HAMILTON TOWNSHIP - Candidates for county and legislative office touted their veterans bona fides Saturday at a forum in Mays Landing.

The event, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Giunta-Marucci Post 220 drew about 35 people as candidates took on veterans-related questions.

Legislative candidates largely agreed that civil service reform should not remove veterans preferences and said more needed to be done with transition from service programs and veterans' housing and medical programs. Incumbent legislators touted their veteran-oriented bills.

"This is a love fest here," said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.

Whelan said society does not understand veterans and their needs as much as before. "This should be part of our culture," Whelan said. "More than a thank-you for your service, but back that up with action."

His Republican opponent, Frank Balles, the Atlantic County sheriff, said he was proud of his office's ability to hire veterans. Between 60 and 70 percent of his office are veterans.

He also recounted how one of his officers was arrested after a high-speed motorcycle chase in Galloway Township. The officer received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and some of the charges were dismissed.

"We stood up for him and he's one of the best officers in our department," Balles said.

One of Balles' Republican General Assembly running mates, current Assemblyman Chris Brown, touted his experience in the Army. "When you are a veteran, you bring a perspective that nonveterans just don't understand."

Fellow Republican Assemblyman John Amodeo thanked the veterans for having him speak there, calling it a "humbling experience" to visit places where the nation's veterans are commemorated.

On the Democratic side, Assembly candidate Vince Mazzeo said it was very important to take care of the nation's veterans. Mazzeo, mayor of Northfield, said the town has regularly honored different veterans.

His running mate, Longport Mayor Nick Russo, said he has seen firsthand some of the problems that veterans have. But the issues of education, health care, job training and housing are better understood to be societal problems, which may help solve them.

Earlier, four of the six candidates for Atlantic County's Board of Chosen Freeholders split over country veterans programs.

Democratic Fourth District candidate Brandi Endicott said her work in nursing spurred her initial interest in political office. She said she would support a countywide homeless trust fund, and added that the freeholders should work to ensure 5 percent of the county's contracts go to veteran's firms.

Bard Shober, a Democrat running for an at-large seat, said he didn't know why the freeholder board did not vote on a countywide homeless trust fund, but pledged he would support it. The county can lease a golf cart or pay for aerial photographs, he said, but not support the fund.

Shober said he also supported the set-aside. "The only way it gets untabled is to elect different people to the freeholder board.

Will Pauls, a Republican running for an at-large seat, touted his budgetary and jobs experience as president of the South Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council. Rather than the county trust fund, he supported federal legislation to permit an income tax check-off. He also said he would support a veterans set-aside, if it could be directed to Atlantic County residents exclusively.

Rich Dase, running for re-election to the 4th District seat, said he was running for re-election because there were still things he wanted done. He was hesitant about the homeless trust fund because there was no guarantee veterans were a priority, there was a debate on how the fund would be spent, and he said with reports of other towns busing homeless people to Atlantic County, it didn't feel right to pay for the state's homeless.

He said he supported the veteran's set-aside in principal, but wanted to make sure it was done correctly. He said the county, for instance, didn't know how many of its current vendors were veterans.

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