Borough, Township Candidates Face Off At Library Forum
Major issues facing Princeton Borough and Township took center stage last Wednesday as candidates for municipal office faced off in a forum at the Princeton Public Library.
Moderated by Kate O'Neill of the League of Women Voters, the two-hour event pulled questions from the audience of about 50 as four candidates for Township Committee and three candidates for Borough Council brought their platforms to the public arena.
The forum, sponsored by Town Topics, the League of Women Voters, and the Princeton Public Library, was the only public venue to date where the two Township Republican candidates could challenge their Democratic couterparts with the flagship platform of rising property taxes. The two Republicans, Tom Pyle and Gordon Bryant, appeared the night before at an event hosted by the ad hoc Princeton Taxpayers Association --- a group of Township residents battling rising municipal taxes that claims the Township spends in excess of its needs.
"We have tax increases rapidly outpacing the cost of living," said Mr. Bryant, adding that the rate is "four times the rate of inflation.
"Debt was unnecessarily incurred for projects that could have been financed with current revenues," he said, later adding that if elected, he would set up a citizen advisory board that would work with the Township's Finance Committee. Mr. Bryant also criticized so-called "wishlists" that department heads are given at the start of the budget cycle, saying that the departments need to undergo cuts. "No one says 'you can't have everything you want this year.'"
Bernie Miller, the incumbent Democratic deputy mayor of the Township, defended his three-and-a-half-year record and said that expenses would continue to be reviewed on a "line-by-line" basis.
"We need to make certain that the services you want are delivered in the most cost-effective way."
Mr. Miller noted that Township Committee has already issued layoffs in its administrative offices for the first time ever and that Committee was reducing vehicular use and energy expenses. "We're tackling the problems in the way you would manage your households we're cutting whereever we can."
Republican Mr. Pyle refuted that assertion, saying that the Township budget should not be balanced on the "backs of the police." He was responding to a reference to the recent police study financed by Princeton Township indicating that the department was overstaffed. Mr. Pyle also said future budgets should not be implemented at a rate greater than the rate of inflation.
Township Democratic Candidate Vicky Bergman said that every issue, including the financial one, can be closely scrutinized, but charged Mr. Pyle and Mr. Bryant with using scare tactics.
"I think Mr. Bryant and Mr. Pyle are trying to scare us by using incomplete information we have the lowest tax rate in Mercer County and we have the highest property values," she said, adding that 50 percent of a resident's tax bill goes to the Princeton Regional Schools.
In the Borough, Democratic incumbent David Goldfarb said he has "consistently been an advocate for lower tax increases," and that he had voted for budgets only after receiving commitments of decreased hikes from colleagues on Council.
In 2005, the Borough adopted a budget that had total spending at the same level as 2004, but still had an increase: "That's the kind of situation the Borough faces," he said, noting that when he was first elected to Council in 1990, about half of the total tax revenue consisted of parking revenues, which include parking fines. Since then, "the ratio has changed dramatically.
"Our parking increases and fines have not kept pace," and as a result, taxes have increased. "I think all of us recognize the burden that it places on the residents," but that burden, Mr. Goldfarb added, is "largely a function of state policies." He called for a more "fair and rational" means of funding government.
Independent candidate Joshua Leinsdorf, who will appear in the Republican column on the ballot, said that relying more on public transportation for school busing could ease some of the tax burden. "We're spending $3 million a year on school busing, I estimate that if the high school and middle school kids took New Jersey Transit buses, we could save $1.5 million --- five cents on the tax rate." A member of the Princeton Regional Board of Education, Mr. Leinsdorf added that Transit bus routes would only have to be tweaked marginally, as many of the school and public buses have similar routes. He pointed to Notre Dame High School and Nottingham High School students who take public buses to school.
Incumbent Acting Mayor Mildred Trotman said the increases are largely out of the hands of Council, but that Council members had to work to keep the tax rate as low as possible. She echoed Mr. Goldfarb's assertion that even when spending maintains a status quo, there are tax increases: "Those are problems that we wrestle with year after year," adding that she was "not at all opposed" to soliciting large agencies such as Princeton University for additional financial help.
For the most part, the candidates were in agreement that services to which Borough and Township residents have become accustomed, should not be sacrificed to reduce spending.
