Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 52
 
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
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State of Economy Spurs Innovation in 2009

Ellen Gilbert

Dilshanie Perera

While the ongoing recession has affected organizations, businesses, institutions, and residents, resulting in cutbacks and shrinking budgets, it has also promoted new ways of organizing and increased dialogue among community members. The municipalities and school board each engaged in debates about their budgets, taking a close look at what could be scaled back and what might be extended. Non-profits sought alternative means of funding, and the Borough and Township agreed to consider —  once again —  the possibility of consolidation. Local merchants are collaborating anew, a movement toward greater sustainability is underway, and major construction projects are taking shape. Here is a look at the highlights of the year in Princeton.

Princeton Borough

After six months of debate, Borough Council passed the 2009 municipal budget in June. The $24.6 million dollar budget involved no tax increase over the previous year, and was actually a 2.7 percent decrease over the 2008 number. The tax rate remains at $1.03 per $100 of assessed property value. To meet the goal of a zero increase, employee salaries remained unchanged from the previous year, the workforce was reduced through layoffs, and every municipal department underwent a five percent operating expense cut, with the exception of the Senior Resource Center, which now administers the Crosstown 62 service. Residential garbage collection was reduced to once a week, and the Human Services Commission was restructured. 

Finding savings in 2010 is expected to be difficult, with the Borough anticipating a close look at discussions about spending beginning early in the year. An ad hoc group created in the fall known as the Citizen Finance Advocacy Taskforce, comprised of local residents and merchants, pledged to assist the Borough in finding spending efficiencies and revenue enhancements.

Both Jenny Crumiller and Kevin Wilkes were elected in November to three-year terms as Borough officials. Ms. Crumiller will take Peggy Karcher’s seat on Council, while Mr. Wilkes will serve a full term following his year-long appointment. 

David Dudeck was appointed as the Borough Police Chief in December. A member of the force for 27 years, Chief Dudeck has also coached high school football in the area for over 20 years. His appointment follows former Borough Police Chief Anthony Federico’s sudden death in June.

Princeton Township

The Township Committee began the year by electing Bernie Miller and Chad Goerner as Township Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Mr. Miller identified the “major challenge” facing the Township during this last year as “How we as a community will deal with the financial stresses brought about by the economic and political environment that we live in.”

The Township’s annual budget of $36,879,152 amounted to a 3.5 percent increase over last year, representing a $13.35 increase for the average Township home assessed at $434,108. The tax increase was the smallest in seven years, and the lowest percentage rate increase in nine years. 

Significant flooding along the Harry’s Brook basin assumed center stage at several mid-year Township Committee meetings, resulting in the approval of five “action steps” to ameliorate the problems. The measures included a professional services agreement to reanalyze stormwater management regulations; applying for FEMA (Flood Emergency Management Agency) funds to purchase flooded properties; relocating a sanitary sewer line at 59 Meadowbrook Drive; introducing an ordinance to approve $500,000 to replace an eroded culvert; and initiating the structural inspection of all Township culverts.

Consolidation

In October members of Township Committee and Borough Council voted unanimously to approve the formation of a joint commission to study sharing additional services and/or full municipal consolidation. This was a required first step for any municipalities wishing to avail themselves of the state’s programs and subsidies supporting municipal consolidation.

The question of consolidation, if endorsed by the commission, will come before voters in the two municipalities in the November 2011 election.

N.J. Division of Local Government Services Deputy Director Marc Pfeiffer became a regular presence at the several consolidation-related meetings held in recent months, fielding questions from representatives of both municipalities and the public.

Emphasizing changes enacted by the state in 2007, Mr. Pfeiffer, a former Princeton resident who participated in the 1995-1996 Consolidation Commission, suggested that the process could be easier this time around, with more flexible laws that recognize differences among municipalities, look at likely tax increases, and address the question of municipal debt load by suggesting that each municipality maintain its debt obligations after consolidation. New laws like the “Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act,” he said, provide “a framework for making it happen” by offering aid for feasibility studies and implementation costs, and binding arbitration or fact-finding panels to deal with disputes. Of particular interest to Princeton, where two police forces exist side by side, is whether there is legal protection of the seniority, tenure, and pension rights of law enforcement personnel.

