BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Each week leading to the June 6 Primary election, the Republican candidates running for Berkeley Heights Township Council have the opportunity to answer question(s) that will be run in a series by TAPinto Berkeley Heights.

The following answer is from Republican candidate John Leo for Week 4.

Week 4 Question: Please provide your vision for Berkeley Heights over the next five years including your vision for downtown, housing, business community, and parks and recreation. Please explain how this vision will impact the township's infrastructure including school enrollment, road/traffic and services (sewer/waste treatment, police, fire, rescue). How will these changes impact the municipal tax rate per average assessed household? 

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In five years I would like to see stability restored to the town. With a focus on debt reduction, fair tax programs and a simpler permit process -for businesses and residents- we could restore our town’s financial stance as well as stop planned tax increases.  The Town Council is responsible for ensuring that we maintain a low risk fiscal position which will help minimize downtown vacancies and instead of providing tax breaks to entice development we can have more control and choice over the aspects of future development.

We can meet our downtown goals by engaging with organizations such as Smart Growth America so that advisors, funding sources and our local businesses can have resources to make improvements and address their business needs. We would also activate business-savvy volunteers to search for new business prospects who pledge to diversify our community business culture and to provide assistance for new businesses. Farmer Markets, art galleries, food cooperatives and not-for-profit distributors could all be considerations and paired with storefront owners to promote a beneficial outcome for the community.  I'd like to see private community programs and services such as the Winter Walk continue to thrive and continue as a cornerstone of the Berkeley Heights culture. I envision children having an outlet to community activities via walkable and safe access to downtown businesses which provide community opportunities to youth especially those with special needs.

New housing developments already in the early planning stages are a massive threat to the character as well as fiscal status of Berkeley Heights. I am against the process by which these plans were initiated; without the input of the residents and by immediately resorting to tax abatements. Towns previously engaged in similar tax abatement contracts found the property tax burden on residents increased over time. The currently proposed tax payment plans offered to developers provide revenue to county and township but not schools. As schools would surely see enrollment increases, they will request budgetary increases thus increasing the property tax. I am also largely against these tax abatements and will advocate to see their use minimized in the future.  

The stigma against permits should be improved to where residents and businesses are less wary of the process and are willing to apply for permits when required. It is difficult for businesses and residents to find the requirements for the work they want to do and some requirements are so cumbersome that it turns owners off from performing the improvements. For businesses, permits can be lengthy and negatively affect the bottom line.  We need to empower inspectors and public works staff to provide information about construction and renovation on the front end and not after infractions occur. This will also entice business entities and residents to make improvements on their own accord thus maintaining the community.

Finally, if we avoid new debt and halt dwindling revenues our fiscal standing will better our reputation among financial institutions and future business prospects. Improving these measures means township investments will be cheaper and tax incentives won’t be necessary. Keeping tax incentives to a minimum maintains fairness to the long established businesses of town and will also curb future property taxes.

Generally, the idea is to activate and support private funding so this plan requires nothing of the township budget. Private institutes must be allowed to prosper and support the community before the government.  Though, working together, without special tax incentives and with increased revenue from simplified permit processes and zero vacancies we can finance a sustainable community, develop means to keep vacant commercial space occupied and, most importantly, maintain the character of our town.  

Editor's Note: Click here for handout as presented by Berkeley Heights Township Attorney Joseph Sordillo on PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) programs with hypothetical example for Hamilton Avenue property.