonton; Wuillermin’s as a farmer; Marinelli’s as a former state police captain; and his own background as a labor lawyer, which he emphasized would help in the coming year as public workers’ contracts expire and must be renegotiated.

“I believe we just have the leadership. I don’t want to say there’s a disagreement” between the parties, said DiDonato, who added that Hammonton First has pledged to run a positive campaign for the ninth year in a row. “I believe we have an independent voice. We’re more capable of being the voice of the 15,000 people who live in Hammonton.”

Giralo is a program administrator for the Atlantic County Improvement Authority; Carpo owns T-Masters rental car, auto repair and collision repair companies in Hammonton; Furgione owns TLC Landscape Co. in Williamstown; and Pullia is broker of record at the M. Ruberton Agency in Hammonton.

But Giralo said it doesn’t make sense to give any one party all the seats on council.

“I never think one-party control is a smart thing anywhere,” Giralo said, “I feel Republicans bring to the table a debate, a discussion of where Hammonton is going. That’s what’s important.”

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219