Mr. Pfeiffer emphasized the importance of “open, candid discussions of objectives and how to achieve them,” urging those present to “include everyone who has a stake in the matter, hold public hearings, address concerns about loss of local control when a service is provided by another existing department, define standards of performance, and determine complaint handling procedures.”

Revaluation

Borough and Township residents received letters in the late fall informing them of the assessed values of their homes, based on this year’s revaluation process. At a joint meeting of Township Committee and Borough Council, Tax Assessor Neal A. Snyder and Appraisal Systems, Inc. CEO Ernest F. Del Guercio, Sr. reviewed the whys and wherefores of revaluation, and responded to questions from members of both governing boards and the public.

In reviewing the revaluation process, which was ordered by the County Board of Taxation, Mr. Del Guercio emphasized that the point was to “make sure that everyone pays their fair share, no more, no less.” All properties were assessed “by the same standards.” He and his colleagues sought “as much homogeneity as possible” in their assessments of houses, figuring in such variables as size, quality of kitchens, number and quality of bathrooms, age of the structure, and recent comparable sales figures.

All of the assessments, and the variables that helped determine them, have been posted on the website asinj.com. Residents who are unhappy with their home’s assessed value may ask for individual meetings with Appraisal Systems representatives.

Princeton Schools

In April the Board of Education unanimously endorsed a $57,922,997 proposed 2009-2010 operating tax levy, which had been approved just days before by the County. Township and Borough residents approved the budget shortly afterward, resulting in a sizable, but unavoidable disparity in tax burdens between the two Princetons. Township residents paid a .65-cent increase, from $1.699 to $1.706 per $100 of the assessed value of their homes. In the Borough, the budget will result in a 7.69-cent increase from 1.965 to 2.037 per $100 of assessed value. The budget represented a 1.68 percent increase, or $957,347 over the 2008-2009 total of $56,965,650. As a result of the retirement of a 20-year old $530,000 debt service, however, the overall budget increase was .69 percent. The increase was considerably less than the state-allowed maximum of four percent. Ms. Wilson emphasized that the Board’s goal was to be sensitive to residents’ economic concerns while maintaining opportunities for student learning. “We are a hair’s breadth away from cutting programs,” she observed last spring.

Mia Cahill, who ran unopposed for the single available Township seat on the Board, was reelected in the April election. Winners for the two Borough openings were incumbent Rebecca Cox, and first-time candidate Charles Kalmbach. All three winners are serving three-year terms.

Princeton University 

Princeton University felt the effects of the economic crisis, with a 23.7 percent decrease in its endowment. Valued at $12.6 billion on June 30, the endowment was $16.3 billion in the previous year. 

While the financial aid budget for undergraduates was increased this year, most other areas saw a scaling back, with the layoffs of 43 employees and the reduction in hours for 18 other positions announced in October. The cuts followed a decision in April to reduce the University’s operating budget by $170 million over two years. 

Other cost savings measures included a salary freeze for faculty and staff earning over $75,000 per year, a voluntary incentive-driven retirement program, pausing capital projects not already underway, slowing the recruitment of new faculty and staff, and eight percent reductions in endowment income spending over two years. 

The newly renovated Butler College dormitories, which feature environmentally friendly design and new technologies, opened for use in the fall. With data-transmitting green roofs on three of its buildings, the 113,000 square foot development is 30 percent more energy efficient than construction codes require. 

Also in the fall, the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding and Community House opened at the restored site of the former Elm Club. The 18,800 square foot renovation on Prospect Avenue also features a 5,000 square foot contemporary addition. 

Princeton Borough created a special “Associate Member” category at the Fire Department in March so that the University could launch a pilot program allowing staff members trained as volunteer firefighters to respond to calls during normal work hours. 

Construction Projects

Work continued on Building C, or Phase II of the Downtown Redevelopment project, which will be composed of 53 rental apartments and three retail operations. Developed by Nassau HKT, the units are estimated to cost $1,900 to $3,000 for rent per month. 

