Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 52
Happy Holidays!
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
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Core Community Issues Impact 2010

Ellen Gilbert

Dilshanie Perera

Collaboration was a theme this year, with community members participating in civic life in new and productive ways, whether by banding together to save the Dinky or by challenging the tax revaluation, organizing about the community pool or celebrating the Public Library’s 100th year. Besides rethinking the uses of space downtown, Princeton residents were busy analyzing consolidation, engaging in local politics, or rethinking transit options. What follows is a look at Princeton news highlights from 2010.

Borough

With the Borough deemed to be in better fiscal shape than it has been in years, discussions led to the passage of a $24.7 million municipal budget in June. Both the tax rate and spending levels remained flat for the second year in a row, with no staff layoffs proposed. Administrator Bob Bruschi cautioned Council to prepare for further reductions in state aid in the upcoming year and to prioritize services the Borough would like to maintain.

The Borough and Township convened to discuss joint agency budgets in May, with the major source of contention being the issue of continuing the Human Services Department or having the Borough terminate its share of the funding obligation. Township Committee voted to continue to provide that service, with Borough Council voting 4-2 to pass the joint agency budget.

Newcomer Jo Butler was elected for a three-year term on Borough Council beginning in 2011. She will take Andrew Koontz’s seat as Mr. Koontz moves to the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Roger Martindell was also reelected for another three-year term.

Roadway improvements along Mercer Street and the opening of a newly rehabilitated Harrison Street Park were among the major municipal projects completed by the Borough this year. The final cost of the park was approximately $480,000, while Mercer Street improvements were about $1.9 million.

Township

Borough and Township residents supported a 3.9 tax increase to support the school district’s proposed budget for the 2010-2011 academic year. The tax rates were different for the two municipalities, with an increase of $244 for the average assessed home of $753,125 in the Borough, and $139 for the average assessed Township home of $837,300.

Election Day saw the Democratic incumbent candidates Liz Lempert and Lance Liverman prevail over Republican challengers Douglas Miles and Stuart Duncan for the two available Township Committee seats. 

In late fall, Bernie Miller announced his retirement as Mayor, and Deputy Mayor Chad Goerner is in line to be elected Mayor at the Sunday, January 2 reorganization meeting.

Democratic incumbent Rush Holt will serve another two-year term in the House of Representatives for New Jersey’s 12th District, coming in ahead of Republican challenger Scott Sipprelle in the polls. 

Challenges ahead for Township Committee include continuing questions about the revaluation process and subsequent tax hikes; the current effort to consolidate the Township and Borough; and plans for refurbishing the Community Park Pool complex. While the two municipalities have created a joint task force to address apparent inconsistencies in the revaluation process, a grassroots effort among local residents gained momentum by conducting its own research and creating an information-sharing website, http://ptaxinfo.freehostia.com/. 

Although the Recreation Department responded to community concerns about the design and cost of a refurbished pool park ever since discussions about it began several years ago, other grass roots efforts have been been attempting to revisit these plans. The process was further delayed when Borough Council failed to endorse a resolution that would provide funds for fixing the aging pool after Township Committee had earlier supported a similar resolution with a unanimous vote. 

In the meantime, Recreation Department Executive Director Jack Roberts announced that he would be stepping down after 40 years of service. He will be succeeded by current Program Supervisor Ben Stentz. Current Assistant Director Ted Ernst will also assume more administrative responsibilities as the new Director of Finances and Maintenance Operations.

The late-September suspension of township Police Chief Mark Eman, Lt. Michael Henderson, and Cpl. Arthur Villaruz for allegedly selling Township property had not been resolved by year’s end, with the investigation continuing to be conducted by Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini. Chief William Straniero was designated as the Prosecutor’s Office representative in charge of the management of the Township Police Department.

Consolidation

An analysis of municipal consolidation is underway, with the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) chosen in late September as the consultant researching full consolidation as well as shared services.

