Rev. Owens on police review commission: ‘We’re not here to find dirt on police department’

Aug. 13, 2020: Rev. Ronald Owens traces his history in Metuchen back to 1900, when his great-grandfather moved to the borough from Virginia to work as caretaker of the cemetery at the First Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Owens is senior pastor at New Hope Baptist Church of Metuchen. He also has served as chaplain to the Metuchen Police Department for 17 years. It is this resume Rev. Owens cites when he talks about his unique responsibility as head of a commission tasked by Mayor Jonathan Busch to review the police department’s use of force policies.

“There’s not much that Metuchen’s police department has to reform, if anything,” Owens told me in a recent interview. “It’s just that there’s some things that could make it more user-friendly to the community.

“We’re not here to find dirt on the police department,” Owens stressed.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck sparked nationwide protests. Floyd and other deaths such as Breonna Taylor has spurred hard questions about how much force is appropriate, especially when it comes to unarmed people.

Busch announced in June that he had signed the “Mayor’s Pledge” from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of former President Barack Obama’s Foundation. The pledge commits signers to review use of force policies, engage the community by including a range of perspectives as part of the review, make the findings public while seeking feedback and ultimately, reform use of force policies.

Busch also named the members of the commission, to be led by Rev. Owens.

Commission members are: David Alston, retired captain with the New Jersey State Police; Alan Johnson, software engineer manager with Better.com; Hazel-Anne M. Johnson, associate teaching professor at Rutgers in the Department of Human Resource Management; Chuck Lopez, music teacher with Edison School District; Deborah Mohammed-Spigner, assistant professor in the College of Business and Public Management and School of Criminal Justice and Public Administration at Kean University; Rabbi Eric Rosin of Neve Shalom; and Bobbie Theivakumaran, managing director with Citi.

Busch and Owens have both said Metuchen police department ranks low in arrests by force compared to the rest of the state.

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Rev. Ronald Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church

According to Force Report compiled by NJ Advance Media, Metuchen police reported 47 uses of force from 2012 to 2016, a lower rate than 375 police departments (out of 468) around the state. (Use of force includes any time an officer used force during an arrest and filled out a use-of-force form).

During this time frame, the subjects of force arrests were 62.1 percent white, 17.2 percent black, 6.9 percent Hispanic and 10.3 percent Asian, according to the database.

A weapon was fired twice during the time period, with two incidents in 2013 and 2014 listed as “deadly” force. For both officers who used “deadly” force, the number of subjects injured is listed as zero. Read more here.

The goal for Metuchen police will likely focus more on enhancing its exposure to the community, Owens said. One idea would be to designate an officer to focus on public relations. The officer “would do certain police appearances … in schools, talking about safety, security, all the things that our police department feels are important to know,” Owens said.

The commission will also consider ways to provide more access to counseling for individuals under “domestic stress,” Owens said. As chaplain with the police department, Owens said he travels with officers to scenes of domestic violence or emotional distress. “I’m in the car with police officers on the way to those sites, to bring comfort,” he said. “So I’m talking as someone who carries a badge.”

The commission answers to the mayor and Borough Council. Owens said he would like the commission to make some of its findings public so the community can respond.

 

Here’s details of why Kahn’s Crossing bridge needs replacement

July 28, 2020: The terminal condition of Kahn’s Crossing pedestrian bridge stems from deterioration along one of the support beams from water infiltration, according to May 2018 report from borough engineer Maser Consulting.

Brainy Boro Blog obtained the report through an open records request.

Maser recommended closure of the bridge and complete replacement, rather than repair, based on the inspection report. The borough closed the bridge in 2018 and has since been applying for Department of Transportation grants to help fund the $190,000 to replace the bridge.

The cost appears to only include the same type of bridge with galvanized and painted steel, but not removal, erection and installation, the Maser report said.

So what went wrong?

Water was able to infiltrate inside the east support beam which runs under the platform, called a stringer, which did not have closure plates, the report said. That resulted in internal rusting along the length of the east stringer, as well as at the center splice connection along the bottom of the stringer, including on splice plates and splice plate bolts, the report said.

Kahn Pedestrian Bridge Structural Follow-up Report – 5.15.18

Inspectors also found external rusting and deterioration along the west stringer, which was less significant than the internal decay on the east beam, the report said. Though here as well, inspectors found deterioration at the center splice connection.

The original manufacturer of the bridge, Contech Engineered Solutions LLC, also assessed the state of the bridge and came to the same conclusion as Maser.

“Since the rust is occurring on the inside of a closed tube steel, the full extent and degree of the rust cannot be completely seen nor definitively determined,” the report said. “The unknown amount of deterioration and rust on the inside of the stringer’s bottom chord has made the bridge’s structural stability extremely uncertain.”

