To the editor,
The recent Beacon Report examining the cost of the Courthouse Square Development focused extensively on expenses that will be carried by the taxpayers in Flemington. That prompted a letter to TAPinto from redeveloper Jack Cust and another from former Mayor Phil Greiner, and each took exception with the results, particularly the findings regarding the police department and the school expenses.
Both Cust and Greiner claimed that the costs of a new police station are inflated. It’s clear neither has done much research into what a new public safety facility costs.
So how much does it really cost to educate our children? And why are police stations so expensive?
Mr. Cust claims that the Borough contribution to our local schools is less than $1,000 per student. He is mistaken on what it costs to educate our children in the Flemington-Raritan School District and at Hunterdon Central High School. The actual student cost of education for Borough taxpayers is closer to $10,000 per student annually.
School taxes are based upon complicated formula that considers the total municipal valuation and the number of children we send to the schools. Our equalized 2019 tax valuation in the Borough is $451,971,124. With the Payment in Lieu of Taxes plan, the CHS will not be a part of the total valuation used to determine the tax burden to the schools and so the costs of any students residing there will be spread out among every other taxpayer.
The Borough tax burden to educate the 577 children we send to the FRSD is $5,800,051 annually. That works out to $10,052 per student.
For Hunterdon Central, we send 256 students at a total cost of $2,358,118. That works out to $9,211 per student.
The Beacon numbers are accurate with their estimate that the CHS project will add over $250,000 to the tax burden felt by residents in the Borough.
Greiner is correct in his statement that these costs will not have an impact on the general operating budget of the Borough. They will, however, impact the general operating fund of every single property owner and taxpayer in the Borough.
School taxes are an investment in our children’s future and are paid by all taxpayers in the municipality - except for those developers who are gifted with a generous PILOT agreement, as Cust was by the previous Mayor and Council. The only other PILOT in the Borough is at the Hermann Kapp Apartments, which is affordable housing for seniors. There are no school children living in the senior housing.
Former Mayor Greiner failed to do some basic due diligence and math before rushing to sell the police department to Cust after he lost his re-election bid in 2018. Building a new public safety building is more than building four walls. He never even bothered to ask our Police Chief about what it would take to build a new home for the department.
The Department of Corrections and Department of Justice requirements for both new builds and retrofits are costly and onerous. It’s much more involved than constructing four walls and handing over a key. I’ve spent the past year looking at many options and trying to find an affordable way to get us out of the unfortunate situation Greiner put this Borough into with his gross oversight. With the Department of Justice and Department of Corrections codes in place right now, we will not be able to retrofit or build a new police station for less than $3-5 million. I’ve offered Cust and his team the opportunity for all of us to sit down with representatives from the DOC, and they have yet to accept that meeting offer.
The costs for new construction are about the same. The rent with a 40-year lease of a retrofitted building approaches $45,000 monthly. Those are real tax dollars that will be a burden to every single property owner and renter in the Borough.
Further, I’m sure Cust knows, since he is a CPA, that spreading out payments over 30 or 40 years does not make something less expensive. The taxpayers have already spent well over $2 million paying off the bond on the 90-100 Main Street building and adjoining parking lots. He hopes to buy it for $1.1 million. Anyone who borrows money understands that while payments may be lower on longer term loans, the costs of that borrowed money goes up. I am sure Cust advises his clients daily of this reality.
It’s unfortunate that Cust claims that the requirements for a new police station are extravagant. They aren’t. The current department is over 7,000 square feet; much of the space is storage of evidence. He stated it is under 4,000 square feet, which is incorrect. Our police department is the busiest in the county and one of the lowest paid. The station they operate out of is grandfathered in, allowing us to escape many of the stringent DOC and DOJ code requirements for new police headquarters.
Cust can do the right thing and find a way to build us a new facility that conforms to current DOJ and DOC standards and will not impose an additional burden on Borough taxpayers. He’s building a $70 million project that will enrich him while Borough taxpayers subsidize his wealth. He can do the right thing and make sure our police department, an organization that serves the community that his tenants and hotel guests will be a part of, has a place to move into.
The choice is his: allow the department to remain where it is rent-free or build us a new facility at no cost to Borough taxpayers elsewhere in town. The Borough taxpayers should not be responsible for the costs of his evicting our police department in a badly thought out scheme engineered by the former mayor.
Have you been in our Borough Hall lately? The space there is tight. I suspect many people in town don’t realize the Mayor and Council do not have offices in Borough Hall. We regularly have to move Council meetings to the Historic Courthouse if we expect more than 40 people to attend the meeting. We pay for that.
If we are in a position of having to build a new home for our police department, it makes sense to try to incorporate (at Borough expense) offices for Borough operations.
Council and the Mayor do not have a place to meet privately with residents, business owners, and potential investors, because there is no space at 38 Park Avenue. I regularly meet with residents and potential investors in town at local coffee shops because the alternative is bringing them to my home office (which is a spare bedroom). Having the Mayor’s office in my home exposes the Borough to significant risk because documents are not secure. I use my own computer to conduct Borough business and the hacking risks are great. Without a secure place to work on a secure network, any work done by Council and the Mayor places your data at risk. My own computer has likely been breached by a recent email sent to my Borough account and now I look at a black screen on what was a workhorse Mac for the past 10 years. Two years of Borough documents on it are now inaccessible as I try to find someone to fix it, at what will likely be my own expense. They are backed up, but until I have a new machine to put them onto, they remain inaccessible.
Council and the Mayor need a secure place to work on the many issues facing our Borough and with documents that are often highly confidential and privileged. They also need a place to meet with residents and potential investors.
A proper municipal building will also allow us to consolidate our court operations, which will save the Borough thousands of dollars which we now pay the township.
For the record, Council members earn just over $4,000 a year, and the Mayor earns just over $6,000 a year. For that, they are available to you 24/7/365. They deserve space to work out of. Greiner thinks I am trying to build this for myself; fact is, I don’t expect this project to be done by the time my term is up. This is planning for future administrations and growth. It's unfortunate that Greiner didn't do his own forward planning with regard to the real costs of this project before he rushed into entering into a contract of sale on 90-100 Main Street.
Cust has made admirable efforts at trying to compromise with the group suing the Borough. Since I first met him in January, he has gone above and beyond my expectations in trying to please them. It’s time now for him to try to please the Borough taxpayers in making sure they don’t end up subsidizing his development.
I am convinced that the redeveloper is committed to the Borough and, I know, the Borough is committed to seeing Courthouse Square become a reality. But this reality must not be a financial burden to the residents of the Borough. We need to make sure that we have a full understanding of the real costs of this development going forward, costs which were appallingly never investigated and never built into the accounting for the overall plan at the development’s inception, as they should have been.
I am committed to making sure that we are able to reach an agreement that is beneficial for all involved. This includes the Borough taxpayers and the Developer.
Together, we can move Courthouse Square forward, for the benefit of the Borough and the redeveloper.
Betsy Driver, Mayor