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.

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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.

 

Election 2017: Q&A With Council Candidates Menziuso, Lebar

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.

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Richard Menziuso

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.

daniellebar

Daniel Lebar

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?

Menziuso: YES.

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.

ELECTION 2017: Q&A with Council candidates Leibfried, Pagel

Oct. 18, 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. Council incumbent Reed Leibfried and interim Councilman Todd Pagel sent in their answers. I also sent questions to Republican candidates Richard Menziuso and Daniel Lebar. I’ll post their answers once they get them back to me.

Leibfried’s and Pagel’s answers are presented together and lightly edited for clarity.

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Reed Leibfried

1.) How has the borough done so far on downtown redevelopment?

Leibfried: Due to the leadership of our mayor and council, and after countless public meetings seeking community input regarding the Woodmont and Whole Foods applications, our Main Street is as vibrant as I’ve ever seen it. Vacancies are at an all-time low, the local economy is booming, and these additional ratables have assisted the borough in controlling property tax hikes.

Pagel: The current council and mayor have done an excellent job with downtown redevelopment. We now have Whole Foods Market which is not only a great local grocery store for Metuchen residents, but it will bring in more visitors to our town who will support all of our local businesses. Now that a substantial portion of the development is winding down, I believe we need to begin focusing on other issues such as continuing to make Metuchen an extremely walkable town and making Metuchen a leader in sustainability.

2.) What is your vision for Metuchen?

Leibfried: Preserve, Progress and Promote. Preserve the historical charm of our neighborhoods, continue to have an open and transparent process with all community stakeholders to ensure that positive progress continues in Metuchen. Promote the Borough of Metuchen, our school district, the thriving arts and music scene and the volunteerism that makes our community unique.

Pagel: I want Metuchen to be a leader in New Jersey and for our Nation. Our Brainy Borough is full of talented and motivated individuals who want to make our town and world a better place to live. I want to harness this energy to make Metuchen a leader in sustainability, creativity, the arts, and most importantly promoting equality.

3.) What should the borough do about the firehouse?

Leibfried: The firehouse should be constructed on borough-owned property that meets the needs of our community and Volunteer Fire Department. Like any other capital improvement, the firehouse should be funded through bonds, but a variety of grants need to be explored in depth to identify all the potential options available to us.

Pagel: As a former volunteer firefighter, I understand the importance of having a local volunteer fire department. Not only are firefighters the ones who rush to put out fires, but volunteer departments act as the heart and soul of a community. It is great to see kids climbing on the fire trucks at the June Bug Arts Festival. With that being said, I know that the firehouse is in need of repair and many have discussed moving it. When I am elected to the council I will work with everyone involved to make a coherent decision that best benefits the residents of Metuchen.

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Todd Pagel

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?

Leibfried: Inherited debt was refinanced which saved taxpayers money over the last couple of years. For future capital improvements, the borough needs to seek any and all grant opportunities, the possibility of private/public partnerships to assist in offsetting local taxpayer contributions and continue to hold open and transparent public meetings to listen to the wishes of the overall community.

Pagel: As demonstrated by the most recent audit, Metuchen’s debt load is fairly conservative. The Borough is in sound finance shape. As we get closer to paying off Borough Hall, much of the debt load will disappear. I also strongly support seeking out grants for community-based projects so residents are not footing the bill.

5.) Are taxes too high in Metuchen?

Leibfried: Similar to an overwhelming majority of municipalities in New Jersey, the Borough strives to maintain quality services while simultaneously controlling property taxes. It is important for our residents to remember that the Borough of Metuchen controls only 20 percent of the property tax bill that we all receive on an annual basis. Eighty percent of the same property tax bill is allocated to fund our outstanding public schools, our Metuchen Municipal Library and County contributions that fund open space projects, music and arts programs and a plethora of other quality programs that are enjoyed by our residents.

With healthcare contributions rising annually, pension obligations and inherited debt taking a significant portion of our 20 percent, we work hard to ensure that quality services are still provided to our residents. Significant funds awarded to the Borough through grant opportunities have and will continue to have a direct impact on our community in a positive way.

Pagel: We are fortunate to have excellent schools, an excellent police department, and excellent fire department, along with many other excellent services funded by our tax dollars. As a council member I will do everything in my power to maintain these services and keep our taxes as low as possible. I would also like to explore other creative ways to lower property taxes in town, such as a tax credit for supporting local business.

6.) Metuchen is fighting to force developers to conform to zoning code, particularly on size of structures on properties. What is your view on this?

Leibfried: I have been personally working with the mayor, council, planner and zoning officer on this issue since I was first elected over two years ago. I believe that community input is essential for any municipality to change and adopt with the times and the Brainy Borough has an extremely active volunteerism that is second to none. I believe that by listening to the community, we have started the process of improving this extremely complicated issue. I had the honor of sitting on the Technical Review Committee, which allowed me to express my opinions and concerns over specific new construction applications. We have been collaboratively working with community stakeholders in an attempt to improve the design standards of new construction homes and the overall size of the home depending on the specific neighborhood.

Pagel: I believe our codes were written to help Metuchen maintain its small town character and I believe that developers need to abide by these codes. We live in a town that many people want to call home and that means new development. We must ensure that any new development fits with our historic neighborhoods and smaller lot sizes.

7.) Should Metuchen be more pedestrian and biker friendly? If so, how can the borough make this happen?

Leibfried: Of course. We have consistently been pursuing an expansion of the Middlesex Greenway while also working to complete the implementation of the five crosswalks we were awarded through a grant, and assist the Metuchen Police Department in enforcing speed limits and pedestrian laws to the strictest degree. This is a complex issue with no quick-fix solutions, and it takes all the community members to do their part if we want to address it effectively. Spreading awareness is certainly the first step, and the participation of all residents is instrumental. Everyone here should become an important part of the solution.

Pagel: YES! We need to extend the Greenway to give everyone in town access to it, to get back and forth from different parts of town. We need to maintain and improve our current crosswalks while at the same time adding more crosswalks to busy areas in town. We also need to continue to enforce all traffic laws which our police department does a great job with. And we need to get more people walking and biking around town. Something that I would really like to see implemented in town is a bike share program and I have been working with neighboring towns such as Asbury Park to create a system for our town.

8.) Free question — what else would you like to say about your campaign?

Leibfried: As a longtime resident of Metuchen, I have been very involved in all types of community service to help our town thrive and grow. I have been fortunate to work with many talented, dedicated residents whose devotion to this cause continues to inspire me, and I consider it a privilege to represent them as a council member and to help facilitate and actively support their ideas and initiatives. As so many others in this town, I believe that Metuchen’s potential for growth and prosperity is boundless, and that tapping into our local talent and brilliance is the key to realizing that potential. Fully committed to the residents of this town, I intend to serve them in a way that reflects this commitment and is focused on reaching our collective goals.

Pagel: We are called the Brainy Borough because of our residents. We have such an eclectic mix of people who each have their own talents and skills that we can use to continue to improve our town. As a council member I would work tirelessly to get as many of our residents involved in town-related projects and activities. I would also work with groups such as the Metuchen Downtown Alliance, Borough Improvement League, Chamber of Commerce and Metuchen Gives back to better organize our residents so that everyone can lend a helping hand if they desire to do so.