Government

Hilltop City Council, SDI Spar on Holiday Parking Contribution; Summit Municipal Court Adjourns to Neighboring Community in Shared Services Deal

Summit's Municipal Court will relocate to New Providence in 2018. Credits: Greg Elliott / TAPinto Summit

SUMMIT, NJ - Parking, parks and shared services dominated the agenda at the Summit Common Council’s first December meeting.

Summit Mayor Nora Radest detailed holiday parking incentives -- in partnership with Summit Downtown, Inc. (SDI) -- wherein drivers can take advantage of $4 valet service in the Springfield Avenue garage Tuesdays through Fridays until December 22 with patrons able to call or text to have their car ready. From December 11 to December 23, 90-minute street meters in the center of downtown Summit will be bagged to offer complementary parking, although the mayor emphasized that the 90-minute limit would be strictly enforced.

In November, the Council unanimously approved free parking at 90-minute meters downtown during the holiday shopping season. At the time, they indicated they might amend the enabling resolution to mandate a monetary contribution from SDI to partially compensate the City for lost meter revenues. Ward 2 Councilwoman Mary Ogden introduced just that resolution, although noting that she disagrees with the language requesting a contribution at this time, favoring putting in language requiring SDI to include a line item in its budget for next year for a contribution to the free parking. The resolution requests that SDI reimburse $3,000 to the City by February 28, 2018. Council president Mike McTernan clarified that although the resolution uses “require” in its title, it is actually a request.

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Tony Melchionna, SDI board chairman, shared his organization’s objections to the resolution. He pointed out that downtown business owners are taxed twice, as residents and as business owners. He did point out that his board nearly unanimously agreed to contribute $3,500 for the valet parking service. The organization recently approved its $44,000 budget, and the reimbursement would be difficult to squeeze in. He also pointed out that SDI would rather spend its money on marketing and events. Melchionna suggested that this increase could result in raising taxes on business property owners, with the resulting costs bring passed on to tenants and, ultimately, consumers. Summit Downtown, Inc. canvassed comparable communities like Westfield and Red Bank, and found that none of the other downtown alliances make contributions toward parking holidays. He noted that, in the Morristown Partnership, that town’s analogue to SDI saw its contribution request rise considerably after the town’s installation of computerized parking meters. Their solution was to instead offer limited free parking at specific lots in cooperation with the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

McTernan said that the town and SDI were in a partnership for holiday parking, and that parking contributes to a vibrant downtown. “It’s good for our tax base, it’s good for our property values, and it’s a good utility for our residents who use and enjoy our downtown.” He also stressed that it’s the taxpayers who really pay for the $15,000 the town forgoes in parking revenue, and that Summit Downtown, Inc. is only being asked to contribute “a sliver -- one fifth” of the estimated costs. McTernan asked rhetorically whether the free parking was worth offering, if it isn’t actually that important to the town’s business owners. “Only our businesses can tell us if this is worth it. If we don’t ask them to contribute a little money, then we have no idea if it is worth it, and we’re just giving away $15,000 of our taxpayers’ money without any real thought if it is worth it or not.” Noting other initiatives such as parking holidays for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, and the valet parking program, he said, “We do need to make sure that people come to our downtown and have a great experience, to shop, to support our businesses.”

Ward One Councilman David Naidu, commenting on a meeting he’d had with SDI, pointed out that its membership clearly was not in favor of this request and had not included in their budget.  He suggested that perhaps the Council take another look at the program and make the SDI contribution condition of its implementation. McTernan pointed out that an actual request had not yet been made.

Melchionna spoke up again to add that parking is actually a utility, with money coming from tickets, parking fees, and so on, not residential taxpayer money.

The motion carried with Ogden voting no.

Also passed was an ordinance increasing from two to three hours the maximum parking time in all of the spaces, except the several thirty-minute spaces, in the Summit Free Public Library’s lot, effective January 1. The lot’s several thirty-minute spaces would remain, and all spaces would offer an initial fifteen minutes of free parking.

The public comments all were in favor of the motion. Susan Permahos, the library’s director, pointed out that, in 2016, “the library sponsored 1,058 programs attended by almost 20,000 people from babies and toddlers to senior citizens,” as well as 68 programs and meetings sponsored by community groups and attended by another 1,400 people. There were some 203,100 library visitors in 2016. Of the programs offered, 358 exceeded two hours, including films, ESL classes, literature classes for senior citizens, and ACT / SAT prep. Permahos expects the library to surpass those figures this year. She also noted that many Summit residents who work remotely choose to do so in the library because of its amenities, as do tutors working with students after school hours. “While the three-hour limit will not satisfy all our library patrons, it will be a huge improvement for those who do attend our programs” she concluded.

Her comments were echoed by Norma Schroeder, president of the library board.

