I am writing to rebut the claims made by Elaine Harris, Esq. in her letter to the editor posted on April 17, 2019. I have no professional association or business relationship with Sheena Collum or Typology. I know Sheena as a constituent, South Orange business owner, and member of the township's Development Committee. I am familiar with Typology through their work as the Township planning consultant, specifically with their interactions with the Development Committee and role in the Master Planning process that is currently underway.
Harris' letter to the editor regarding our Village President is filled with inaccurate and misleading statements, innuendo and allegations of corruption that are easily disproved by anyone with an internet connection and 30 minutes of spare time. To wit:
1. Harris misleadingly claims that the NJ Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) is "Collum's company"; apparently in an attempt to allege that Collum has improperly benefitted from the association of our town planning consultant, Typology, with the APA. Collum is not an owner of the APA. The APA is a dues-based, member funded, non-profit association. Any professional planning firm in the state of New Jersey, including Typology, is eligible for membership. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the NJ Chapter of the APA does not have owners. Its leadership consists of an executive committee. That committee hired Collum as its executive director. Collum's job description, and subservience to the executive committee, is outlined in the by-laws of the organization, which are available on the chapter website.
2. Harris states, in response to her OPRA request concerning Typology, that "South Orange has failed to provide its initial contract with Typology, nor has it provided me with any requested resolutions..." I confirmed with the township clerk that vendor contracts and the board resolutions that authorize those contracts, including Typology's, are available to the public through OPRA requests. I also learned that someone else inquired about Typology recently and that this person, whose name I did not ask (and was not offered), never bothered to pick up several hundred pages of documents that the township produced in response to her OPRA request.
3. Regarding the master planning process, Harris asserts that "the work for the Master Plan hasn't even really begun" and questions the value of services provided by Typology. This is flat-out wrong. The master planning process has been in full swing for the last 6 months, and dozens of public meetings have been held (I co-hosted one at a neighbor's house in November 2018). The town has a website that explains what a master plan is, and how every South Orange citizen can be involved in its formulation. The address is: www.somasterplan.com. This massive public outreach was insisted upon by Collum has been organized and guided by Typology. As I understand it, Typology was hired for this process in part because of their familiarity with South Orange. If another planning firm was hired for this task, the township would have had to pay for that firm's learning curve. If anything, Typology was the less costly option. And because of the extensive public process in place, the future of South Orange will absolutely not be determined by Collum and Typology. If Harris is concerned about this, I encourage her to avail herself of the very public process now ongoing.
4. Harris also mischaracterizes how an area is designated as being in need of redevelopment. She indicates that Typology was recently retained to "to do a redevelopment study to determine if we should put Valley Street into Redevelopment". This in an improper statement of the process: Typology does not make this determination. Typology will conduct a study to determine if the subject area meets the state-mandated criteria for such a designation and pass that information along to the Board of Trustees. The decision as to whether or not to designate any area as one in need of redevelopment will be made by the trustees after public notice and hearing. I found this information in less than a minute through a Google search. This statutory process is outlined in section 40A:12A-5 of the NJ Code.
5. Finally, PILOT agreements do not necessarily generate property tax increases. PILOT stands for "payment in lieu of taxes", whereby a developer makes a cash payment, on an annual basis, in return for a property tax abatement for a term of 5-30 of years. In some cases, PILOT agreements are financially beneficial for a municipality. In South Orange, for example, approximately 75% of our property tax revenue goes to school funding and Essex County. Under a PILOT agreement 100% of the contributed funds go to the municipal budget. Depending on the specifics of the agreement, a PILOT can add more money to a town's coffers than property tax revenue. This is especially true if the development will general positive economic activity such as job creation and increase surrounding property values. However, not all PILOT agreements are good ones, and reasonable people can disagree about PILOTs as they relate to property taxes and school funding. But to argue that a PILOT is "likely to raise your taxes", or that such programs are a necessary outcome of any study currently underway, is simply not true.
To accuse Collum of corruption and a lack of transparency on these issues is absurd. I hope that before making any such claims in the future, LeHarris would engage in the minimum amount of due diligence necessary to support them.