Berkeley Heights Considering Withdrawing From Union County to Join Morris or Somerset

Township Planner Michael Mistretta gives the Berkeley Heights Township Council his opinion of the traffic light proposed for the intersection of Springfield Ave. and Lone Pine Drive. Credits: Deb Dawson

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Two huge decisions were made by the Township Council at its Wednesday, Sept. 18 meeting. The council unanimously agreed to have Township Planner Michael Mistretta do a traffic signal construction plan for a traffic light proposed for the Springfield Avenue and Lone Pine Drive intersection “post-haste.” The $400,000+ light would be paid for entirely by CVS. And, the council unanimously agreed to do a study of the
effects of a de-annexation of Berkeley Heights from Union County.

The township would join one of the two contiguous counties instead – Somerset or Morris, where county taxes are considerably lower.

Mistretta said the signal construction plan would address the build-out of concerned properties that would “benefit heavily” by the light. Drawing this survey would make clear any necessary right-of-way acquisitions, shoulders, turning lanes, easements and pedestrian sidewalks.

He said it’s possible the upper portion of Lone Pine Drive will need to be reconstructed because a light requires wider lanes and realignment. The plan will incorporate into one document the planned CVS improvements in the Berkeley Heights Shopping Center, the Lone Pine Drive improvements including sidewalks, and the traffic light improvements including pedestrian crossings for a period going out 25 years.

“We believe the new signal will reduce the frequency of traffic incidents and improve traffic safety,” he noted.

All council members agreed the major parties should be included in the plan including the Exxon Station on Lone Pine Drive, Krauser’s, CVS, the Mae family who owns the Berkeley Heights Shopping Center and the council itself. Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley will spearhead the effort, working with Councilman Thomas Pirone, and involve the newly formed Beautification Committee.

Also at the meeting, Councilman Robert Woodruff, to applause from the audience, proposed the municipality investigate withdrawing from Union County to join Somerset or Morris, because county taxes are significantly lower in those two counties. This would require a public referendum in November 2013 and the agreement of the state legislature.

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“The most important thing that dominates this council is the fiscal circumstances facing us, the county and the state…. We seek to cut costs. Ultimately, I think we’re looking at it the wrong way. The other side of the equation is taxes… Of each tax dollar 60 cents goes to the school, 18 cents goes to the town and 22 cents goes to the county. If we’re going to look at taxes and have meaningful savings, we’re going to have to be bold,” Woodruff said.

He and Township Adminstrator Amey Upchurch calculated the impact of the joining of the two contiguous counties.

With the status quo in Union County, a house appraised at the average of $307,000 now pays about $3,100 in county taxes. In 2009, Berkeley Heights paid Union County $12,370,000; in 2010 it paid $13,308,000; and this year $14,557,000. If affiliated with Somerset County the county tax would be $2,172 with the municipal totals being $2 million less in 2009; $3.5 million less in 2010; and $4.4 million less in 2011. Joining Morris County would have even greater savings. The owner of the average $307,000 house would pay $1,662 in county taxes equating to $4.5 million less in 2009; $5.2 million less in 2010; and $6.8 million less in 2011.

“If anything is to be done for the people, we need to study this,” he said. “Freeholders come from six towns with 51 percent of the population, but they’re making decisions for all of us… One and a half years ago the freeholders were going to give 550 non-union employees lifetime benefits. That is not what this town thinks is [appropriate] stewardship of the money. Are those freeholders acting in the best interests of this town?”

He asked the council to study and discuss the proposal over the next three or four months and encouraged the public to come forward with their comments and ideas.

“It is in our best interest that we seek the approval of the people. Get a non-binding referendum (in 2013). Contact either contiguous county… Put a group together to study this more closely. We need a complete understanding of what’s at stake. It’s ultimately up to the state legislature,” Woodruff said. “We need to make a statement. This has to stop and I don’t know any other way to do it.”

The audience applauded and the council unanimously agreed.

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