As University Grows, So Does Concern for Fiscal Responsibility

Matthew Hersh

When Princeton University approached Borough Council earlier this year about the prospect of expanding the development capacity of its Engineering Quadrangle (E-Quad), Council balked out of concern for what was then perceived as ambiguity concerning building plans.

That proposal, which seeks an ordinance that would allow the University an additional 100,000 square feet of building potential, was introduced at Council's November 9 session. And although the ordinance was introduced, Council yet again hesitated, but this time over arguably the most sensitive of town/gown issues: money.

Some members of Council expressed a nagging concern that there needs to be a device, ostensibly a metric, that measures the University's financial agreement with the Borough as the University continues to grow. Currently, there is no mechanism in place that measures the University's growth concurrent with the payments in lieu of taxes it gives to the Borough annually.

The University, however, is the largest tax payer in both Princeton Borough and Township, contributing approximately $7 million in property and sewer taxes between 2003-2004.

Additionally, under a previous agreement, the University will increase its voluntary contribution to the Borough in 2006 to $400,000 with an added contribution of $250,000, which was brokered between the University and the late Borough Mayor Joe O'Neill.

Those payments aside, the University and those affiliated with it make use of infrastructural resources such as the Fire Department, Police Department, and roads, that have some members of Council scratching their heads as to whether the financial agreements currently in place are what they should be.

In a November 16 letter to the editor, Councilman Roger Martindell revisited an idea that has floated in and out of the town/gown dialogue, and has resurfaced since the University put forth its E-Quad plans: the creation of an "institutional body," or a municipal commission composed of Borough and University officials that would oversee all town/gown dealings.

Mr. Martindell went on to say in his letter that increased University development places tax burdens on residents that could be averted:

The E-Quad expansion "necessarily presses the Borough taxpayer into paying more for such municipal services as police, fire protection, engineering," he pointed out, adding that Council, in deliberating the E-Quad ordinance slated for a final December 13 public hearing "did not require the University to address, or limit, the number of persons who will use the proposed development, nor did the governing body ask how the University will help defray the cost of such use."

Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of the University, has maintained that the development planned for the E-Quad consists of low-impact laboratories housing small numbers of people.

The University had also worked with residents of the Murray Place neighborhood and other streets near the E-Quad in an effort to reduce car and pedestrian impact on neighboring streets, hoping to offset a contentious battle like the one that occurred in 1990 when Borough implemented the current zoning on that site.

Mr. Martindell said that while the late Mr. O'Neill made in-roads with the University when it came to the financial contributions and zoning, his death creates a void in that dialogue and that a commission could create a consistent medium of discussion.

"It should be a permanent group that's going to be around as long as the University and town are around, and that's going to be a long time," he said in an interview last week, adding that a commission would handle the "wide variety" of contacts between the town and University and not only finance.

The Councilman said that a commission could be useful as the Borough and Township look to consolidate dispatch services for emergency responders, and that the University Public Safety could be involved in the process.

Mr. Martindell acknowledged that while a TAG (Town and Gown) committee has already been in place, a formal commission would guarantee an ongoing dialogue. The existing group was composed of the mayor, one or two Council members (including Mr. Martindell), the Borough administrator and other Borough officials, and was responsible for negotiating the agreement now in effect that has increased the University's contribution to the Borough over the past several years, Mr. Durkee said.

At Mr. O'Neill's request when he became mayor in 2004, the TAG group yielded to direct negotiations between the mayor and the University. It was those negotiations that were what ultimately led to the University's agreement to increase the University's contribution by $250,000 in 2005 and 2006.

The University, for its part, has indicated that it could be flexible in continuing a productive dialogue.

"We're happy to have a larger discussion about the full range of contributions we make now and may make in the future, with whatever group or in whatever format works best for Mayor and Council," Mr. Durkee said in an e-mail Monday.

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