Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ 5th District race — the second election in two years, following last year’s special election — pits Republican incumbent James Bertino against Erica Polito, a teacher in Port Republic.
Both are Hammonton residents.
Bertino, a former Hammonton councilman, was appointed in January 2011 to fill the vacancy left by Jim Curcio’s election to surrogate and was elected to the remainder of the term in November. This election will be for a full three-year term representing the 5th district, which includes Buena, Buena Vista Township, Corbin City, Egg Harbor City, Estell Manor, Folsom, Hammonton, Mullica Township, Weymouth Township and parts of Hamilton Township.
“Coming from the western end of the county, serving on council for 14 years, I’ve found the county is very diverse in our needs,” Bertino said. “Fortunately, all my experience has helped me be ready for those discussions.”
Bertino said he’s learned the county has a “terrific team in place” that has provided “tremendous services to Atlantic County. ... While you want to be able to squeeze every dollar to get the most out of it. Atlantic County has done an excellent job of that.”
Polito, a technology teacher/coordinator in Port Republic, disagreed. She said she decided to run because “we hear that Atlantic County is the best-run county in the state, and I found out that’s not the case.”
She pointed to the Kids Count survey, which showed the county near the bottom in poverty and access to prenatal care, as well as high unemployment numbers.
“I want to stay in Atlantic County, I love Atlantic County,” she said. “But it’s hard for people to stay here when the unemployment rate is so high.”
Polito said that more county businesses should be given the opportunity to bid on contracts.
“Working in a small school, I can see how expensive it is to buy in small quantities,” she said. “I you buy in bulk purchases, you can save the taxpayers money. That could be something the county helps facilitate.”
Regarding the Atlantic County budget Bertino said “obviously, the last couple of years the changes that have been happening in Atlantic City have had a major impact on the county. There’s less of a tax ratable base, thanks to appeals, and casinos that were worth three, four, $500 million are selling for $50 million.”
But even with a shrinking tax base, “we still provide services to residents. We’re in a great position to be able to absorb a lot of that. But we’re not going to able to absorb all of it and not lose services. I have experience of trying to stretch a dollar as a businessman, because coming from the private sector you have to understand what you can and cannot do,” he said.
Bertino added that the plant where he worked for decades, Garden State Color Corp., closed in the past year, “so I know first-hand what’s going on with the economy.”
In the 5th District, “some of the needs we have are served by some of the basic services the county provides, such as public works, continued road overlays ... We have an aggressive plan and have doing a lot of paving.”
Much capital work is self-paid and not bonded, he said. “We have to keep an eye on bonding, because we don’t want our kids to pay taxes forever because we didn’t pay for it today. ... . We have to be extra careful of how we spend everyone’s money. I know on the freeholder board, that’s always been key, because we live in our own neighborhoods. We understand what the public wants because we are the public.”
But Polito cited the recent issues with the South Jersey Economic Development District and the Airport Circle in Egg Harbor Township.
“People need to be held responsible and called to the carpet for the circle still being a mess,” Polito said.
Regarding the rural district, “Atlantic County is what makes New Jersey the Garden State, and we definitely want to keep it that way,” she said. “One thing Hammonton has done is have downtown farmers markets, a great little service which has been great in promoting local growers.”
In addition, “One thing I do feel is that the 5th District is the lost district,” she said. “As a freeholder, I definitely would work very carefully to be an advocate and liaison to the local community, to help get them what they need from the county and give them a voice.”
Plus, she said, “I do want to point out there are no women serving on the freeholder board at this point. Fifty-one percent of Atlantic County residents are women, and the board is not a balances showing of residents of the county. I believe if there’s more elected, it will inspire more women to run.”
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