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Princeton Borough Council 2010

NOVEMBER 2010 PRINCETON BOROUGH
COUNCIL CANDIDATES QUESTIONNAIRE RESPONSES

NON-PARTISAN ELECTION INFORMATION

Vote Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Polls are open in West Windsor from 6 AM to 8 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are the verbatim responses of the candidates for Princeton Borough Council to questions presented by The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, in cooperation with The Princeton Packet. The candidates were allowed to vary the leangth of their answers to the three questions but were a word limit for the total.

Candidates – Vote for two (three-year term)

Jo S. Butler - Democrat, Search consultant, Wickenden Associates. Website: www.jobutler.com

Peter Marks - Republican, Self-employed real estate consultant and investor. Campaign email: Marks4council@yahoo.com

Roger Martindell (incumbent) - Democrat, Lawyer
Roland Foster Miller - Republican, New York Times editor and Columbia adjunct, retired. Website: www.RolandFosterMiller.com

Roland Foster Miller - Republican, New York Times editor and Columbia adjunct, retired. Website: www.RolandFosterMiller.com

The new municipal tax cap of 2% increases the constraints on next year's budget. How would you address these constraints?

Ms. Butler:
I became one of the founding members of the Citizens Finance Advisory Taskforce [CFAT] for the purpose of creating transparency and encouraging participation in the budget process. Planning for the 2011 budget has begun, and it will require an especially diligent review of all expenditures, discipline in spending and ramped-up consideration of shared services with the Township and County. We need to keep pressure on the Governor to deliver the highly touted 33-item toolkit, which promises relief from binding arbitration - one of the main culprits in escalating costs.

The good news for the Borough is that for the past two years, the Borough spending has not increased. However, without the Governor's promised toolkit, Princeton, like all other New Jersey communities, will quickly be faced with some very difficult choices. Without real relief, towns all across New Jersey will have difficulty balancing their budgets as their existing obligations in excess of two percent will force cuts to services and require personnel layoffs. Already we have seen other towns' credit ratings downgraded, which results in increased costs for financing the projects citizens expect of their government.

Mr. Marks:
Borough revenues are already more than adequate.
I will not support any Borough budget - in any of the next three calendar years -- whose proposed expenditures, in the aggregate, exceed the $24,716,959 budgeted for calendar 2010.

The goal of the Borough Council should be to reduce total spending, and there are opportunities to do so meaningfully in virtually every department.

My chief concern is that many will construe 2% not as a cap, but as a floor - devoting their efforts not to reducing bloated departmental budgets, but rather to categorizing expenditures in a manner calculated to create exemptions.

Mr. Martindell
We've proven we can do better than the 2% tax cap: the Borough has achieved a zero percent tax increase two years running! I advocated this as chair of the Borough's Finance Committee, and I will continue to work for NO tax increases.

Mr. Miller:
The borough's budget should become a contestant on “The Biggest Loser.” A 2 percent tax cap for next year's budget is at least 2 percent too high.

Fiscal responsibility is the key. The budget should be trimmed to provide taxpayer relief, and borough employees, like those in the private sector, should make sacrifices as the Great Recession grinds on.

Do we really need to pay parking meter attendants nearly $80,000 in overtime, as we did last year, with police officers making more than $150,000 in overtime and another $95,000 in other work-related supplemental pay. Additionally, Borough and joint agencies paid more than $700,000 in supplemental compensation last year.

There is still plenty of budget fat to lose, and I would work to cut it out. Borough employees should contribute more to their health plans as well. As the Citizen Finance Advisory Taskforce notes in an analysis earlier this year (where all these numbers come from), borough employees contribute only a small percentage of their wages to their health plans.

Borough employee benefits in general are even better than those at our wealthy neighbor Princeton University. Average workers in this country contribute about 25 percent of their income for health premiums.

There has been much discussion about recent property appraisals in the Borough and Township. How do you think this tax issue should be addressed equitably?

Ms. Butler:
The responsibility for the revaluation lies with the County assessor, which leaves local officials little ability to address many residents' understandable frustration. However, I would recommend following the Township's lead in mailing property cards to all homeowners. This is a good first step in ensuring that the revaluation is based on accurate information. We need to insist that the tax assessor track home sales and measure whether those sales align with the assessments. If more than 50 percent of neighborhoods are in error, the tax assessor can reassess the entire town. We need to consider other methods of assessment that don't result in huge, unexpected tax increases, particularly when they fall on citizens least able to afford it. I would call on Governor Christie to reinstate the Senior Freeze, a program that would have helped many of our seniors during the recent revaluation.

Mr. Marks:
Property taxes have many obvious shortcomings. They are levied without regard to an owner's ability to pay, penalize owners for improving their properties, exempt many well endowed institutions, and increase relentlessly, driving out long time residents on fixed incomes.

The job of the reassessment, however, was not to remake our local tax code, but to determine fair market values. Given the fifteen year interval since the previous reassessment, the designation of Witherspoon Street as a commercial corridor, the relative paucity of recent sales data, the difficulty of securing financing for expensive homes, and the character of the current real estate market, it is not surprising that the reassessment produced results that in some cases seem indefensible.

That said, I certainly do not favor spending an additional ca. $750,000 to engage yet another consultant. Nor do I favor rescinding the results of the recent reassessment. Instead, I would urge Neal Snyder and his staff to acknowledge the obvious anomalies (there are many) and lower temperatures by offering to resolve lingering disputes outside of the formal appeal process.

