Story and photos by John Burton |DEAL — This Tuesday offered real estate professionals and the general public a chance to hear directly from state Senate and Assembly candidates about the issues facing their industry and the state in general.In what was the first of three anticipated debates, all six candidates for the 11th Legislative district squared off on Sept. 19 at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Ave., offering their individual takes on issues running the gamut from property taxes, funding for the arts and school funding, to how to ensure affordability in a state where residents continue to struggle to remain.Incumbent Republican Senator Jennifer Beck was joined on stage by running mates Ocean Township Deputy Mayor Robert Acerra and Red Bank Borough Councilman Michael Whelan; sitting opposite were Democratic opponents Vin Gopal, a small business owner who is seeking the Senate seat, and incumbent Assembly members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey.The approximately 90-minute exchange was sponsored by the Monmouth Ocean Regional Realtors, a professional trade association representing about 7,000 licensed real estate agents in central New Jersey. The event was open to the general public and approximately 125 people attended the debate which started at 10 a.m.The candidates answered a series of questions, many related to the real estate industry, such as about the realty transfer fees currently paid and whether the candidates would support increasing it. According to moderator Jarrod Grasso, chief executive officer for New Jersey Realtors, home sellers in Monmouth County pay an average of $3,500 in transfer fees on the sale of a $430,000 home and there have been discussions of increasing it. The candidates expressed their opposition to any increase, with Acerra noting, “The money being collected could be put to good use. Unfortunately, it’s not.”“We want to make sure the homeowner gets to keep as much of that money as he can,” added Houghtaling.But the first question out of the gate covered a subject that is paramount to New Jersey –property taxes.Grasso pointed out the average annual county property tax bill is approximately $8,800 and asked Gopal and Beck what they would do to address it.In the allotted three-minute time limit for responses, Gopal offered to challenge the status quo, saying to address property taxes is tackling “New Jersey’s addiction to home rule.” Gopal expressed frustration that the Legislature continues to fail to seriously pursue consolidation and sharing of services for the more than 560 municipalities and 600 public school districts and the redundancy that breeds.Beck, in her rebuttal, answered “consolidation would help along the edges.” However, the real issue in addressing property tax reform is re-evaluating state education funding, she continued. A longstanding issue for Beck in her district, she again referenced that there are many school districts around New Jersey where the state budget has failed to live up to its obligation in providing requisite funding; that shortfall, Beck noted, has to be made up on the local level from the municipal tax levy. This has impacted Freehold Borough and Red Bank in the 11th District. Beck, Downey and Houghtaling have been advocating for a solution.Gopal countered that Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s 2010 budget “gutted” approximately $1 billion in school funding, a budget Beck voted for.The school funding issue again arose when the candidates were asked about arts funding, which is facing a zeroing out by the Trump administration. Large chunks of that federal money have made their way into local school districts which would be hurt by the cuts, candidates pointed out.To help the real estate market businesses, Downey referred to legislation she and Houghtaling have sponsored that provide financing for micro enterprise credit and expanding the Urban Enterprise Zone program, offering incentives to make some areas more attractive to relocated and startup businesses.Whelan pointed to steps being taken in Red Bank, encouraging what he called “smart growth and redevelopment,” to improve its real estate market. “We’re getting left behind because we’re not creating incentives,” he maintained. To respond, Whelan said he has supported efforts to formally define some properties as areas in need of redevelopment, making it easier to improve those properties with new construction.Beck added that nothing stifles business more than an oppressive tax burden, noting her opposition to such things as the increase in the gas tax and other hikes in the past – often in opposition to Christie’s position.Gopal countered by maintaining Beck has walked in lockstep with Christie during much of his two terms, alleging she’s voted “95 percent of the time” in support of the governor’s agenda – even to the point of failing to vote to overturn a governor veto on bills she herself had sponsored.But, Beck stressed, “You should know I will first and always be an advocate for you,” meaning the people of her district.The 11th District is a hotly contested and closely watched race in this year’s election cycle. Monmouth County has traditionally been a solid Republican block among its state legislators, as well as county-wide officials. Two years ago, however, Houghtaling and Downey, both political newcomers at the time, surprisingly were able to make their way through that GOP front, unseating two veteran Republicans. This year county Democrats and those on the state level are looking to seize what they believe is an opportunity for the party, given the prevalent anti-Christie and anti-Trump sentiment invigorating the party base. They’ve taken aim at Beck, from Red Bank, a traditional center/right Republican, who has been in the Senate since 2007, after having served one two-year term in the Assembly, in a district that has more registered Democrats than Republicans.Gopal, from Long Branch, has never held elected office but had been the Monmouth County Democratic Party chairman for nearly five years, along with operating a marketing and business development firm and publishing a small magazine covering Monmouth County. He’s been waging a very aggressive campaign against Beck, who has a strong reputation for aggressive retail campaigning in her own right.These candidates are scheduled for two more debates. One sponsored by the New Jersey League of Women Voters, slated for Oct. 16 at Monmouth University, West Long Branch; another is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 28, organized by the Ocean Grove Homeowners Association.This article was first published in the Sept. 21-28, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.