The Consolidation and Joint Services Study Commission is comprised of volunteers who include elected officials and residents from both the Borough and Township, as well as the administrators from both municipalities. Their total budget of $119,174 goes mainly toward consulting fees, as well as clerical and legal support. The Commission has been working with CGR and the community through the fall to assess the financial, social, and political consequences of a closer collaboration between the two Princetons, with a final report expected in July of next year. If consolidation is deemed the best option and if the governing bodies vote to put the plan to referendum, voters will see the question of whether to consolidate the two municipalities on the November ballot. Visit cgr.org/princeton for a full list of upcoming meetings and more information.

Revaluation

Property taxes have gone up this year for some, spurring residential questioning of the entire revaluation process and what its outcome bodes for the future. Residents have organized into the Princeton Fair Tax movement, asking for greater transparency, with meetings between the Tax Assessor Neal Snyder, representatives from assessment company Appraisal Systems, Inc., and the public occurring throughout the year.

The general outcome of the revaluation showed a shift in the tax burden from the higher-priced homes onto the smaller, less expensive properties. Disassociating the land value from the property values, the demarcation of neighborhoods by the appraisal company, and the comparable neighborhood sales all came under question as assessments were challenged.

Concerns regarding the ability of residents to remain in Princeton due to the rise in the tax rate for certain households have been voiced. As new market data comes in from sales of homes in the Borough and Township, the assessor will review the values on an annual basis and make adjustments each year as necessary.

Princeton Regional School District

In the face of significant budget cuts at the State level, Superintendent Judy Wilson described the municipalities’ budget approval as “bittersweet,” and lacking the usual program development that occurs in the aftermath of an approved budget. At $71,518,029, the budget was $2.6 million dollars, or 3.54 percent less than last year’s. Princeton Regional Schools (PRS), historically considered an “over-adequacy” district, was subjected to significant cuts in state support this year as a result of New Jersey’s most recent “adequacy-based” funding formula for public education. The state’s goal is to move all districts toward “median” spending levels.

Ms. Wilson cautioned, however, that parents should not be misled by the fact that class size would remain the same and full-day kindergarten would continue. The loss of some 50 positions, including both professional and staff employees, would, she said, affect teacher support, as well as summer and after school programs, elective offerings, supplies in every department, arts, and athletics.

Rebecca Cox and Tim Quinn were unanimously elected by the board as president and vice president, respectively. Dorothy Bedford was sworn in for her second term as a Township representative, along with newly-elected members Molly Chrein (Township) and Andrea Spalla (Borough).

John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) alumni, parents, students, and members of community organizations honored outgoing Principal William F. Johnson for 34 years of service to the district, and welcomed Jason Burr as the JWMS principal. Previously, Mr. Burr was assistant principal at the Montgomery Upper Middle School, a Blue Ribbon Schools Program award-winner in Montgomery Township. 

Other new heads of school appointed this year included Patricia (“Patty”) L. Fagin at the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, and Lawrence D. Patton at the Princeton Charter School (PCS).

Since PCS which was founded in 1997, is not eligible for capital improvement funding, a new multi-use building on its campus was completed this year without using a single penny of local tax-payer dollars.

Despite Department of Education approval, the opening of the Princeton International Academy Charter School was postponed for 2011 when the Plainsboro municipality found a technicality in its site application. The school will offer Mandarin language immersion and, eventually, the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Princeton University

Campus construction projects completed by the University this year included the new Frick Chemistry Laboratory, a contemporary structure that now houses the Chemistry Department. Spanning Washington Road, Streicker Bridge also opened for pedestrian usage this fall. The bridge connects the two sides of the University’s “science neighborhood,” which comprises laboratories, classroom and research space, as well as the Lewis Library, and serves the biological and physical sciences.

Other proposed University development under scrutiny is the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, which will be considered by the Princeton Regional Planning Board, likely in the upcoming year. The main issue of contention is the location of the Dinky rail station, with current University designs proposing that it be moved south and away from town 460 feet into a transit hub that would aid traffic flow. Some members of the community are advocating that the Dinky remain where it is currently located. The discussion has also provoked a look at transit options in town, with the University, Borough, Township, and local groups collaborating to determine a free shuttle route that would utilize the FreeB jitney beyond its current usage during commuter hours.

The University also saw a record number of applications for admission this year, admitting only 8.18 percent of the 26,247 applicants for the Class of 2014. Financial aid awards, which the University makes as grants and not loans, have increased this year as well. The Class of 2010 celebrated its Commencement, and the University’s 263rd such ceremony, at the beginning of June.

