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 Thomas Foregger 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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Many of us moved to Berkeley Heights because of its small town feel and abundant open spaces. My vision for the next five years is to maintain these characteristics, have a vibrant and cohesive-appearing downtown area, and upgrade the condition of our roads. Unfortunately, I think much of our effort instead will be directed at absorbing a rapid growth in population due to the number of high-density housing developments in the works. We will be adding more than 850 housing units, most of them rentals.

The current Council not only favors this pace of development but also has offered tax abatements to the developers as incentives. While it is true we have a substantial affordable housing commitment to meet, we are only required to offer developers the opportunity to build, and it is up to them to decide if they want to do it given the economics. The Council is negotiating PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreements with the developers of the properties at King’s and 100 Locust St., and may be negotiating others as well.

With a PILOT agreement, the developer agrees to pay a certain amount, typically substantially less than what the taxes on the property would have been, to the township each year for 30 years. Each dollar paid is split 5% to the county, 95% to the municipality, and NOTHING to the schools. This is as opposed to a dollar in taxes, which is split approximately 24% to the county, 18% to the municipality, and 56% to education. The effect is that the municipality gets much more money and the schools much less.

I am very concerned about these arrangements. According to a 2010 report from the NJ Controllers Office, PILOT agreements result in significant foregone revenue, introduce tax inequities that deserve closer scrutiny, and should only be used after a cost-benefit analysis, but the Council has done no such analysis.

The over-all revenue to the town will be less. The Council, with its new-found revenues from these PILOT agreements as well as room tax revenues from Embassy Suites, may well choose to use this money as justification to expand the budget rather than economize or reduce municipal taxes. At the same time, the Board of Education will need to raise taxes to cover its reduced share and the expanding school population. The result will be an increase in our property taxes, one that will be greater than if the PILOT agreements were not in place.

If elected, I pledge to oppose the use of PILOT agreements unless absolutely necessary and to fight to have any increases in municipal revenues used to pay down debt and thus reduce the municipal portion of our property taxes.

This rapid growth will undoubtedly have impacts on our town’s infrastructure. The influx of approximately 185 school-aged children may lead to overcrowding, especially at Mary Kay McMillan, and the need for additional teachers. The more than 10% growth in population will inevitably lead to traffic congestion problems, most notably at the Snyder and Hamilton intersection and on the roads leading down to Route 22. The police may request additional staffing, which would need to be carefully evaluated. The sewer plant may need a new stream permit.

It is imperative that we improve our town’s roads so that within the next 5 years all roads are up to at least Good condition. All street signs should be improved to meet Federal standards.

We have a large number of vacant stores. While we can’t control what businesses see as an opportunity to open in town, we do have some control over how fast approvals and permits are granted. It is in everyone’s best interest to see that the process runs quickly with a minimum of delay at each step. The possibility of a web-based system for ordering permits and inspections should be explored. I would also consider ways to attract new businesses, especially those that act as community gathering places.

Finally, I would like to see a more open exchange of information between the Council and the residents. More and more, the townspeople find out only after the fact what decisions the Council has made and are not presented with the overall impact.  I look forward to the opportunity to promote this openness, reduce the tax burden on residents, and help guide the town through this period of growth while keeping our small-town character.

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 which shows an Application of a PILOT Agreement to the Hamilton Site on page 15 of 16: "If staged, as units are built, the developer and subsequent owners would start paying taxes as the PILOT payment (annual service charge) is reduced. This includes normal tax payments to the County and Board of Education."