With the May 10 mayor/Board of Commissioners elections getting closer in West New York, it’s no surprise that Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega and challenger Dr. Felix Roque are leveling charges against each other.
Most recently, both men asked the other side to disclose their respective personal incomes.
In West New York’s form of government, five people run for seats on the Board of Commissioners, and from among themselves, they choose a mayor. It is usually known before the election who wants to be mayor.
Late last month, Roque’s campaign sent out a mailing alleging that Vega was profiting by taking two public salaries: That of mayor and of athletic director at Memorial High School.
Vega, in turn, called on Roque in a personal letter to disclose his personal income and finances. Roque is a doctor with a pain management practice.
There is a third candidate running independently who often goes unrecognized.
According to Together We Can’s campaign manager Joseph De Marco, this is all “smoke and mirrors,” an attempt to tell constituents that the American dream, which he said Roque embodies, is somehow wrong.
Roque is a military veteran who opened his practice in West New York.
Beyond the issue of the candidates’ personal incomes, property taxes and transparency in government still remain major issues for both sides.
The finance-disclosure windstorm started when Roque sent out a campaign mailing that highlighted Vega’s compensation as a full-time athletic director at Memorial High School and as part-time mayor.
Last year, according to public documents, Vega was paid $130,352 for the athletic director position and $15,000 as a town commissioner/mayor.
Following up, Vega allegedly sent a letter dated March 29 to Roque – which Roque’s team said was never received – asking him disclose his personal and business federal and state tax returns for the last five years. Vega also requested his disclosure of all property ownership in the United States and other countries, as well “any bank accounts in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.”
Vega’s team said they don’t believe that Roque has “no idea” how much money he earns.
“Can anyone believe that?” asked Vega’s spokesman Paul Swibinski of Vision Media, who has a contract with the town. That’s a flat out lie.”
According to DeMarco, Roque’s accountant hadn’t yet completed his 2010 tax filings at the time. They are due April 18 this year. But he said Roque has no qualms about revealing the numbers once they were known.
“They used it to make it sound like [Roque] is hiding all this money,” DeMarco said. “He’s never been audited, never been subject to investigation. He went to school, joined the military, opened a practice in West New York, and suddenly that’s a bad thing.”
Swibinski also said that Roque should reimburse the town for over $200,000 “wasted” during his failed recall election of Vega in 2010. The town checked the signatures Roque submitted to force an election, and there were not enough valid ones for a vote.
“Half of the signatures were not real…dead people, people not registered…this was a total fraud perpetuated,” Swibinski alleged. “[Roque’s] riding around in a $400,000 Bentley and has property all over the world, but won’t reimburse the taxpayers’ money for his recall.”
DeMarco responded, “This is a vain attempt to paint Roque has an evil guy…because he’s successful.”
DeMarco contends that Mayor Vega “never had a private job and always lived off the taxpayers’ expense.”
Vega and his current Board of Commissioners are running under the slogan, “Lower Taxes – Honest Government.” But Roque began trying to oust Vega last year because of a tax increase.
Roque’s team lists cutting property taxes and restoring the integrity of local government as their two main objectives.
“The issue is not [Roque’s] personal taxes,” DeMarco said. “It’s the property taxes that residents can’t pay. Unfortunately the doctor may be the only person able to live in West New York with the tax rates.”
According to Swibinski, Vega inherited a situation that necessitated a significant tax increase due to “a tremendous cut in state aid and some serious financial mismanagement by the chief financial at the time.”
(The chief financial officer was Darren Maloney, who brought a sex harassment lawsuit against Vega that was settled in February. The Reporter has requested the amount of the settlement, but so far, the town has not provided it.)
Since the tax increase, Swibinski said, Vega had kept taxes relatively flat for the past two and a half years, with an average increase of $304 per taxpayer since 2008. And with the new budget that was passed, taxes are frozen through the first half of this year.
Vega, he said, also cut about 25 percent of the approximately 400 people on the town payroll, cut $2 million from the budget over the last two years, and changed to a lower health benefits package for city employees that saved an additional $2 million.
“I don’t think there is anything that anyone can possibly do to run the government in a more fiscally conservative way than Mayor Vega has done,” he said. “We’re right down to the bone now. Are they going to cut spending any deeper than that?
There is a third candidate running independently who often goes unrecognized – Ercides Aguasvivas, who was a former West New York town commissioner before Vega was appointed as mayor in 2006. There has been speculation that Aguasvivas was put up by Vega to dilute Roque’s voter base among Latino residents.
DeMarco believes that Aguasvivas’ Dominican descent gives some credence to the rumors, in that many Dominicans have taken up residence in town.
“If [Aguasvivas] gets 300 to 400 votes, that’s 300 to 400 votes that don’t wind up with Roque,” he said.
But Swibinski says such rumors are “just crazy.”
“If something like that were to be a tactic, we’d be running a full slate,” he said. “Having one doesn’t mean anything.”
In any case, Aguasvivas has not responded to correspondence from the Reporter.
Deanna Cullen can be reached at email@example.com.