The first phase of townhouses comprising the Residences at Palmer Square are also on track to be finished by the spring, with all of the 17 townhouses and 83 condominiums expected to be complete by 2011. Prices on the homes for sale range from $1.2 to $3 million, with rentals expected to cost between $3,500 and $6,000 per month. The project developer is Palmer Square Management, LLC. 

With construction on the Rosedale Road Bridge beginning in July, the 71-year-old bridge was reopened in early November, having undergone extensive improvements. Deemed “structurally deficient” last year, the bridge’s capacity was six tons, down from its original 37 ton load bearing capability. School buses entering and exiting Johnson Park Elementary School were rerouted immediately, with traffic detours occurring during the bridge closure.

University Expansion

The Regional Planning Board passed an amendment to the Master Plan in November that incorporates new guidelines for the development of educational and non-profit institutions, including specific recommendations for Princeton University. The document’s 14 general principles support a balance between institutional need for new facilities and the impact of development on the neighborhood and community, with a focus that includes the environment, housing, traffic, and conditional use. 

In October the Planning Board approved a 248,000 square foot neuroscience and psychology complex, which will be located next to Roberts Stadium. The building will be part of the University’s proposed Natural Sciences Neighborhood between Ivy Lane and Faculty Road. The east and west sides of campus will be connected by Streicker Bridge, the pedestrian-only route spanning Washington Road. Work began on the structure this summer, and its opening is scheduled for the fall of 2010 to coincide with that of the new 263,000 square foot Chemistry building. 

Discussions are ongoing regarding the University’s proposed Arts and Transit Neighborhood. The plan involves creating a new arts district on the south end of campus near McCarter Theatre and the Dinky Station, improving traffic circulation in the area, building a transit hub by moving the Dinky 460 feet south, and creating new public spaces that will incorporate some dining and retail elements. 

Public Library

Early in the new year, Director Leslie Burger identified “a phenomenal increase in use,” at the Princeton Public Library (PPL), suggesting that “We probably play an even more important role in the community when the economy is tough.” 

By May, however, the library was reporting a decline in library use, due, the Board of Trustees suggested, to a decreased materials budget from last year’s $213,000 to $183,000 this year. The sale of gently used books in the space previously occupied by the library store, along with the library’s annual Fall book sale were, however, notably profitable.

Using Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea as this year’s title, the library spearheaded another round of Princeton Reads activities in October. Humorist Calvin Trillin was guest speaker at the annual Friends fundraiser in November. The library café, previously run by Chez Alice, reopened in May under the management of Terra Momo. 

Looking ahead to the 2010 budget, Ms. Burger reported that a slowly growing economy, fewer grants from the state and federal governments, and escalating costs all point to a difficult time making ends meet. Municipal support for the library “hovers between 78 to 80 percent annually,” she noted, with the remainder of the library’s operating budget raised from a combination of fees and contributions. The library’s upcoming Centennial celebration will, she hoped, offer “a unique opportunity to reach out to our community of users about our long-term financial needs.”

Hospital 

The University Medical Center at Princeton (UMCP) and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) have partnered to deliver enhanced pediatric services in the Princeton HealthCare System. With doctors and other health specialists from CHOP on staff 24 hours a day, they will provide care for children and adolescents admitted to the pediatric unit, as well as oversee pediatric consultations in the Emergency Department and the Well Baby Nursery. Sedation administered to children will also be managed by CHOP staff. 

Construction at the new hospital site in Plainsboro is ongoing, with the new location on a 150-acre plot of land 2.5 miles away from the current building in Princeton. The space is purposefully designed to make overall functioning smoother, and will feature state-of-the-art technology, like operating theaters equipped for robotics and voice-controlled data uploads. All medical records will be electronic and images will be digital, to ensure rapid, efficient transfer. 

Other amenities include 238 private rooms, with the capacity for adding more should the need arise, and 100 percent energy-efficient fresh air circulation in certain areas to reduce infection. The site will also house a new emergency department that can accommodate 60,000 visits per year, with the possibility of future expansion.

