By Jay Cook |MANALAPAN – It’s not election season without a few surprises from those running for office and this year’s Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders election is no different.The Democratic candidates say they are opposed to increasing taxes, even for open space acquisition, and the Republican candidates have voiced their support for medicinal marijuana programs.Democrats Brian Wilton, mayor of Lake Como, and running mate Margaret Donlon, M.D., from Ocean Township, amicably touched gloves with their Republican counterparts Patrick Impreveduto, deputy mayor of Holmdel, and Lillian G. Burry, the incumbent Freeholder director, on Oct. 24 at Monmouth County Library headquarters. The annual debate, sponsored by the Monmouth County League of Women Voters, hit upon a number of topics specific to county taxpayers.Tax IncreasesDebating tax increases is the norm for candidates in a New Jersey election. But this year there’s one slight difference – it’s the Republicans who want to increase taxes.In July, the all-Republican county government authorized a referendum question on this year’s ballot asking for an increase to the Open Space Trust Fund, a pool of taxpayer dollars used to supplement open space and farmland acquisitions. The Monmouth County Park System oversees 17,500 acres of land, and projects 20,000 acres will be needed as development increases.Currently, a Monmouth County resident with an average assessed home value of $457,893 pays $68.68 into the fund. That equates to 1.5 cents per $100 of equalized value. The trust fund collected nearly $17.4 million this year.Monmouth County Freeholder Director Lillian G. Burry.The proposed 83 percent increase would push the rate to 2.75 cents per $100 of equalized value. The annual impact to the same average county homeowner would nearly double to $125.91 annually.And Burry is pushing for the increase.“I have long been associated with conservation, open space, and I can tell you it’s our greatest asset here in Monmouth County,” she said.About 6.5 million visitors use county parks annually and Republicans say the number could grow with more development coming.“This land is disappearing,” Burry said, “and if we don’t act now, we won’t have that opportunity in a few years.”On the other side of the aisle, Democrats believe county residents are “taxed out,” saying Monmouth County suffers from the 11th-highest taxes in the country.“People are moving,” Donlon said. “I’m wondering if we’ve reached a tax limit here in Monmouth County.”Both Democrats suggested the county push to acquire state funding instead of asking more from residents.On the other hand, all four candidates praised the 2 percent cap on property tax and public employee salary increases signed into state law in 2010. The cap’s life expectancy sunsets on Dec. 31 and both the Republicans and Democrats want the state legislature to renew the program.Lake Como Mayor Brian Wilton“The cap was effective,” said Wilton, who noted it benefitted Lake Como, a borough with about 1,700 residents. “I believe there was a place for it. It helps keep the costs down.”Impreveduto doubled down, saying the state should also look at lowering mandatory fixed costs from electric and gas service.“Fortunately, we have this 2 percent cap to keep salaries in check,” he said. “Can you imagine if we didn’t have that and the fixed costs kept going up? What would happen to our residents, tax-wise?”Marijuana LegalizationThe future of marijuana usage in New Jersey will decidedly come down to who the next governor will be: Democratic candidate Philip Murphy or Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Murphy has pledged to legalize marijuana in short order if elected and Guadagno has stated she is in favor of decriminalization and expanding medical marijuana programs.On the county level, elected officials have little say in how that decision would play out, but did offer their views.Wilton, a lawyer and prosecutor, said he is in favor of legalization. His experiences in courtrooms have affirmed that.“We have a difficult time prosecuting the offense of under 50 grams that are handled at the municipal court,” he said, adding that “we’re pulling officers off the road to make arrests for small amounts of marijuana.”Donlon said, as a physician, she is in favor of expanding medical marijuana and decriminalization. On the legalization front, she was a bit more hesitant, saying she would only support it if the state set “a legal age of anything above 26 years old and really look at the cost benefit analysis.”Republicans were more cautious about marijuana legalization, although both Burry and Impreveduto said they are in favor of medical marijuana programs.“You’ve heard about the opioid epidemic we’re having here in Monmouth County,” Burry said. “Why complicate things even more with marijuana made available to some of our young people?”Impreveduto referenced states around the country which have gone the route of legalization.“Look at Colorado,” he added. “Tell me how that’s working for them. Crime is up, homelessness is up, the state is becoming a disaster.”Sanctuary StatusTalk by President Donald Trump of stripping federal funding from areas exercising Sanctuary City, County and State status has reinvigorated the immigration conversation. In New Jersey, that’s no different.While no local towns have sanctuary status, candidates disagreed upon how Monmouth County is involved, as well as how immigration authorities do their job.Impreveduto said he is against a Sanctuary County and State, and said he supported and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agreements with the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office.Holmdel Deputy Mayor Patrick ImprevedutoBut Impreveduto, with a career background in education, said he’s in favor of the federal program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).“DACA is different,” he said, “and I would look to support our children.”Burry said allowing sanctuary status “flies in the face of our laws and the need to respect our law enforcement people.”Democrats Donlon and Wilton believe law enforcement should stay out of homes and refrain from any mass-deportation activity.Donlon said police “should focus on what their job is and focus on criminals, no matter where they came from and no matter their immigration status.”“I don’t want to further politicize the issue, but I want to focus on the important thing, which is how we want to protect and keep our communities safe,” she added.Margaret Donlon, Ocean TownshipIn AgreementWhile in contrast on a number of issues, candidates from both parties did find common ground on work currently underway in the county. Each nominee praised the progress at the Fort Monmouth site redevelopment, through the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority (FMERA).Burry, who sits on the FMERA board, said since the fort was ordered closed in 2005, 3,000 new jobs have been created on the former base’s grounds. Housing developments, schools, businesses and veterans facilities are some of the new activity underway“I think it’s something, in the end, we can be very proud of as to how it will evolve,” said Burry.Wilton said although a second Amazon headquarters might not be heading to Fort Monmouth, he still would like to see FMERA push for smaller, up-and-coming companies to find space at Fort Monmouth. He said the area “has the potential to be a jewel for us.”Candidates from both parties also stressed the importance of using shared services within the county. Impreveduto said Holmdel just finished its largest road improvement project thanks to working with county officials on fixing tens of roads. As mayor, Wilton said he was able to outsource Lake Como’s police service to Belmar in an effort to cut costs.This article was first published in the Oct. 26-Nov. 2, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.