Development

Development projects downtown continued as Building C, now known as 25 Spring Street, opened in June for residential tenants to move in. The 52 studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments are coupled with retail at street level. CoolVines and Pristine Fine Dry Cleaning and Concierge of Princeton have taken up residence in the building, with D’Angelo Italian Market to open as well.

Palmer Square North’s luxury townhouses and condominiums known as The Residences, have also had tenants move in. Totaling 100 units, the final development is still under construction, with residences expected to cost between $1.2 and 3 million.

The final outcome of a contentious debate about building on an environmentally sensitive tract on Princeton Ridge along Bunn Drive was the approval for Westerly Road Church’s plans to building a new religious edifice on an 18.5-acre tract of land at the Ridge. Proponents of the plan cited the need for the church to move locations in order to be able to accommodate an expanding congregation, while others advocated for less impervious surface coverage and a smaller building footprint. Fears about impervious surfacing causing increased flooding in the immediate surrounding areas is relevant to most development in Princeton.

Architect and Developer J. Robert Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder) recently purchased eight properties along Witherspoon Street between Green and Lytle Streets, with the deal closing at $3.9 million. Specific plans for the mix of residential and commercial space are still to be determined, though Mr. Hillier has mentioned that they will remain primarily residential and that meetings with leaders of the community and residents of the immediate area to hear their concerns and aspirations for the sites will occur before changes are made. He anticipated that they are “between two and five years away” from starting any alterations on those properties.

Hospital 

Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) is planning for a move to its new location 2.5 miles away in Plainsboro to a 170-acre campus along Route 1 and Scudder’s Mill Road in early 2012. Construction at the new hospital site is ongoing, with the $442 million project featuring state-of-the-art design and medical technology. The new Merwick Care and Rehabilitation Center will open ahead of the hospital, with other healthcare amenities to be located onsite as well.

A deal concerning the 9.8-acre hospital property on Witherspoon Street that was to be sold to real estate firm Lubert-Adler for $55 million fell through in May, and the PHCS is still looking for a purchaser and developer of the site. The property has been approved for up to 280 residential units and about 79,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.

Local Business

The local economy is showing slow signs of recovery, with merchants acknowledging this year’s difficulty, but maintaining an optimistic outlook for the future. Local independent merchants continued their efforts again this year with Hometown Princeton getting the word out about the importance of supporting area businesses. And the Princeton Merchants Association has redoubled its effort to connect all Princeton merchants, from the downtown to the Shopping Center, while hosting workshops and training sessions.

Longstanding Princeton establishments closed their doors this year, citing circumstantial and personal reasons beyond financial difficulties. Merrick’s clothing store shut down their operation along Moore Street in June after residing there for 25 years, but reopened as Merrick’s Too at the Shopping Center in the fall, and will open again in March of next year. French restaurant Lahiere’s served its last meal in November, after the building was sold in late October. The establishment had been in that location for 91 years. The locally owned Forer Pharmacy also closed earlier this month, sold to CVS after 40 years in the business.

Princeton Public Library

Despite a $100,000 decrease in its overall budget, the library managed to provide the same level of service as job-seekers and those looking for less expensive forms of entertainment flocked to use it.

The highlight of the year was the library’s centennial celebration. Events during the weekend of October 9 and 10 included an appearance by NPR’s Terry Gross and an evening gala. A major achievement was the completion of the Centennial Fund campaign, which reached its goal of $10 million in gifts and pledges by October 10.

Other noteworthy accomplishments for the library this year were the Friends’ book sale; a one-day sale of audio-visual material; and the continued success of the library’s used book store. 

The theme of the library’s goals in 2011 is once again “doing more with less,” Director Leslie Burger observed recently.

Measures that will help provide for continued service to the community 72 hours a week include reviewing the library’s internal practices to ensure that it is “working smarter and documenting processes”; leading the transformation of content from print to digital in a way that responds to customers’ needs; and refreshing the library space “in response to six years of heavy use and changing demands.” Since it opened in 2004, more than five million people have visited the Princeton Public Library.

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