FLEMINGTON, NJ -The votes were unanimous. Flemington Council tonight rejected the Business Improvement District’s $350,000 proposed budget for 2016 and – in a separate action – voted to hire a consulting firm to assist in restructuring the 21-member board that governs the BID.
What those decisions mean depends on who you ask.
Councilwoman Michelle Oberst said that the discussion and vote was “strictly” about the budget. “We have a fiduciary responsibility,” she said, and added that details in the budget were “very insufficient, very vague” and that the “dysfunction of the BID is an issue.”
Councilman Brain Swingle said the vote was not really about the money, but about council understanding what it will be funding. He said the BID’s branding initiative, which is being developed with the help of consultant Roger Brooks, is important and should move forward. “It is time to make some changes,” Swingle said. “We know there are things that aren’t right. There are things that need fixing.” But he insisted that the council “wants to be there” to assist the BID.
Councilman Joey Novick said, “I have really struggled with this for a number of reasons,” but once a year council gets to articulate its concerns about the BID, and he said better communications and accountability were needed. Councilwoman Dorothy Fine agreed. “The intent is not to get rid of the BID,” she said. “If we wanted to do that, we could,” because the BID was created by an ordinance approved by council. She said questions she’d asked of the BID regarding the budget were not answered . She asked that the BID, “Give us more information and give it to us sooner.”
Councilwoman Carla Tabussi said, “We all support the BID... we’re trying to achieve a partnership so that we are all successful.”
Members of the public praised the BID, which was created to “recruit, retain and revitalize” Flemington business. Mike Uhde, who owns Act 2 books, said that when he considered a new location for his shop, he looked at Lambertville and Hightstown, but that it was Flemington’s BID that brought him here. Carol Todd, who has owned Market Roost restaurant along with her husband Norman since 1981, said it’s a financial challenge to be on Main Street and that because of the BID, “This is the first time I’ve really seen hope.” Ron Van Horn, who organizes the Flemington car shows and said he’d been involved in every borough economic initiative for 25 years, cautioned that bringing in a management consultant could jeopardize the BID’s relationship with its volunteers. “We need to be united,” he pleaded. “If I was an investor, I wouldn’t want to come here with all of the bickering and fighting.”
Susan Peterson, who has owned Teaberry’s restaurant for 10 years and who has spent three years on the BID’s board, reminded council that the “BID is apolitical” and should be “independent of the council. You are making it one of your puppets ... The council has made it quite clear. They cannot stand to see the BID succeed.”
Oberst said that rejecting the budget shouldn’t compromise the BID, because it has $160,000 in surplus that could fund its operations for nine months, and council could approve a BID budget well before then.
Nonsense, said Peterson in an interview after the meeting. The surplus was saved by “squirreling away” funds, she said. Council “hasn’t been playing fair” and the budget could have been tweaked, rather than rejected. And Peterson said that the surplus funds were earmarked for the BID’s branding project, which council itself says it supports, and that now some of that money will go towards routine expenses.
She and BID Chairman Robert Shore agreed that every change council had sought for the budget was incorporated into it.
Shore said the council’s votes were, “Nothing but politics at its worse ... they need to look at our results. Instead they are focused on pettiness.
“It’s about controlling the BID ... If it was about results, they should be proud as a peacock,” Shore said.
According to Oberst, the consultants hired by council are Stuart Z. Koperweis and Beth Lippman, although the resolution approved by council lists Administrative Resources, Inc. as the provider. They’ll be paid $2,000 a month for up to three months of services.
Both Peterson and Shore said they have no objection to a bid restructuring, however, with Shore adding that such a change originated with the BID board itself, not with council.
BID Executive Director Megan Jones-Holt preferred not to comment on tonight's votes.
Stay with Tap into Flemington-Raritan for more on this developing story.