I’m still not clear what exactly happened to allow water inside the east stringer. Was there a design flaw, construction mistake, simply wear and tear over time? We’ll keep digging.

BTW, there’s apparently been a bridge at the end of Graham Avenue since the 19th Century, after the Lehigh Valley Railroad cut out the land for its railroad. David Thomas, the owner of a large plot of the southwest section of the borough at the time, had the first bridge built at Graham Avenue for his convenience, according to the summer 2007 issue of Nannygoats, the newsletter of the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society.

Metuchen cuts $94k in budget requests in pandemic-battered economy

July 15, 2020: Metuchen borough staff took an ax to the budget this year to control costs as revenues dried up in the pandemic downturn.

A budget was ready in March, but once covid-19 hit, it had to been done over, and over again. The result was cuts of $8,000 from Metuchen Media, $14,000 from the fire department, $25,000 from the police department, $10,000 from streets and roads and buildings and grounds, $16,000 from sewers and $11,200 from forestry.

Ultimately, the borough cut about $94,000 from the original budget to adjust to the battered economy.

In the end, Metuchen staff presented its 2020 fiscal year budget at the council meeting this week that calls for a property tax increase for residents of 4.5 to 4.6 tax points. For a property valued at $200,000 in the borough, the tax increase, including borough and school taxes, would be $284, according to Borough Administrator Melissa Perilstein, who made the budget presentation Monday.

(County, municipal and school budget costs determine the amount of property tax to be paid. A town’s general tax rate is calculated by dividing the total dollar amount it needs to raise to meet local budget expenses by the total assessed value of all its taxable property. An individual’s property taxes are then calculated by multiplying that general tax rate by the assessed value of his particular property. Because of New Jersey’s strong “home rule” concept of government, the State does not participate in the making of local budgets, nor does it receive any of the property taxes collected.

From Borough Finance Officer Rebecca Cuthbert: To calculate a tax point: Municipal total rate x total ratables /100 as compared to municipal total rate + .01 x total ratables /100. A tax point is the amount that a .01 increase in the tax rate equates in dollars.)

The budget is proposed at $22.25 million, a decrease of $492,784 from last year. Borough Council will hold a public hearing on the budget at the Aug. 24 meeting.

“This was  collective effort,” Perilstein said. “We went back to everyone and said, ‘please look at your budgets another time and let [us] know what you can do without. We’re lean and mean for sure.”

The tax increase will be offset by the borough using $1.6 million in surplus funds, the same amount of money used last year. This will leave the borough with about $3.5 million in surplus, said Cuthbert.

Metuchen also is getting an infusion of $500,000 from the Parking Authority, down from $1 million last year. The borough is budgeting $1.4 million in state aid, which is still a question. “From everything our CFO is hearing … the state is not looking to touch aid at this point,” Perilstein said.

Revenues are also being anticipated in the form of $662,264 for fees, permits and licenses, $600,000 in delinquent tax collection and $368,148 in grants and other sources of funding.

The borough, like probably every municipality in New Jersey, was hit with unanticipated pandemic-related costs, Perilstein said. Metuchen spent around $102,000 on covid-19 related expenses for things like building sanitization, cleaning products and infrastructure upgrades to better protect employees such as plastic partitions. The borough is hoping for reimbursement from Middlesex County for such pandemic related costs, Perilstein said.

Municipal Court revenues are expected to decrease $175,000 to $200,000, according to the budget document.

The largest slice of the budget flows to salaries and wages for police and public works. Money also flows to things like debt service (15 percent of the total budget), sewage treatment, pension costs and professional services.

“We were very cognizant of the fact [that] these are tough times, we wanted to maintain services, maintain what people have come to expect … and be cognizant of the fact there was a major economic event that occurred, which impacted our revenues,” Perilstein said. “That was a big piece of how do we maintain this equilibrium with appropriations versus revenues, because you’ve got to come out even somehow, costs are still increasing even though our revenues decreased.”

Updated July 16 with information about how tax points are calculated. 

Boro applies for grant to replace Kahn’s Crossing pedestrian bridge

July 8, 2020: Metuchen government has proven its dedication over the years to making the borough a more pedestrian friendly place. Officials have long sought and received money through grants and other funding sources to help make borough streets safer for walkers.

With this kind of dedication to pedestrian safety, it’s unfortunate, and curious, that one of the borough’s premier pedestrian bridges remains closed after being judged unsafe during an inspection in 2018.

Kahn’s Crossing connects Graham Avenue across the Greenway trail gap. Graham is one of the most historically significant streets in Metuchen and attracts pedestrians strolling the neighborhood or heading to the train station from the southwest section of the borough.

