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Laurel Park candidates spar over park cost

Laurel Park candidates Lou Lunardoni, Dona Mennella and Paul Hansen addressed issues at a forum. Laurel Park candidates Lou Lunardoni, Dona Mennella and Paul Hansen addressed issues at a forum.

LAUREL PARK — Laurel Park Town Council candidates debated the cost of the new Lake Rhododendron Park, spiraling health insurance costs and the importance of training a new town manager during a candidates forum Tuesday night at First Congregational Church.


Challenger Lou Lunardoni is facing incumbents Dona Mennella, who is seeking her fourth term on the council, and Paul Hansen, who was appointed to the council in January 2012 to fill a vacancy. The election is Nov. 5.
Lunardoni, a retired math teacher from northern New Jersey, returned repeatedly to town spending as his main topic.
"Fiscal responsibility is the theme of my campaign," he said. "I want to watch the dollar. We have a lot of projects going on and I want to make sure we can support them all. We talked about insurance. I think we're going to see it's going to cost us a lot for that park. We've just got to watch the dollar."
Mennella and Hansen responded that the park had cost a minimal amount of money because a developer paid for the work as a mitigation project for environmental disturbance elsewhere.
During the campaign, Lunardoni has suggested the current council could pile up spending at the lake property to build "a start of the art" park.
"I have yet to know what he means by state of the art," Mennella said. The project had to be done, she said, because a stream was undermining Lake Drive. "The options were to buffer the road or move the steam. Since we got the grant it was a lot easier to move the stream. We have not spent a lot of money on this project. We don't plan to spend much in the next year. This is a long term project."
As for Lunardoni's suggestion that the town will need more employees to maintain the park, Hansen said that's not going to happen. The only work is keeping trails clean. "There's very little mowing because that's not allowed in the floodplain," he said. The mitigation contract requires the developer to maintain the property for five years, he added.
The challenger said that insurance cost is a fiscal time bomb.
The town pays the health insurance premiums for current employees and their families — and was hit by a 19 percent rate hike for the current fiscal year. It recently changed the policy for new employees, covering only the workers and not their dependents.
"It went up $40,000 this year," Lunardoni said. "It might go up $80,000 next year."
Hansen said every town and county in the state is dealing with high health care costs.
""I talked to (town manager) Jim Ball this morning," Hansen said. "He told me the cost of health insurance has gone up every year in the 16 years he's been here. Nineteen percent is a lot but five years ago it went up by 15 percent. The town has handled it and handled it very well."

Hansen and Mennella agreed that the most important task right now is helping the new town manager, Alison L. Melnikova, adjust to Laurel Park, which has 2,000 people compared to 20,000 in Waynesville, where she is assistant city manager.

All three candidates said they supported the Ecusta Trail and opposed new taxes.
If property values dropped by 10 percent in the 2015 revaluation, Lunardoni said the town would have to raise the tax rate.
"If property values went down by 10 percent I don't think we could survive on 10 percent less," he said. "We'd have to do something, probably revenue neutral, where we keep the same amount of money coming in."
The forum was sponsored by the Laurel Park Civic Association.