Editor's Note: This is the second in a series six profiles that TAPinto Summit will be publishing on candidates vying for local office in the upcoming November 7 Election. The candidates each were sent, and responded to, identical questions and their answers are being published verbatim.
Marjorie Fox, Democratic Candidate - Summit Common Council, Ward 2
Biography / Background
I have been a Summit resident for over 18 years. My husband, Jeff Naiman, and I have two children who have attended the Summit Public Schools. I have served on the Summit Environmental Commission since 2005 and founded Summit’s City-wide Earth Day Clean Up, now in its 11th year. I also served on the Summit Recycling Advisory Committee for more than a decade and have been the Committee’s chair since 2010. The Committee’s work helps save the City over $700,000 each year through the recycling program. In 2016, Union County recognized me for environmental leadership with its Environmental Hero Award.
Before moving to Summit, I was an attorney for the City of New York.
I graduated from Yale University magna cum laude and received my law degree from Columbia University.
What inspired you to pursue a role in public office?
I love living in Summit and being part of this incredible community. I want to preserve its excellence and I have fresh ideas on how we can meet the challenges we face. Government always needs to be moving forward and innovating. I have the necessary skills and experience from working in government as an attorney for the City of New York and as a volunteer on Summit boards. My past experience makes me uniquely qualified to help move Summit forward.
What are the three biggest challenges facing Summit?
1. Affordability/Property Taxes
How would you -- in your role as an elected official -- effectuate progress and positive change relative to those challenges?
1. Affordability is a major issue in Summit. First, I will work to ensure that Council spends tax dollars wisely and efficiently. As I pointed out months ago, while others were silent, the City has approved a project that wastes $300,000 on fake cobblestones. We should focus on “needs” not “wants” or pet projects. Second, I will fight to make sure that property taxes remain as low as possible while preserving the services that Summit residents expect. Seniors on a fixed income face a greater challenge affording property taxes and we should look into tax relief for those who have lived in Summit for a long time. In addition, I will fight to get our fair share of grants and services back from Union County. Finally, we need to expand Summit’s commercial tax base to take some of the tax burden off of residential taxpayers. This does not mean taxing businesses more heavily - we need to grow the commercial tax base through smart redevelopment in the Broad Street Corridor and other areas identified in the Summit Master Plan.
2. Summit’s downtown faces competition from malls and online commerce, and we need to find ways to help Summit businesses thrive. First, we will create an Economic Development Committee to ensure that Council properly focuses its attention on the challenges faced by the downtown and neighborhood business districts. I will work to create a business friendly environment through such measures as streamlined permitting, updated zoning regulations, and better coordination between the Council, SDI, and the City permitting authority.
3. I will communicate with Summit residents and make sure that their views are represented on Council. Too often, residents find out about decisions after Council has already voted. We need to make Council more open and responsive and make sure that residents have the opportunity to comment before votes are taken. Council should represent the views of Summit residents rather than making decisions without their input.
What positions and qualifications differentiate you -- therefore making you the better choice -- from the person opposing you in the November 7 Election?
My background as an attorney representing the City of New York and my volunteer experience on Summit boards for more than a decade make me uniquely qualified to serve on Council. I am used to asking tough questions and drilling down on issues.
My opponent has a financial background, but to my knowledge he has never publicly criticized a single expenditure by Council. If my opponent is not willing to challenge or question costs and expenditures then Council would continue to spend on unnecessary items.
Moreover, our opponents have claimed that they will “maintain stability,” but we live in a changing world. Nearby towns are continuing to innovate, and our opponents’ prescription of standing still is equivalent to going backwards. We need to continue to move forward, and my running mates and I have offered concrete proposals to reduce expenditures and to generate growth in rateables, which is the only realistic means of reducing our residential tax burden.
Quick Hits - where do you stand / what is your opinion on the following 'hot-button' issues:
How Best to Deal with The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and Union County Taxes?