(Full disclosure, I walked Kahn’s Crossing daily as a train commuter to NYC).

 

kahnscrossing

The borough engineer in 2018 found during a routine inspection that the bridge had rusted through, according to Mayor Jonathan Busch. The engineer determined the bridge was not repairable and needed replacement, Busch told me over email.

Complete bridge replacement would cost $190,000, Melissa Perilstein, borough administrator, said. For the third year in a row, Metuchen applied for a state Department of Transportation grant to fund a portion of the cost to replace the bridge, Perilstein said.

In March 2018, the borough awarded Maser Consulting (the borough engineering firm) $9,500 to design a repair plan for the bridge, according to minutes from the March 19 2018 borough council meeting.

Later that year, the borough applied for the state Department of Transportation grant for the bridge reconstruction project. The borough submitted the same grant in July 2019.

This is not the first time the bridge has closed, apparently. I’m no historian, but some simple internet research found that the bridge was named for a former environmental commission member Donald Kahn, who died in 2006. Kahn worked to have the bridge re-opened and was honored for his efforts by having the bridge named after him, according to a 2006 issue of Nannygoats, the newsletter of the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society.

I have a few questions: what happened to the bridge? Why did it fall into disrepair and was that the result of some sort of design flaw or construction error? If so, who was responsible? I put the questions out and if I get answers I’ll update the blog.

If you know anything, hit me up here or on the Facebook page.

Metuchen to review police use of force policies

June 23, 2020: Metuchen is forming a commission to study the police department’s use of force policies as part of a broader, national push to push back against law enforcement violence and racism.

Mayor Jonathan Busch announced the formation of the commission at the board meeting Monday. The commission will be led by Rev. Ronald Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.

“We’re grateful that here in Metuchen our police department is one of the best in the state with respect to its record, the statistics show it as well, and certainly when you compare it locally to other departments, there’s not even a comparison,” Busch said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t still look at ourselves and take a hard look at what we do.”

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Torrance Police Department motorcycle officers roll out.

As part of the effort, Busch signed the “Mayor’s Pledge” from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of former President Barack Obama’s Foundation. The pledge commits signers to review use of force policies, engage the community by including a range of perspectives as part of the review, make the findings public while seeking feedback and ultimately, reform use of force policies.

Other details of the commission were not available. Busch said other members of the commission, as well as its specific focus, will be disclosed over the next few weeks.

Metuchen is forming the commission as the nation takes a hard look at its law enforcement and the disproportionate violence visited by police on the black community.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck sparked nationwide protests. Floyd and other deaths such as Breonna Taylor has spurred hard questions about how much force is appropriate, especially when it comes to unarmed people.

Owens and Metuchen police Chief David Irizarry did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

 

NJ revenue/expense gap worst in US

Nov. 26, 2018: New Jersey’s finances are deplorable, as has been the case for many years — even worse than Illinois, which is saying something.

According to fresh recent from Pew Charitable Trusts, NJ pulled in revenues of about $60.3 billion and spent about $71.7 billion in fiscal 2017. This deficit is not unusual for the Garden State, which has run a deficit for 15 years, the study said.

Add this to the fact that NJ Transit is literally crumbling before our eyes, and it doesn’t bode well for the future. Check out the article here.

The comprehensive review by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts places New Jersey dead last among the states when it comes to maintaining fiscal balance, which is raising enough revenue on an annual basis to cover expenses for the same given year.

Parking Authority board fires employee for alleged theft

Dec. 13, 2017: Metuchen Parking Authority Commissioners on Tuesday terminated the job of employee Arthur Mohr Jr. for alleged theft, Vice Chairman Ed O’Brien said.

The parking authority held an emergency meeting Tuesday night to discuss operations and a personnel issue. The board of commissioners went into closed session. Afterward, O’Brien explained the board’s decision.

He said Mohr has been accused of theft of funds and time. The board next week will review a plan to improve procedures and address Mohr’s former responsibilities. Mohr was a full-time employee responsible for maintenance of parking lots, meters and equipment and enforcement of stickers in parking lots and meter collection, Borough Administrator Jay Muldoon told BBB.

Details of the accusations against Mohr are unclear. I contacted Metuchen PD and will update when and if more information becomes available.

UPDATE: Police Chief David Irizarry declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation. Parking Authority released a statement today:

The Metuchen Parking Authority announced today that one of their employees has been arrested and charged with two counts of theft from the parking authority.

Arthur Mohr, 53, of Spotswood, who was employed by the MPA since 2007, was charged with two counts of theft for working an extensive amount of time less than he was required as a full time employee and for stealing US currency coins, which belonged to the MPA.

