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.

reedleibfried

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.

Boro administrator Maier resigns; Councilman Muldoon steps down to take over role on interim basis

Aug. 24, 2017:  Jennifer Maier, Metuchen’s business administrator, resigned earlier this month and no one is explaining what happened.

That includes Maier, who declined to explain why she resigned in a phone call Thursday. “I’ve never worked with a finer staff of people … I really enjoyed my time working there and enjoyed the town,” Maier told me.

Maier became borough administrator in January 2015. Prior to that, she worked as borough administrator in Union Beach from 2011 to 2015, according to her LinkedIn account.

I have no idea what happened, but I would like to point out that I also enjoyed chatting with Maier whenever I got around to working on a story for this blog. She was knowledgeable, friendly and open to questions — something you don’t always find among public officials.

Mayor Pete Cammarano disclosed Maier’s resignation at the Borough Council meeting Monday. He declined to explain why Maier resigned.

On an interim basis, Councilman Jay Muldoon will step into the administrator role starting Sept. 1, Cammarano said. Muldoon resigned his board seat to move into the role. That’s a significant move for Muldoon, who will no longer be on the board.

The way this has worked in the past, to fill the vacancy, Metuchen’s Democrat Committee (Muldoon is a Democrat) picks three individuals to present to Borough Council to fill the seat through Muldoon’s term, which ends this year. Council then chooses one of the individuals. I’m assuming that is the process that will work in this situation, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Trying to confirm and will update once I get more information.

 

 

Fox & Foxx sues Metuchen over W. Chestnut plan denial

Aug. 2, 2017: Improper. Invalid. Unlawful. Arbitrary. Capricious. Unconstitutional. Null and Void. And of no force and affect.

That’s how Fox & Foxx Development, LLC, describes the Metuchen Planning Board’s rejection in June of the developer’s plan to subdivide a property on W. Chestnut Ave. into two lots to make room for a new home.

The Edison real estate developer is suing the borough, Borough Council, the mayor and the planning board over the rejection of its application for what it calls a “minor” subdivision on the property at 212 W. Chestnut Ave.

Fox & Foxx also is suing companies and individuals it says are working with the borough to undermine the plan, but whose identities are unknown to the company, according to the July 10 filing made in New Jersey Superior Court. Fox & Foxx is represented by DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum of Warren, New Jersey. Robert Foxx and Steven Fox, managing members of the firm, did not respond to email questions Wednesday.

“Defendants’ denial was not based upon a legitimate governmental purpose, but rather, constituted an irrational and wholly arbitrary decision that deprived plaintiff of its right to equal protection generally and under the United States and New Jersey constitution,” Fox & Foxx said in the court filing.

Metuchen Mayor Peter Cammarano declined to comment, citing pending litigation. The Planning Board is set to discuss the lawsuit at its meeting Aug. 3, according to the meeting agenda, part of which will be in closed session.

Lot width

At issue is the borough’s view that the proposed development would have detrimental effects on the character of the neighborhood. “The detrimental effect of granting the application would outweigh any benefits that would result from the granting of the application, which benefit the board finds to be nonexistent,” according to the Planning Board’s resolution denying the application.

The property is about 0.37 acres and contains a two-story, single-family house with a framed deck and an above-ground pool. Fox & Foxx proposed to subdivide the property into two separate lots with 50 feet of frontage on W. Chestnut Ave. and to build a two-story, single-family structure with an attached one-car garage, porch and paved driveway on the proposed second tract. The existing home would remain on the proposed first tract, according to court documents.

Fox & Foxx requested variances from the borough’s required 62.5-foot minimum lot width, proposed at 50 feet; 8-foot side setbacks, proposed at 5.8 feet; and the 10-foot above-ground swimming pool side setback, proposed at 5.5 feet, according to court documents.

“The granting of these requested variances would, in and of itself, be detrimental in that the size and shape of the proposed new residence, together with the reduced lot size, would create an undesirable appearance of larger two story homes on undersized lots, especially where the governing body amended the ordinance only a few years ago to strengthen the lot width requirement,” the Planning Board said in the resolution denying the application.

The board said “many” properties within 200 feet of the property are wider than the proposed lots, including one lot of 102.5 feet, six lots of 75 feet, one lot 60 feet wide, two lots 55 feet wide and one lot 52.5 feet wide, the resolution said.

