In New Format, Council Holds Public Meeting Online
By Anne Levin
Holding its first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic became a local reality, Princeton Council used Zoom to get back to business on Monday evening, April 6. Council members, Mayor Liz Lempert, and those delivering reports were visible on screen, while members of the public were able to ask questions or provide comments by email.
Not surprisingly, discussion of the impact of the coronavirus was the priority. But the governing body also focused on other issues — including the proposed 2020 budget, the Alexander Street Bridge Project, and construction on the Princeton University campus — and passed several resolutions.
Municipal engineer Deanna Stockton reported that the reopening of Alexander Street will be at the end of this month, about 10 days later than expected. The road has been closed since fall for replacement of the bridge over the D&R Canal, which is overseen by the state of New Jersey; and replacement of a bridge over Stony Brook and a culvert, coordinated by Mercer County.
“Both agencies and contractors have made tremendous progress,” Stockton said. “But it is likely Alexander will not open until the end of April, weather permitting. They had some delay with underground utility work.”
Because of the economic shutdown resulting from the pandemic, Council agreed to a revised schedule for adoption of the 2020 budget, which was introduced last month at approximately $64 million. “The financial picture has changed,” said Municipal Administrator Marc Dashield. “We’re paying attention to revenue sources, and things impacted by the stay-at-home order including municipal court fees, parking fees, and miscellaneous permit fees. We will make some recommendations for adjustments at the public hearing during the next meeting.”
Dashield added that the state has also revised its budget schedule, extending the deadline from April 30 to May 30. He recommended that Council made an amendment at the April 13 meeting to adjust the budget, changing the public hearing and adoption to the meeting on April 27. “But things are changing on a daily basis, so we will continue to look at it,” he said.
Councilman David Cohen suggested a budget increase to plan for purchasing upgraded software to allow a stronger online presence. Councilwoman Michelle Pirone-Lambros said another priority is keeping the budget flat, with no tax increase.
Dashield also gave an update on municipal operations while government offices have been closed during the past month. Email is the best way to reach municipal offices. The Planning office is still taking applications, and permits are continuing to be reviewed. The next Planning Board meeting is April 16 and will be held via Zoom. Cornerhouse is continuing to offer assistance, either through teleconferencing or Zoom.
Princeton University Construction
Kristin Appelget, director of regional and community affairs at Princeton University, gave a brief report on two projects currently underway. Demolition of the athletic facility along Elm Drive has been completed, and excavation is ongoing toward the construction of two residential colleges projected to open by the fall of 2022. At the other site, along Fitzrandolph Road, there will be surface drilling starting within the next two weeks. The drilling is part of the first phase toward a new heating system. The University is hoping to become carbon neutral by 2046. Appelget said the second phase of this project is for drilling at the site that is currently parking lot 21, part of an application that is to be submitted to the Planning Board for administrative review.
Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser reported to Council that changes related to the coronavirus are happening “at a pace never before witnessed in public health.” He stressed the need to focus on the town’s most vulnerable population — workers in landscaping, food service, and construction, “and residents who have to work through this because their life depends on it,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re not taking our foot off the pedal with social distancing, and now wearing face masks. We’re finding out that nearly a quarter of individuals with the virus are not showing symptoms. We’re not saying a cloth mask could eliminate it, but it could decrease it. We also need to continue to work with long-term care facilities. Our work isn’t done. I believe we’re getting there. I’m calling it bulldozing the curve.”
Princeton Board of Health Chief George DiFerdinando echoed Grosser’s concerns. “The focus in coming days is to get some protection for those who aren’t wearing protections, and others who feel, and justifiably so, that expressing concerns to employers about that can damage their livelihood,” he said. “We’re going to have to square those circles in coming days. We need to figure a way to talk to food service providers and convince them that the mask recommendation applies to everyone at their work site. If it was up to me, I’d suggest to businesses that they don’t let customers in that aren’t masked.”
DiFerdinando said he doesn’t envision the virus being eradicated this year, but there may be periods where there are no cases in Princeton. Health care and hospitals will be inundated for the rest of this month “and probably a certain period in the month of May,” he said. “Wearing masks will keep us healthy so that we don’t burden the system more than it already is. The system we know is being swamped and is about to be swamped even more.”