Before summer descends upon us, I thought I should give a status report on some of the major issues I have encountered in my five months on Council, and what I see as some of the short and long-term issues that we need to consider as a community. I should note from the outset that others have made similar observations, and thus, I do not mean to suggest that I am either the first — or even the most articulate — to address these four issues.
First, Council unanimously approved a City budget with a less than 1% increase in taxes. In examining the budget, however, it is clear that in the next few years, if we remain on the current trajectory, an increasing portion of the budget will need to be allocated to debt servicing, pensions, and public safety. Thus, leaving a smaller portion of the budget for everything from transportation for seniors, to road repairs, to park improvements. Moreover, based on my discussions with City staff and others, it appears that most of the low hanging fruit of cost savings have been picked, and projects that have been deferred in the past will need to be addressed.
It is because I recognize the need for fiscal responsibility—being the sole dissenter on incurring $1.8 million in debt for non-emergency maintenance repairs to a garage—that I am concerned that future councils will have the unpalatable choice between increasing taxes or reducing expenditures on needed projects. From my perspective, the realistic mechanism for addressing this problem is to increase the number of ratables (i.e., properties that pay taxes) — and I will discuss below an idea for doing this. However, we must recognize that increasing ratables does not mean simply placing large developments in existing neighborhoods, nor does it mean changing the character of our community. Moreover, we also have to realize that our infrastructure (e.g., roads and sewers) and schools can handle only a certain amount of increased density and only in certain locations.
Second, Council also unanimously approved the Summit Downtown Inc. (SDI) budget. SDI has been involved in promoting the downtown, arranging for street fairs and downtown improvement projects. SDI recently engaged a recruiter, and she is working with merchants, brokers and developers to market the downtown and to attract new businesses. A key issue for me is that our downtown becomes more diversified in its uses and offerings, so as to create a vibrant atmosphere. Thus, I will be looking at how this new recruiter succeeds in accomplishing her task. Moreover, while SDI’s focus is rightly on downtown, from a wider City perspective, we cannot forget that Summit is home to other commercial corridors, and efforts need to be undertaken to address the challenges and opportunities those other areas present.
Third, the City launched a new website in early spring based on hard work done in preceding years. One key element of the new site is a function that allows residents to report problems—“Report a Concern.” As the year progresses, it will be important to see the metrics associated with this endeavor. Another key initiative is to try to put the permitting process on-line, which would allow applicants to know where they are in the permit process and simultaneously expose bottlenecks. A number of resident volunteers, along with City staff and Council members, have been intensively discussing the options and steps that need to be undertaken to make this a reality. The transparency that such technology offers could be of substantial benefit to anyone who is planning to do construction. Once this is achieved, our next step should be to look at streamlining regulations and the inspection process to see how they can be more efficient.
Fourth, the City has launched the Master Plan re-examination. There was a well-attended public meeting on June 2, where residents were able to share their opinions on housing, economic development, parks, and a number of other issues. There will be another public meeting in the near future. For those who cannot attend but have ideas on how to improve our community, comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also explore what others are saying at http://www.courbanize.com/projects/summit-nj. I hope that the new Master Plan will encompass a bike master plan, which will note where bike routes should be placed in town to encourage bike travel. Not only are bike paths a traffic calming measure, but every bike that comes into town reduces the need for a parking space.
As promised above, I’d like to propose some ideas for increasing ratables. In my opinion, Broad Street is the most logical place for a change in usage. There are effectively two Broad Street corridors—one from Maple to Morris (which is comprised of mainly City-owned property), and the other from Summit Avenue to Overlook Hospital (which is bordered by Industrial Way, which, in turn has a variety of uses).
I would focus on the Maple/Morris corridor first. The Fire Department building, which is located within this area, was constructed in 1901 and has been subsequently retrofitted. Because the building is outdated, it cannot accommodate standard fire trucks — requiring the City to buy customized fire trucks. In speaking with fire officials, it is clear that they would prefer a new building. However, the cost of a new fire station would run approximately $10 million. Thus, to fund the construction of a new fire station, the City should offer the fire station property, along with two parking lots in that area, for development. The new fire station could be located on a portion of the non-resident parking lot at the Broad Street garage. We can hold a design contest to generate ideas for how that area could be developed. The City could specify what it would like to see for development. My first preference would be to explore the possibility of an entertainment project (e.g., movie theatre) in this area. However, the Master Plan process could collect other ideas from residents as to what they would like to see.
As to the Broad/Summit Ave/Industrial Way corridor, we could change the zoning to encourage the construction of first floor retail and two/three story residential units—that, in my opinion, should be studios and one-bedrooms in order to afford more housing options to young couples and seniors. In addition, whether in this location or potentially elsewhere in town, we need to be cognizant that new housing options must be offered at price points that a range of people can afford, and not simply tilted toward one end of the spectrum. A diverse city in all aspects is a stronger city.
Finally, let me close by posing the question Mayor Ed Koch, used to ask, “So, how’m I doin’?” Please feel free to send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Note: David Naidu is a member of the Summit Common Council representing Ward I.