The company argued the plan is in keeping with characteristics of surrounding homes. Forty percent (25) of the homes surrounding the site had lot widths of less than 50 feet, with most of those dwellings with width of 40 feet. Forty percent of the homes surrounding the site have lot widths of 50 feet, the same as the plan, Fox & Foxx said. Overall, 80 percent of the homes surrounding the plan site did not meet the borough’s 62.5 feet lot width requirement, the company said.

“The proposed dwelling substantially conformed in all aspects with municipal zoning requirements and the bulk variances which the plaintiff sought would materially conform with the surrounding dwellings,” according to court documents.

Further, the company argues the borough does not define ‘neighborhood’ in its code so it made its own definition, focusing on homes within 200 feet of the site.

What does the Amazon/Whole Foods deal mean for Metuchen?

June 16, 2017: The first question that came to mind when the announcement came across the wire Friday morning that Amazon was going to make its largest acquisition ever by buying Whole Foods Markets was, ‘what does this mean for Metuchen?’

My thought was, Amazon doesn’t need brick and mortar stores, right? The company is all about delivery. One way to quickly convert some of those assets into cash and help finance the deal is to sell or at least sell and lease back real estate — a tried-and-true method used by private equity firms when buying retail businesses.

However, Amazon has been trying to figure out ways to break into the grocery business and has been making inroads through its Amazon Fresh delivery service. And now it is buying itself more than 400 hard assets in the form of stores across 42 states — a massive network that has already figured out how to buy local and keep these precious, expensive products fresh.

With the acquisition, Amazon will be able to deliver these perishable items quicker to customers. The tech giant has designs on building physical stores to locate services closer to customers’ homes. From the New York Times in March:

And in groceries — a giant category in which Amazon has struggled — the company has opened a convenience store that does not need cashiers, and it is close to opening two stores where drivers can quickly pick up groceries without leaving their cars, all in Seattle. It has explored another grocery store concept that could serve walk-in customers and act as a hub for home deliveries.

So it seems like what this means is Metuchen’s store, as well as hundreds of others around the country, just got a tech-savvy owner that is all about the live retail experience.

To be clear, this is an announcement and the deal is not yet sealed. It must go through approval processes by shareholders, regulatory and other closing conditions. The deal is expected to close in the second half of 2017, according to the deal announcement.

The Whole Foods store on Lake Avenue is expected to open in the fall. It’s meant to be a 44,000 square foot store employing 170 to 200 people, according to an article in the Sentinel from March.

At the time, Marjorie West, northeast marketing manager for Whole Foods, met with the Chamber of Commerce to give an update on the progress of the Lake Avenue location .

“We are very excited. Whole Foods is definitely coming to town. I can’t give a definitive date, but I know by the fall. As we get closer to when I know, we can put a banner of the date of when we will open,” she said, according to the Sentinel.

I have calls in to reps at Whole Foods and Metuchen officials. I’ll update as and when …

Parking Authority chairman resigns

June 13, 2017: Leonard Roseman, chairman of the Metuchen Parking Authority, stepped down from his post early as the agency transfers much of its responsibility to Nexus Parking Systems that runs the Pearl Street parking deck.

Roseman resigned the post as of April, according to documents from the June 5 Borough Council meeting. His term was set to expire at the end of 2018.

Parking Authority Commissioner John DeFoe, agreed to become chair of the agency, Councilman Jay Muldoon said in an email to BBB. The Mayor will name someone to fill the vacancy on the Authority, Muldoon said.

Roseman said the time was right to step down from the Agency.

“My favorite history professor warned us about hanging around too long. The MPA reduced staff, moved to new quarters at Borough Hall, has a cooperative service agreement with the borough, and a great relationship with Nexux,” Roseman wrote in an email to BBB. “Seemed like a good time for an old guy to retire.”

Borough Council has worked to shrink the Authority this year, moving to three employees from five and removing Executive Director Thomas Crownover for a part-time business administrator. The Authority hired resident Cory Zaneto as the part-time business manager.

The Authority also entered an agreement with borough Public Works Department for plowing and other maintenance at remaining parking lots, Muldoon said at a Council meeting in November.

The reorganization is expected to save the borough about $50,000 for 2017.

The decision was made to shrink the organization as part of the development of the Pearl Street parking lot. That lot was the Parking Authority’s largest, and with Nexus Parking Systems managing the 750-space parking deck, the Authority has a reduced scope of responsibility, Muldoon said.