Thirty percent of Summit’s property taxes go to Union County and we need to get our fair share of grants and services back from Union County. As a former attorney, I know how to negotiate to get services back, and I also know how to fight for Summit when it is necessary.
My opponent has attempted to get Union County to lower its taxes by making public demonstrations at Freeholder meetings. One can judge the effectiveness of this strategy by the significant increases in Union County taxes that occur each year. In fact, our opponents seem to have a lot of ideas that are not feasible or certainly not within the control of Council, such as having County freeholders elected by districts rather than at large. It is important for members of Council to advocate for Summit’s interests, but the focus has to be on the things Council actually can control. If it is good for Summit, I will fight for it.
What is your assessment of the scope and scale of Summit's parking challenge, and how best to deal with it?
Summit has a deficit in available parking downtown during peak hours, but I do not support borrowing $10 million to build a parking structure that may become obsolete and may not even be fully utilized by Summit’s residents. I do not favor borrow-and-spend strategies that will burden future generations with debt. We must take a multi-pronged, lower-cost approach to address Summit’s parking needs. We should look at low cost solutions to reduce demand for parking such as expanding Uber-style ride-sharing programs during peak demand hours. We should work to make Summit’s streets more pedestrian and bike friendly with an expanded sidewalk network, roadway engineering to improve safety, and safe bike storage facilities. We should explore a jitney service to deliver residents to the downtown and train station. We can improve the parking experience in Summit through better management of our parking assets including implementing more rational pricing and technology to provide real-time information about parking availability. Finally, redevelopment of the Broad Street corridor offers an excellent opportunity to increase parking while allowing for a developer to pick up part of the cost of a parking structure. This will increase the City’s parking inventory without incurring additional debt. Our opponents have suggested privatization of Parking Services. It should be noted that last year the Parking Services paid more than $400,000 directly into the City’s coffers while still maintaining a healthy balance. So, privatization would potentially lead to an increase in property taxes.
Do you support, or are you opposed to, the Beechwood Road Decorative Cobblestone Street Program?
I am opposed to the Beechwood Road decorative cobblestone project. This project has no support from the business community, SDI, or the public. To make matters worse, Common Council has borrowed $300,000 to fund this program. Council should rescind the approval of this project and retire the debt. While I have spoken openly about my opposition to this project for months, my opponent has remained virtually silent on this issue. I would have expected my opponent, who until recently was the president of the Summit Taxpayers Association, to have been the loudest critic of such a poorly conceived project.
What is your assessment of the current vitality of Summit's Downtown?
Summit’s downtown needs to increase its vitality but retain its charm. It is one of Summit’s best assets and one of the three pillars that support our property values. As I discussed above, Summit’s downtown faces challenges from e-commerce and the mall. We need to be forward thinking and innovative to address these challenges. In addition to the ideas discussed in my earlier answer, my running mates and I have released a position paper with ideas about how we can help our downtown thrive.
Do you support, or are you opposed to, the establishment of a Free, Universal Full-Day Kindergarten Program in the Summit Public Schools?
I support a free universal full day kindergarten because the educational experts in the Summit Public Schools and the educational consultants they retained determined in 2012-13 that full day kindergarten would be beneficial for Summit to implement. In addition, approximately two thirds of the parents of kindergarten children choose to pay for full day kindergarten and many of the rest would enroll in full day kindergarten if they could afford the $7175 tuition. It is a middle class tax. From speaking with voters during this campaign, it is my impression that many residents would like to see a universal full day program. Implementation of universal full day kindergarten would also help preserve our property values because 80% of the school districts in New Jersey offer universal full day kindergarten. When selling your home, having a young couple face a $7,000 tax per child is not a good selling point.
We need to find a fiscally responsible way to implement universal full day kindergarten. I challenge the Board of Education to identify a way to implement this program using existing school buildings and without capital expenditures. The Board of Education has not publicly developed a cost estimate for the implementation of this program in the past few years and after that process is completed, the Board should hold a town hall to discuss school spending priorities, including full day kindergarten.