Mr. Martindell:
If persons of modest income cannot afford to live in Princeton, our community will become a “golden ghetto”, losing its diversity. To protect those of modest income from property value increases revealed by revaluation, I have worked to:
a. reduce the municipal tax burden (see answer #1 above);
b. re-open negotiations with Princeton University to obtain greater contribution to the Borough's annual operating budget so that less tax money has to be raised;
c. pursue possible consolidation with Princeton Township with the goal that the community broadens its tax base; 
d. challenge the Township to join us in finding more shared services to achieve economies of scale;
e. allocate affordable housing trust funds to pay property taxes for qualified low-income persons so that they may remain in Princeton, in exchange for deed restrictions by which they would enroll their property in the Borough's affordable housing stock; 
f. explore re-assessing properties more frequently so that taxpayers don't face accumulated extreme increases by revaluation once every 10-15 years;
g. propose state legislation to mitigate the effects of revaluation by phasing-in tax increases over time;
h. introduce a resolution establishing a revaluation study commission to review long-term options in dealing with State-ordered revaluation and its effects.

Unfortunately, the hard reality of our State property tax system is: State law requires revaluation, governs revaluation, and allows municipal governing bodies virtually no role in revaluation. We have to deal with the consequences, and it's better that we do so realistically rather than demagogue the issue.

Mr. Miller
Your house in northern Princeton sits on a fifth of an acre and your land is now appraised at $542,000. So an acre of your land would cost $2.71 million. An acre of land on Library Place is valued at $2 million. Why is your land, in a less fashionable neighborhood, worth $700,000 more?

Who or what determines a neighborhood? Why is a small house in one “neighborhood” butting against a large house in another so-called neighborhood valued the same? If you are going to be equitable about taxes, forget about neighborhoods, and think: Land is land. Value it all at the same rate per acre boroughwide.

As we are a relatively small community, our tax assessor should keep abreast of the property values, updating the numbers year to year so we don't end up paying outside appraisers and so we don't end up with dizzying surprises.

A transportation patchwork exists in Princeton - Crosstown 62, FreeB, NJ Transit, TigerTransit, and the Dinky. What will you do to establish a rational and effective system of public transportation with the Princeton Community?

Ms. Butler:
We currently have a network of specialized transit services - Crosstown62 addressing the needs of seniors, the Dinky addressing the needs of commuters, Tiger Transit addressing the needs of those on the University campus, and the FreeB addressing the needs of almost no one.

When it comes to mass transportation, Princeton has yet to have a realistic conversation about what kind of town we want to be. A town that supports mass transportation needs different zoning. It needs greater residential density, major employers of larger numbers of workers, and fewer available parking spaces that make driving faster and more convenient. To promote mass transit, Princeton would need to zone and plan for development that will put a critical mass of riders along major transportation routes. This is a serious discussion that has been missing from the transportation planning process.

I support the Community Transportation Initiative, a privately funded transportation initiative to determine whether we can serve the community with a local circulating bus route.

Mr. Marks:
I am not persuaded that a convenient, well-patronized, publicly funded intra-Borough public transportation system is possible at a cost that I would view as supportable. Nor, given the Borough's modest 1.7 square mile land area, am I persuaded that such a system is necessary.
NJ Transit already provides reasonably priced, relatively convenient bus and train service to other municipalities.

If the objective is to deliver people to points in Princeton Township, I suggest that the number of potential destinations necessitates an impossibly large number of routes, very lengthy trip times, and infrequent service - with the result that riders are likely to find the service unsatisfactory and the Borough is likely to find it unaffordable.

If the intent is to serve people of modest means, then I suggest that publicly funded taxi service might be more flexible, more convenient, more economic, and less disruptive of Borough traffic patterns.

I strongly favor preserving train service between the Dinky station and Princeton Junction, but think staffing could be more efficient and service should be more continuous.

I also favor standardizing local taxi service at a somewhat higher quality level.

Mr. Martindell: First, it's essential to design a fully-integrated local transit system that rationally delivers needed services to identified populations, including seniors who live outside of the central business district, commuters, and University students. Such design requires involvement by all the stakeholders. Local government has an important role in bringing stakeholders together.

Second, transportation resources must be coordinated if an effective “system” is to be created. Municipal governments, NJ Transit, the University, and Princeton Future, among others, must work together to develop a viable coordinated plan, each bringing resources to the task. I heartily endorse the recent community transportation initiative that endorsed daytime use of the FreeB so that those living in residential neighborhoods may access the central business district and shopping center.

Third, no plan will succeed without adequate funding. Municipal government has an important role in brokering contribution of federal, state, and private funds so that the community develops a well-designed, well-coordinated transportation infrastructure that includes better mass transit opportunities. That role includes fostering better access of residents to mass transit facilities, which is a reason that the Dinky station should not be moved out of the Borough and why the Borough, Township, and University should join in building a public automobile garage near the station.

Mr. Miller: Prying people from their cars will require a great deal more educational outreach. Enlightened residents already take to their feet and bicycles rather than their cars.

The FreeB buses navigating the borough must run with more than just one or two riders. NJTransit serves the community well, busing people from nearby communities. More shelters would encourage overall ridership. More Manhattan commuters could take advantage of the Suburban Coach buses that zip reliably into the Port Authority.

The Dinky must stay, of course, but its connections should be made more reliable and the service should operate on a boomerang schedule--arrive at Princeton Junction, bounce back to Princeton. If this involves automating the Dinky, then that should be a priority. (The Newark Airport Rail Station is a winning example of automated service.)

Taxis already move our seniors around town at a reduced rate but public transportation must offer more convenience and less waiting time.

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