Metuchen’s Parking Authority leased the land for the parking garage to Nexus, which financed construction of the structure. The Parking Authority will receive 30 percent of net income from the parking facility, Roseman told BBB in a prior interview.

“The PA budget for 2017 will anticipate $60,000 income from Nexus. As occupancy increases the PA income will increase. My own estimate is $90,000 to $100,000 after a year or two,” Roseman said.

Talks underway to bring opera to the Forum Theater

May 30, 2017: The opera may be coming to the borough this year.

Talks are underway to bring the the Opera Company of Brooklyn to the Metuchen Forum Theater Arts Center in the next few months, sources tell me. Nothing is set in stone and talks are still preliminary.

Richard Menziuso, a borough resident and former board member of the Opera Co. of Brooklyn, is helping facilitate talks between the Forum Theater and the opera company. Brooklyn Opera Co. is led by Jay Meetze.

Menziuso didn’t provide details about the situation as it’s still early days. A realistic timeline could be August or September, Meetze told me. Forum Theater Director Peter Loewy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

There are a few challenges — primarily is securing the space. The opera company is usually provided space without paying rent, with the host location sharing in the box office, Meetze said. The opera company also has to fund expenses for its singers traveling out to performance locations. I’m not clear on how those costs get paid.

I chatted with Meetze to get a sense of what kind of opera Metuchen might be in for. I’m excited not only for the opera to come to town, but also to meet Meetze in person. He is a driving force all on his own.

Along with the hard facts of the situation, Meetze gave me a lesson on the struggles opera singers face when performing operas in their original languages; the attributes of different types of pianos; controversy around using a virtual orchestra; and a host of others issues.

Meetze founded The Opera Co. of Brooklyn, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, in 2000. It was formed to bring affordable and accessible opera to everyone, helping to ensure the continuity of this form of art. Meetze has conducted more than 50 operas around the world.

It’s interesting how he tries to make famous operas more accessible to American audiences. He’ll cut down the length of the performances, and translate dialogue into English.

For example, the company performs Die Fledermaus, composed by Johann Strauss, in German and English. “We sing all the big musical numbers in the original language for that piece, it’s in German, and for the dialogue, we do that speaking English,” Meetze said. “So people get the gist of the plot.”

The operas are translated “only in ways that enhance the composer’s original intentions. There are people that will do things to operas to broaden appeal but not really in tune with the creators’ intentions.”

I’ll update as and if more info becomes available.

Metuchen police arrest two men for alleged vehicle burglaries

May 19, 2017: Metuchen police arrested Nahuel Buonarrigo, 19, of Perth Amboy, and Donte Guiste, 18, of Carteret, for allegedly breaking into a vehicle and stealing various items, police said Thursday.

The two men were charged with three counts of burglary, three counts of theft, three counts of theft of a credit card, one count of receiving stolen property and one count of possessing a controlled dangerous substance, police said.

Police responded to an initial call of burglary by a Metuchen resident whose vehicle was broken into around 2 a.m., police said. Police searched the area and discovered two men in the area of Coan Place and Amboy Avenue, police said.

Police stopped the men, found items on them that had been reported stolen from three different vehicles in the borough, including a laptop computer, credit cards and cash, police said. The two men also allegedly had controlled dangerous substance that was prescribed to one of the men, police said.

The two men were later taken to Middlesex County Adult Correction Center where they are being held on the charges.

The investigation is active and continuing, police said. Anyone with information is asked to contact Metuchen Police Detective James Keane at 732-632-8561.

Boro girds for fight on Main St. truck ban

Feb. 23, 2017: The Main Street truck ban is moving forward. But to make it happen, Metuchen may have a long fight ahead.

Council will consider a resolution on the plan to ban trucks from Main Street, possibly in the first meeting in March.

Once Council approves the plan — which must provide an alternate route for trucks to use around Metuchen — it gets forwarded to Middlesex County and the state for approval.

At a meeting last year, Mayor Peter Cammarano said the ban would be based on certain weights and lengths, but would definitely include the kind of big tractor-trailers that keep getting stuck under Metuchen’s Truck Eating Bridge.

Communities impacted by the ban also have to see the plans; in this case, the only community impacted would be Edison, according to Cammarano.

Edison would not get veto power over the plans but the County would solicit the township’s input, Cammarano said.