Edmund O’Brien, Vice Chairman of the Metuchen Parking Authority, immediately suspended Mohr without pay from his employment with the Parking Authority. Mr. Mohr was terminated as a result of the actions by the Metuchen Parking Authority at the special meeting held on December 12, 2017.

The Parking Authority has been shrinking since transferring many operational responsibilities to Nexus Parking Systems, which runs the Pearl Street parking facility. Earlier this year, Council approved removing full-time Parking Authority Executive Director Thomas Crownover for a part-time business manager. The Authority shrunk from five employees to three.

 

 

 

New Governor must confront pension time bomb

Dec. 8, 2017: The incoming administration of Governor-elect Phil Murphy — to which ex-Mayor Pete Cammarano is becoming chief of staff — will have an immediate crisis on its hands. Just like the last New Jersey governor.

That is figuring out how to fix the state’s $76 billion public pension system. New Jersey, like every other state, has a huge public pension fund that ensures retirement security for around 769,000 active and retired state workers like teachers, cops and firefighters.

The pension system, comprising seven different retirement funds, is one of the most underfunded pensions in the country. A bi-partisan commission tasked by outgoing Governor Christie pegged the system’s unfunded pension liabilities at $90 billion. The state Treasurer’s office says unfunded pension liabilities are $36.5 billion. This means the pension is somewhere between $36.5 billion and $90 billion short of funding all its future obligations.

Metuchen contributes to the state pension fund. The borough for 2017 budgeted a contribution of $1,032,478.16 to two funds in the state system, Public Employees’ Retirement System and the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System of New Jersey, according to the budget.

Unfunded pension liabilities increase for a few different reasons, including and most importantly the state shirking its obligations to put money into the system. New Jersey has been notoriously bad about contributing to the pension, well before the disaster of the Chris Christie regime. This year’s budget shows Christie funding 50 percent of its actuarially determined contribution — which is supposed to ramp up in subsequent years.

Christie also proposed earlier this year using proceeds from New Jersey state lottery ticket sales to fund the state pension.

In the absence of state funding, pensions try to make up shortfalls through investment return. That is a risky strategy dependent on the market — in good years that works but in recessions that strategy goes backward. Public pensions set a long-term target rate of return — in New Jersey’s case its 7.65 percent, recently reduced from 7.9 percent. This past fiscal year, the system beat that target, returning 13.07 percent, driven by strong performance in equities.

In the current low interest rate environment, New Jersey like other public pensions have to pursue riskier strategies to generate enough of a return to meet their obligations. This strategy pushes the pension fund to put money into strategies like private equity and hedge funds.

Since 2005, New Jersey’s pension system has been one of the more innovative investors to private equity. The return has been strong, but with that return comes high fees. In fiscal 2016, New Jersey paid $132.3 million in private equity fees and expenses — its most expensive asset class. For that cost, private equity returned 6.27 percent for fiscal 2016.

Murphy campaigned on a populist platform that included divesting the pension fund from private equity and hedge funds. It’s not clear how the system would accomplish that, being that investors in pension funds can’t simply extricate themselves like public stocks. Exiting private equity would take years and could involve losing money by selling too soon.

It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. But unquestionably, stabilizing the retirement system must be a priority for the incoming administration.

 

Mayor Cammarano officially resigns; County Democratic Committee to float replacement names

Dec. 5, 2017Mayor Pete Cammarano officially resigned effective midnight Dec. 5, he announced at the Borough Council meeting Monday.

Cammarano is joining the administration of New Jersey Governor-elect Philip Murphy as chief of staff. “I just want to address what could perhaps be the worst kept secret in Metuchen,” Cammarano joked as he discussed his decision.

Cammarano thanked Council and staff members. “I consider you all very true public servants and very good friends. The seven years on the Council and my two years as mayor have been nothing but wonderful experiences,” he said.

“I think we’ve accomplished a great deal and we’re on the brink of completing but we have a lot more to go. Metuchen really is on the rebound and I’m really happy I could play a role in helping to create that.”

Democrat Cammarano was elected Mayor in 2015, replacing Thomas Valhalla who didn’t run for reelection. His tenure coincided with major changes in the borough, including major redevelopment downtown, the opening of a Whole Foods supermarket and the creation of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance. 

Cammarano served on Council from 2008 to 2014, when he was replaced by Reed Leibfried. He has worked in state government before, serving as Governor Richard Codey’s chief of staff and deputy director of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s 1994 re-election campaign.

Cammarano told me he slightly knew Murphy from his time in state government.

The Democratic County Commission will meet and choose three people to serve as Cammarano’s replacement. The committee then submits those name to Council, which chooses the replacement. That person then serves out Cammarano’s term until the election in 2018 — and can run again if he or she wants to complete Cammarano’s term, which is up in 2019. That County Democratic Committee is expected to meet this month.