Oct. 25, 2017: In anticipation of the November Borough Council elections for two seats, I put together a list of questions and sent them to each candidate. Candidates Richard Menziuso and Daniel Lebar sent in their answers. As a reminder, my Q&A with Democrats Reed Leibfried and Todd Pagel is posted here.
Menziuso’s and Lebar’s answers are presented together and lightly edited for clarity.
1.) How has the borough done so far on downtown redevelopment?
Menziuso: I am not sure why this question should be limited to “downtown” redevelopment. How have we done on redevelopment? That depends on the goals we are pursuing. If the goal has been to increase the density of the population, we have done well. Several hundred new apartments have been built or are slated to be built in the near future in the downtown proper and just steps away from the downtown.
If the goal for the town was economic or commercial growth or stabilization of the tax rate, I think our success is much less clear. Certainly, the addition of Whole Foods, a major upscale market, in the downtown is a win.
Successful redevelopment, though, isn’t just adding a high-end supermarket or constructing some fancy-pants apartments for wealthy hipsters or empty-nesters. Our master plan for the town requires that we focus on maintaining and protecting the residential nature of the town. Successful redevelopment follows a plan which encompasses the residential, economic, commercial, and infrastructure improvements designed to encourage long term sustainable residential and economic viability.
What has been done on South Main in the last decade? The last two decades? Why is the southerly gateway of our town less worthy of the Borough Council’s attention than the two blocks north of the train tracks?
There is a great deal of construction and activity in our “downtown,” but we have no clear plans to accommodate more traffic, more sewage, more police, more ambulance, and more fire services that such development will demand. Successful redevelopment is more than just bricks and mortar. It is more than increasing taxes on downtown properties to fund the MDA. It is a coordinated long-term plan, staged to minimize disruptions and maximize the potential of the town.
The bottom line? We have taken some positive steps ahead for which our past and current mayors and council members deserve credit. We hopefully will continue to move ahead without any roadblocks (no pun intended). However, there are numerous significant infrastructure improvements needed for long term success of our town’s development. These elements need to be addressed.
Lebar: Jury is out, net effect of Woodmont, especially, Borough’s infrastructure burdens, if it helps or detracts from legacy Main Street storefront marketability.
2.) What is your vision for Metuchen?
Menziuso: Metuchen is the reason my family and I moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn. We visited the town. We liked the feel of a real Main Street and the sense of community. We moved here because it is a family-friendly, small town with character. It is diverse, with people of different religions, races, political views and economic income. That diversity is important to me and to my family.
I envision an economically prosperous town, but a town that remains affordable for people from a wide variety of economic backgrounds. I want carpenters and mechanics, artists and teachers, professors and police officers to be able to live here. I want lawyers and doctors and accountants and stockbrokers, too. My father is a Union master carpenter, my uncle is a noted architect, I work as an accountant for international corporations. We have all known success and I understand the value of hard work. I appreciate the skills of craftsmen, the value of art, the inspiration of beautiful structures. I appreciate the richness of life in a diverse and respectful community.
Metuchen is a great town because of its multi-dimensional diversity. The economic, cultural, spiritual, racial, artistic and political diversity in town enriches all of our lives.
My vision for Metuchen is to protect and cultivate its diversity, to enhance its sense of community, and to continue to give opportunity to residents for generations to come. We need lean and efficient government to provide necessary services at reasonable costs. I do not want our seniors sent packing because property taxes continue to climb. I do not want the cost of living to drive those of modest income to flee our town or our state. I do not want to see this community become a mere outpost for the wealthy.
Lebar: I never bought into Princeton as Metuchen’s development model – more like Cranford, Summit.
3.) What should the borough do about the firehouse?
Menziuso: It is discouraging that our government did not consistently ensure the structural integrity of our firehouse over the last several decades. Frankly, there should have been a complete renovation of the existing firehouse or the construction of a new firehouse years ago. But there is little use in worrying about what decisions were made in the past. We are where we are.
We need to plan for a new firehouse in a location suitable for the Borough’s needs. Whether that location is in the center of town, near Liberty Street, or in the farthest corners of our community, we need to continue our search with all deliberate speed. Our fire department has had talented leadership and dedicated members for years, we must pledge our support to our bravest citizens!
Lebar: Firehouse Committee needs an architect on board experienced in such facilities to appropriately guide its work, arrive at solution accommodating all stakeholders. In meantime, existing facility must be reinforced to forestall risks to personnel and equipment.
4.) Should Metuchen try and lower its debt load? Or does it make sense to take on more debt to get projects like the firehouse done?
Menziuso: Is there choice at this point other than full outsourcing to a neighboring city like Edison? Metuchen can take on more debt and finance this project but my main concern is that we are careful to not repeat the past mistakes with how Borough Hall was built and financed. Still today we have sewer pump issues that impact both Borough Hall and the Metuchen Library. We need to be smarter and sometimes that takes some more diligence and time. As I said earlier, fix the problems now that are known to ensure an optimal outcome – a firehouse built to last, an efficient and environmental-friendly infrastructure that will mitigate operational costs, and a proper location that will get through the traffic to save lives.
