To the editor –
Monday’s presentation to the Flemington Borough Council by the Beacon Group concluded with a chart showing that the borough’s costs of the Courthouse Square project would be more than the PILOT revenue. I believe this was a deeply flawed and unfortunate way to end the presentation, and I would like to address my concerns in more detail.
The three cost elements they presented were costs to the schools, additional police officers, and mortgage interest on a brand new $5 million dollar police station. None of these costs will necessarily be incurred; the presentation said as much, yet it concluded with this chart that left people feeling they had been misled about the project’s cost. Let’s look at these three cost elements more closely.
The initial draft of the Beacon report estimated between 25 and 47 additional school children attending K-12 schools from Courthouse Square. By the time of the presentation, Beacon favored the method that projected 25 students (the low end). Spread over 12 grades, that is about two students per grade, which both Beacon and the school officials they interviewed acknowledged did not require any additional teachers or classrooms. Yet they applied a full average-cost-per-student approach to this situation where the districts have excess capacity after eight years of declining enrollments. While average-cost-per-student is a common methodology that planners use, I do not believe it applies when you have a very small addition to schools with excess capacity. It is like adding a teaspoon of water to a bucket that is not full – you do not notice the change. Unfortunately, there is not a commonly accepted alternative methodology. But there is more to the calculations.
We see from the New Jersey SFRA Allocation of Equalized Valuation report, which is the official report by which school taxes are allocated among the sending districts, that, for the 2019-20 school year, Flemington pays only 10.4 percent of the K-8 district budget and only 4.2 percent of the high school budget. Thus, even if you are inclined to accept the average-cost-per-student methodology, Flemington’s share of any additional school costs would only be 10.4 percent of K-8 and 4.2 percent of the high school. Now, before you say this is unfair to the other sending districts who pick up the difference, this is no different than another municipality approving a new sub-division, with all its new students, and all the other sending districts including Flemington pick up their allocated share of the additional cost to the school. That is how it is done all over New Jersey.
Finally, school tax increases or decreases do not affect the municipal operating budget and should not be totaled with police increases as if they do.
Additional police officers and equipment
The Council decides whether or not to expand the size of the police force. Beacon pointed out that we already have more police officers per population than any of our surrounding towns. While they included two additional officers in their summary chart, they were clear this was a request from the chief, not necessarily a requirement. (The chief requested four officers, and Beacon scaled it back to two in their presentation.)
The current police force structure was established in 2011 or 2012, partly in response to the non-standard shift arrangement that at times left a single officer on duty. The new/current structure standardized shifts and added some officers so that three officers are assigned at all times, and they manage vacation, personal, sick, or training absences so that at least two officers are present on all shifts. This is likely why our officer-to-population ratio is high, but I believe it also provides some headroom to absorb the additional population from Courthouse Square. I, and I believe the majority of the previous Councils, did not feel that we needed to add police staff for this project. At a minimum, we could wait until the project is built and see how it goes, rather than start with an increase in Year 1 as Beacon did. But, in any event, adding staff is the council’s decision to make, and Beacon did not say that this was necessary.
New police station
Beacon acknowledged that the $5 million station in their final chart was a worst-case (i.e., most expensive) scenario, and that there were lower cost options such as retro-fitting some of the existing buildings in town. The current administration, albeit with dissenting council viewpoints, chose to pursue a top-of-the-line approach that would include a whole new municipal complex including a police station and a mayor’s office with a private conference room and bath. That is their choice, not a requirement of the project. Friction over this approach became apparent on Aug. 12 when Council voted down the Mayor’s resolution to pursue acquiring three properties on Central Avenue for such a complex. Because they chose to pursue a whole new complex rather than just focus on a police station in an existing structure, there is little time left to start over before the developer is due to close on the current police station on Dec. 1.
In conclusion, I believe that the project will not add any measurable school cost to the borough and does not require additional police staff or a brand-new $5 million police department. If the council wishes to add staff and build a new station or municipal complex, that is their prerogative, but neither of these should be passed off as a requirement of Courthouse Square. I continue to believe that most if not all of the anticipated $600,000 PILOT revenue per year should be disposable income for the borough to use as it sees fit.
Phil Greiner, former Mayor