Lisa Meyers, Community Outreach & Seniors for the Summit YMCA, works with the active older adult community. Many of their programs exceed two hours, and her constituents would be greatly helped by the change.

Ruth Hamann of 34 Valley View Avenue, the Mayor’s representative to the library’s board of trustees and also a member of the YMCA, said she often uses both facilities successively, and that two hours was hardly enough time to have a “meaningful experience” at both.

Rubino called the library one of the jewels of Summit, applauding Permahos and the trustees for its programing and calling the resources available for citizens and businesses “varied and vast.” He encouraged the public to look at the programs offered by the library, and observed that letting people spend three hours is the right move.

Ogden supported this, noting that General Services had gone back and forth on it quite a lot, and believes this is the best situation for everybody.

Also supporting the change was Naidu, who pointed out that this accomplishes the goal of consistency among the rates in the town’s various parking lots.

“As our institutions in town change, I think it’s important for the City to change its approach as well. It’s not your parents’ library. It’s a great asset. The way people use our public space changes, and we need to be flexible about that,” observed McTernan.

Ward 2 Councilman Stephen Bowman introduced a resolution authorizing the dissolution of the Summit Municipal Court and the execution of a shared services agreement with New Providence and Berkeley Heights. Summit will host the municipal court until New Providence completes the renovation of its municipal building, located at 360 Elkwood Avenue. At that time, the Court would be relocated to New Providence, a little more than two miles from Summit. The towns’ city administrators and police chiefs were included in the discussions, and all agreed to move forward. Five-year savings are projected to be $482,700.

Naidu noted that the public often talks about shared services; this achieves that.  He called the move an example of “smart, thoughtful, shared services,” and thanked City Administrator Michael Rogers for making it happen.

Radest agreed that it was a good move. She observed that currently, residents coming to town hall to pay their taxes on a Wednesday when court is in session can’t park. That will not be an issue at the New Providence building.

Rubino noted the town’s history of shared services include dispatch and that the town should continue to look for more economies of scale. “We need to go back to the county and illustrate to them how this is how you save money, the smart way, the efficient way.”

McTernan acknowledged the proposed move hasn’t been an easy process, thanking Rogers, the judge, and the Police Chief Robert Weck, as well as their counterparts in New Providence, for the hard work in making this happen. He said Year One savings will be about $81K, rising to to about $118K a year, in perpetuity.

The transition will take effect immediately -- in December 2017 -- and involve the temporary housing of shared court services in Summit during three to four months of renovation work at the New Providence court facility to accommodate increased capacity. According to a subsequent press release issued by the City of Summit, the New Jersey Judiciary estimates that “about one in five New Jersey municipal courts is currently part of a joint or shared services arrangement,” with 18 of the state’s 21 counties having “at least one merged municipal court.”

McTernan also invited residents who are truly unhappy with the pending extra drive to call him directly.

The motion carried.

In other matters, Council approved several resolutions affecting parkland in the town.

The Director of the Department of Community Programs (DCP) was authorized to apply for a new Union County Open Space Trust Fund grant, “Kids Recreation Trust Fund Level the Playing Field.” This grant provides funding for local playground upgrades accommodating individuals with disabilities. The town plans to ask for $100,000 to fund professional fees for plans and specifications for a 'pocket park' at the Community Center to be used by all community members, especially senior citizens and individuals with disabilities. No matching funds would be required.

The DCP director was also authorized to apply for a Coca Cola Company “Keep America Beautiful Public Space Grant” which would provide commercial quality recycling cans for parks and portable plastic bag holders for recycling use at City special events, with no financial obligation to the City.

Authorization was also granted to execute a awarded a $50,000 matching grant for installation of a bocce court adjacent to the Summit Community Center. The City had applied for a $100,000 Union County Kids Recreation Trust Fund 2017 Grant.

McTernan noted the importance of the upcoming December 13 meeting kicking off the budgeting process and urged the public to attend. He pointed out that the municipal budget represents 20% of real estate taxes, versus 50% for school taxes and 30% for county taxes, and that the budget funds capital projects like the Communit Center.

In Council’s closing comments, Naidu brought up the SALT – “State and Local Taxes” – provisions in the pending federal tax bill, saying that as it is likely to pass in some form, “this will have a profound impact on Summit, and a profound impact on budgeting for city agencies. It will restructure out thinking about what is doable.”

Building on that, Rubino added that we will all have to hold state, county, and local officials accountable. He noted that governor-elect Murphy has spoken about how much New Jersey tax money 'goes to DC' and how little comes back; closer to home, tax dollars go to Trenton and very little comes back.

He also invited the public to the Summit Park Line Foundation’s upcoming “First Steps” walking tour on December 9, from 10 a.m. to noon. It’s a first chance for the public to get up to date on the Park Line and to see the roughly a quarter-mile of the first new park in town in many decades.

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