"There's a crying need for more public transportation in our community," said the Township's Mr. Miller, adding that public transit will need to be increased as development occurs on the northern end of Bunn Drive and on the hospital site.
The Township's Ms. Bergman, a co-founder of the senior transportation service Crosstown 62, said that the public would be willing to pay for increased public transportation if it were effective.
Specifically, Mr. Pyle called on NJ Transit to install a new 606 bus stop at Eckerd at the Princeton Shopping Center so seniors would not have to walk from the current stop, located at the northern end, to the southern end.
Several candidates called for an expansion of the University's jitney service, P-Rides, that would, in part, take riders to the Dinky and other in-town destinations.
The Borough's Mr. Goldfarb said the "only way" the Borough can provide public transportation is in "very close cooperation" with the University's jitney service. "The University has to provide a subsidy & we simply don't have the means to provide a transportation system that is reliable enough so that people would be encouraged to use it."
Ms. Trotman agreed, saying that she did not see the Borough pursuing a jitney without the help of the University.
Mr. Leinsdorf said Princeton needs a bus service that "does a figure-eight" taking commuters to the Dinky in the morning, students to school, and shoppers to and from downtown. However, Mr. Leinsdorf criticized the Borough's downtown development project, namely the garage, as a "conflict of interest" that effectively encourages people to drive.
"They don't want public transportation, they want people to fill the garage."
In a question directed to all candidates regarding the possibility that the Dinky may someday be replaced by buses, linking to a bus rapid transit route travelling along the Penns Neck Corridor, all seven agreed that it would not be beneficial if the buses created more pollution than the current electric-powered train. Mr. Goldfarb called for a more "reliable connection" between Princeton and Princeton Junction. Mr. Bryant said bicycling to the Dinky could be increased if there were safe bicycle parking, noting the regular bicycle theft that occurs at the station.
All candidates conceded that roadways in the Borough and Township need improvement. The prospect of a freight-to-truck (transload) facility off Route 206 in Hillsborough was an additional point of concern.
"We try to prioritize our road work so we can do resurfacing projects because they're relatively inexpensive," said Mr. Goldfarb, while adding that some roads will eventually need full replacement and that the transload facility will "make things worse."
Mr. Leinsdorf said that while roads need repair, increases in sidewalk and bike lane accessibility need to be increased "so people can get rid of their second cars, or third cars."
Ms. Trotman also criticized the plan for the transload, indicating that increased state grants could be pursued to offset paving costs.
In the Township, with its 110 miles of roads, things are a bit different. Just this year, the Township embarked on a road resurfacing and reconstruction project that came in just shy of $8 million --- about twice as much as any project preceding it.
Ms. Bergman encouraged initiatives to get more people out of their cars, referring back to increased public transportation. Mr. Bryant said the Township could share paving equipment with surrounding municipalities for in-house projects.
Mr. Miller maintained that the Township has been on a regular schedule, paving approximately eight miles of roads per year. He added that the Township has been "playing catch-up" after deferment of road maintenance.
Mr. Pyle said he would look to more police enforcement to increase road safety. He also quickly dismissed any support for the proposed transload facility.
While the candidates could only speculate about future development on the current hospital campus on Witherspoon Street and the Merwick campus on Bayard Lane, all agreed that some share of housing built on those sites should qualify as affordable housing, in line with new state mandates that place hefty burdens on municipalities.
"Whether it's on Witherspoon, or a combination of the sites, I would absolutely demand there be some kind of affordable housing set aside," Ms. Trotman said. Mr. Goldfarb said that the only way for the Borough to comply with the mandates under the state's Council on Affordable Housing regulations, affordable housing "has to be an integral" part of the site.
Ms. Bergman agreed, saying that affordable housing on site would "increase the diversity" of the community.
Mr. Bryant remained guarded, saying that while affordable housing was needed, there are "long-standing" concerns about the surrounding neighborhoods. Mr. Pyle agreed, saying that the municipalities should be "judicious" when determining what will end up on that site.
Mr. Miller looked to Griggs Farm as a demographic model of what should be on the hospital site. "I support a mixed-use development of the hospital site with an affordable housing component integrated into the site."
Mr. Leinsdorf, on the other hand called for the hospital to remain in town. "I think in this new energy economy, people have to re-examine the idea of these huge campus hospitals out on some highway someplace and that the Borough and the Township need to sit down with the hospital and see what can be done."