SUMMIT, NJ - Promoting itself as a tourism destination while dealing with the economic fallout from the impending departure of Merck & Co. Inc., and finding ways to make Union County's tax bite less onerous, were some of the top items of discussion as the Summit Common Council held a meeting Tuesday to set goals for 2014.
As departing Councilman Dave Bomgaars noted at the session, the 2014 Super Bowl in the Meadowlands is expected to bring about $550 million in spending into the area and create 7,500 jobs. Summit, he said, has to position itself to take advantage of the situation as a transit hub and a favorable “destination city.”
Both Councilmen Albert Dill, Jr. and Gregory Drummond said not only does the city need the input of Summit Downtown, Inc. but there is a need to hire a professional to promote the city and also to attract retail operations from other cities.
Parking Services manager Rita McNany pointed out that the city already has discussed how it will attract Superbowl attendees by pointing the way to Sunday parking for those who want to use Summit as a jumping-off point to take trains bound for Secaucus during the professional football extravaganza.
Other unique advantages of the Hilltop City need to be part of the Summit marketing plan, according to Councilman Robert Rubino. He suggested finding a place in the city that could provide a scenic overlook to which tourists would flock and designating one of the city's park's such as Memorial Park as a “showcase” for what the city has to offer in recreational activities.
Also on the minds of those mapping the city's financial future is the closing of the Merck & Co. Inc. campus in Summit.
Merck announced several weeks ago that it was abandoning its plans to turn its Summit campus into its world headquarters and, instead, will be relocating its world headquarters from Whitehouse in Somerset County to Kenilworth.
The impact of the departure of the pharmaceutical giant from Summit was brought home by some of the statistics presented by city administrator Christopher Cotter at Tuesday's session.
Cotter noted the 88-acre campus on Morris Avenue and its facilities are assessed at $225,765,100, on which the company pays $9,170,579 in property taxes—7 percent of the city's total taxes. This means 4.3 percent of the city's total revenues.
Cotter added the Merck assessment will hold through 2014 and the pharmaceutical firm already is developing a marketing plan. Merck and the city both feel that replacement of that firm by a similar company would be the best use of the site, the administrator said.
Cotter and other city officials already have met a few times with Merck officials to discuss alternatives.
The depth of the county tax picture was again the target of much discussion at the goal-setting session.
Cotter noted that while the city and school tax levies have been decreasing for the last three years the burden of the county budget has fallen particular heavy on Summit, with an 11 percent increase last year with a 5 percent increase in the county budget.
He added that just a 2 percent further increase in the county tab could add about $700,000 to what Summit taxpayers already are paying for county services and, even with no increase in the county budget it is likely the city's taxpayers still will see an increase in the county portion of their tax bills.
This is partially due to the fact that the statewide property tax equalization formula results in a higher burden for communities whose property is assessed at a higher value.
In his suggestions for 2014 goals, Councilman Thomas Getzendanner again suggested that the citywide reassessment program would give the city a fairer shake on county taxes as well as bring Summit's properties more in line with their true value.
Other members of the governing body have thus far resisted this move because they believe it would be too expensive and may cause tax increases for many city property owners.
One of the most outspoken critics of county government has been Councilman Patrick Hurley, who said Tuesday that, even though there is not much likelihood of success at this point, a council resolution calling for secession from Union County may get Summit residents more engaged with delivering the message to the county while the city pursues other methods of getting its point across.
Other council members and Mayor Ellen Dickson seemed to continue to favor the carrot-and-stick approach—continuing to speak out against county spending while meeting with county officials to explain the sources of Summit's frustration.
Dickson said perhaps recently elected freeholder Bruce Bergen of neighboring Springfield and newly-appointed freeholder Sergio Granados can be invited to discuss the county situation with city officials.
Officials at the meeting also pointed out that city officials have been meeting intermittently with county financial officials in the hopes of passing on Summit's methods of running fiscally prudent community government.
At the onset of Tuesday's meeting council president Richard Madden said he was honoring Bomgaars and Getzendanner, the governing body's most senior members who are retiring this year by soliciting their suggested council goals first.
Bomgaars, noting that the council had delivered a 0.25 percent tax increase for 2013, said that one of the chief aims for 2014 should be a flat tax increase. In order to help in collection of revenue he also said the council should quickly fill the tax collector and deputy assessor vacancies.
He also suggested that the city should utilize its transit village designation to encourage housing within a half mile of the Summit Train Station.
Getzendanner urged continuation of the city's austerity program, cutting down on the 200 properties in the city that now enjoy exempt status, opposing unfunded state mandates and aiming to get the city's workforce down to 190 employees to avoid projected healthcare and pension cost increases.
He also said the city should combine curbside recycling with trash pickup, sell off more “paper streets” in the city and use “tax estimator” programs in making its budgetary projections.
Dill was joined by several of his colleagues and community programs director Judith Josephs in calling for renovation of the community center at 100 Morris Ave. as soon as possible so the center could better serve the increasing demands of senior citizens, youth and the city's recreation programs.
He also noted that the field at Tatlock Park would be reaching the end of its useful life in about two years and renovations soon would be needed to Tatlock's fieldhouse and tennis courts.
Councilman-at-Large Gregory Drummond urged speedy action on the recommendations of the downtown revitalization study, redevelopment of the Railroad Avenue tract and increased traffic safety measures such as better lighting of crosswalks.
Commercial real estate broker Robert Steelman said pedestrian safety was one of the keys to making Summit into a destination city.
He said downtown merchants are not seeing the performance needed on a “sales per square foot basis” because pedestrians, who are potential customers, are not sufficiently attracted to the central business district.
Along with Drummond, who this year is seeking reelection to his council post, two other Republican council candidates, Sandra Lizza in the Second Ward and Michael McTernan in the First Ward, spoke at Tuesday's session.
While agreeing with most of the proposed goals, Lizza called for the milestones to be more specific.
For example, she said, the goal on the Merck sale should target the potential tax loss. She also called for more reporting on council and other governmental actions online on a regular basis where they would be more accessible to residents.
McTernan called for more coordination of communication among the various interest groups in the city in order to forge a “Summit brand.”
He also said there should be more areas where youngsters and other residents could feel safe bicycle riding in the city and addressing the “parking disenfranchised”--senior citizens—by, for example, providing a seniors-only parking lot.
Among capital projects that received strong support at Tuesday's session were improvements to the Summit Public Library, which has not been renovated since 1997, and replacement of the city's fire headquarters.