Cammarano said in a follow-up call he would be able to disclose the alternative route soon.

There is no timeline for how long the process could take. “This is unknown territory,” Cammarano said. He said it could be six months or a year.

At the Council meeting Tuesday, Cammarano characterized the process as potentially being a “fight.” He said the fight would not be with Edison, but could come with trucking companies that use Metuchen as a shortcut.

The ban would not include delivery trucks, which have to be able to deliver to local businesses.

“We’ve been talking about this since I was a kid,” Cammarano said last year about trucks getting stuck under the Main Street bridge, which is owned by Amtrak. “This seems to be a reasonable way to prevent bridge strikes as well as get the trucks off of where they don’t belong. It’s been a long time coming.”

 

 

Parking authority eyes $60k from parking deck this year

Feb. 10, 2017: Metuchen’s Parking Authority restructured late last year, moving from five to three employees and removing its executive director Thomas Crownover in favor of a part-time business manager.

The reorganization is expected to result in savings of about $50,000 for 2017, Parking Authority Commissioner Leonard Roseman told me in an email response to several questions.

The Parking Authority hired Metuchen resident Cory Zaneto as part-time business manager. The Authority also shifted long-time employee Art Moore to facilities manager. Employee Dorothy Wyzykowski will maintain business and customer records.

The Authority also entered an agreement with borough Public Works Department for plowing and other maintenance at remaining parking lots, Councilman Jay Muldoon said at a Council meeting in November.

The decision was made to shrink the organization as part of the development of the Pearl Street parking lot. That lot was the Parking Authority’s largest, and with Nexus Parking Systems managing the 750-space parking deck, the Authority has a reduced scope of responsibility, Muldoon said.

Metuchen’s Parking Authority leased the land for the parking garage to Nexus, which financed construction of the structure. The Parking Authority will receive 30 percent of net income from the parking facility, Roseman said.

“The PA budget for 2017 will anticipate $60,000 income from Nexus. As occupancy increases the PA income will increase. My own estimate is $90,000 to $100,000 after a year or two,” Roseman said.

Amboy Bank buys Metuchen bonds at 1 pct interest rate

Metuchen sold short-term bonds of about $2.4 million at a 1 percent interest rate in September for various projects, including major repairs to the borough sewer system.

The bonds were purchased at face value by Amboy Bank, a commercial bank, on Sept. 11, Borough Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Cuthbert reported. Cuthbert’s report was reviewed at a Borough Council meeting in October.

Cuthbert did not respond to a request for comment. No one at Amboy Bank responded to a request for comment.

Metuchen issued the debt to fund sewer plant upgrades that became imperative after a near-catastrophic failing in a pump station, according to minutes from Council’s June meeting. Read more here: http://www.gmnews.com/2016/07/29/metuchen-bond-ordinance/.

The bond ordinance Council approved in June slated funds for improvements to sewers, including the Jersey Avenue pump station; repairs to Oakland Park, including acquisition of a composite play structure; and the acquisitions of a street sweeper and a garbage truck. Funds were also pledged for reconstruction of Durham Avenue and curb and sidewalk repairs, the ordinance said.

The bonds are backed by the borough’s tax revenues, according to the ordinance.

Metuchen has about $18.6 million of outstanding bonds (it’s unclear if the recent float is part of that total). Interest on bond principal of $2,030,000 in 2016 was $580,678, or 13.76 percent of the current budget, according to the borough’s budget report.

Local community banks like Amboy Bank are natural buyers for short-term municipal debt. Here’s an interesting write-up about this type of deal:

The direct purchase of bank-qualified bonds by commercial banks is attractive to localities – even for smaller bond issues in the $500,000-$2 million range. With this approach, an issuer directly places bonds with a bank. Professional fees, which can make smaller deals uneconomical, are substantially reduced because there is typically no placement agent, remarketing agent, letter of credit bank (and all their additional associated legal fees), rating, and possibly no trustee (or the bank that purchases the bonds will act as trustee and paying agent) as well on these transactions. Bond pricing may be higher, but the offset of the lower fees and costs can have a significant impact on the effective cost of borrowing for smaller deals.

Does debt ever go anywhere but up, like taxes? Current year debt in the 2016 budget report: $2,610,678.00. Prior year debt: $2,113,300.00.

Metuchen has a Moody’s rating of Aa2, which means the borough’s credit is rated as high quality, low-risk to pay back short term debt.