Local Business

Though 2009 was generally a difficult year for merchants, local business owners banded together in novel ways. The Borough Merchants for Princeton reinvented itself as the Princeton Merchants Association, and under newly elected leadership, the organization has grown by over 43 members. One goal is to make the community of merchants in town more competitive. 

The merchant organization Hometown Princeton formed over the summer and launched its advertising campaign in the autumn. Its vision is to promote local shopping at independent businesses, thereby keeping money circulating within the community, and ensuring the viability of smaller businesses, thus maintaining the character and quality of the town. 

The Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce saw its first year under the direction of new President and CEO Peter Crowley, and announced that J. Robert Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder) will become Chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors in January.

Sustainability

A joint Borough-Township initiative, Sustainable Princeton launched in March to implement the Sustainable Princeton Community Plan, an effort to foster environmental, social, and economic strength by making processes greener. 

Divided into four volunteer working groups focused on municipal government, businesses, schools, and residents, the organization endeavors to green the built environment, improve transportation and mobility, build a strong local green economy, protect environmental health and resources, curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change by conserving energy, and promoting a socially responsible community. 

The Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC) received the final version of the Environmental Resource Inventory compiled by PEC member and naturalist Steve Hiltner. The inventory details information about land use, natural resources, surface water, ground water, biological resources, the built environment, and environmental issues in the area. It will likely be adopted into the Master Plan in the upcoming year. 

Leaf collection and stormwater management will be other key issues to address in 2010. 

Parking

Two 3-2 votes split Council in April, and resulted in charging regular rates at the Spring Street municipal garage on Sundays, allowing for monthly permitted spaces to be sold for long-term parking in the garage, charging at parking meters on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., and extending meter hours until 8 p.m. seven days a week. The changes are expected to bring the Borough $400,000 in increased revenue.

The changes in parking fees and hours in the central business district downtown sparked the ire of some local merchants, who contended that such moves would make shoppers less likely to spend time in the downtown and thereby hurt sales at stores, which would be particularly bad given the state of the economy.  

Valley Road Building

The future of the Valley Road Building remained uncertain at year’s end. “If there are no solutions to the building, it has to come down,” said Superintendent Judy Wilson referring to the older section of the Valley Road Building at an October meeting of the Board of Education’s Facilities Committee.

Ms. Wilson, Board of Education member Walter Bliss, and Facilities Committee Chair Mia Cahill noted several times that while the board is committed to salvaging the newer part of the building, the older section is “a liability,” requiring costly renovation. “We want someone public, or quasi-public to step up to the bat with a solution,” observed Ms. Wilson.

In response to assertions that no plans have been created for the building’s use, Recreation Department Executive Director Jack Roberts has pointed out that his department’s master plan includes “a fairly detailed vision of what this building should look like. We could have a great partnership with Corner House. It works perfectly towards the joint cooperative mission that we’re all on.”

Recreation Department

In late fall the joint Recreation Department approved the creation of a “Princeton Parks and Recreation Foundation,” charged with improving “the quality of life for the diverse population of Princeton by promoting and implementing recreation, parks, conservation, and leisure services in a thorough and financially efficient manner.” The group was established out of the department’s recognition that “it cannot rely exclusively on public money” to reach the goals outlined in its 2008 Master Plan. Recreation Department Executive Director Jack Roberts described the Master Plan’s “wish list” for capital improvements during “the next ten to fifteen years” noting that financing for refurbishing the 42-year-old Community Park Pool complex would be the foundation’s current priority, although “priorities can change as things happen.”

Ironically, Mr. Roberts noted, the department’s excellent maintenance of the pool and its environs may have obscured the very real need for an upgrade. A break in worn pipes beneath the pool could mean the disruption of a pool season.

Fire

Patrols responded to a three-alarm commercial fire alarm at 354 Nassau Street at 1:30 a.m. on Friday, July 31. The blaze, which ultimately destroyed two restaurants located in the building, was eventually extinguished through the efforts of several collaborating fire departments, including responders from Princeton Plasma Physics; Montgomery, Plainsboro, Rocky Hill, Lawrence Road, Prospect Heights. Hamilton, Princeton Junction, and Kingston.

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