Lebar: Metuchen has prodigious and growing ‘job jar’ of capital needs that must be redressed. So long as ‘debt cover’ (ratio of tax levy to debt load) remains relatively stable (low interest debt keeps pace with levy’s organic increase, older, more costly debt retired in expedited fashion) Borough shouldn’t be hurt in process.
5.) Are taxes too high in Metuchen?
Lebar: SCHOOL portion of tax bill (about 80 percent) is egregious, together with ever-increasing municipal and county burdens ‘straw breaking oppressed taxpayers’ backs’ all across the Borough. Metuchen must continue to fight for receiving its fair share of municipal aid while taxpayers must demand Board of Education officials continually examine and implement substantial administrative streamlining and other cost-saving measures.
6.) Metuchen is currently fighting to force developers to conform to zoning code, particularly on size of structures on properties, What is your view on this?
Menziuso: The zoning code should not be a negotiating position. Properties are subject to zoning regulations. There are certainly times when a variance can and should be given due to the unique characteristics of the property, the surrounding properties, or the intended use of the property. Otherwise, the zoning board should not have to “force developers” to conform to the code. If we begin to give variances as a matter of course, we of course will create problems as developers will be able to find examples where similar requests were made and variances given.
Bottom line – we need to give our zoning board the discretion to give variances, but requests for variances need to be scrupulously reviewed.
Lebar: Borough Code already includes two separate ‘design standards’ provisions which, on their face, appear to have Borough-wide applicability, address situation if utilized by land use boards.
7.) Should Metuchen be more pedestrian and biker friendly? If so, how can the borough make this happen?
Menziuso: Yes. Metuchen should be made more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. To do that we must first solve some of the vexing traffic issues in town, which may be exacerbated by the increased population density downtown. We have requested and obtained grants in the past for improved crosswalks and bike lanes and walking trails. What happened to those? We took the grant money, but did not adequately plan for maintenance and upkeep of those improvements. Remember flashing crosswalks? Bike lanes on Woodbridge Ave? Raised “concrete” brick intersections along South Main? Ill-fated bollard lights, bump-outs and islands along Main? We need to commit to these improvements and to be tenacious in their upkeep.
Lebar: Pedestrians require conscientious attention to sidewalk and road crossing integrity. Bike accommodations require establishment, implementation of ‘complete streets’ best practice policies following intensive study what works, what doesn’t.
8.) Free question — anything else you want to say as part of your campaign?
Menziuso: In this local election, I respect my opponents and want to protect their dignity. Though I disagree with them on some points, I believe they are good people. Like me, they are offering to use their time and talent to hopefully make our town a better place. I wish them the best of luck in all things.
Unfortunately, some in town have tried to reframe my positions to those one might hear from divisive voices in Washington, DC or Trenton. I am not sure if the goal is to cultivate divisive politics, to distract people from my campaign, or if they are simply ignorant of my positions. I hope that voters will see through these distortions.
I am the first to admit, I am no silver-tongued politician. I am a CPA. I am a husband and a Dad. I am your neighbor. I am a thoughtful person who was raised in a place of great cultural and religious diversity. I respect people. To be characterized as close-minded or intolerant is outright offensive and insulting. There is nothing further from the truth.
I moved to Metuchen because it had many of the same desirable qualities of my former home, Brooklyn. But Metuchen also had a small town, tight-knit community. I am here because my family and I want to be here.
If my opponent’s supporters believe I am in lock-step policies with DC and Trenton, they are mistaken. If they believe I stand for divisiveness and shun diversity, they are sadly and seriously mistaken. If they believe my integrity is for sale in order to win a seat on the Borough Council, they are mistaken.
I ask you to look at the current composition of our Council. We have six devoted council members. They are each individually good people, but they all come from the same party and share common philosophies. Do you want Borough Hall to continue to echo six “Ayes” for every motion made? For every resolution proposed? For every ordinance on the table? Do we want our council members tethered to a single party? If so, can we fairly expect anything but lock-step politics and policies?
If you want new ideas and contributions to the Council, I am ready and able to work together to find meaningful solutions. I believe in Metuchen. I believe in the development of our downtown. The Chamber of Commerce has done great work for decades for our downtown businesses. The now-defunct Development Commission worked fastidiously to direct and control our development. Our Arts Council has partnered with various groups to sponsor innumerable events to keep our downtown alive, and stoke our artistic passions. The MDA is now up and running and hopefully we will see great things out of that initiative. But underneath it all, we cannot forget the dedication and sweat equity of our small business owners who anchor our community on Main Street. It is time for our local government to widen its focus to residents and areas beyond the downtown. I am ready to plan ahead.
Lebar: Recent health challenges compel focus on ADA design issues, widespread deficiencies.