Summit Common Council, Taxpayer Group Take Aim at County Spending; Use of Open Space Tax Fund Questioned

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John A. Brunetto, III is sworn in as a Summit police officer on Tuesday as his parents look on. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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Mayor Ellen Dickson congratulates the police officers on their Exceptional Duty Awards. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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SUMMIT, NJ—Frustration by Summit officials that the increase in the tax levy for county purposes will rise almost 11 percent this year while the increase in the county as a whole averages only about 4.5 percent reached somewhat of a boiling point Tuesday with some council members hinting at support for withholding county tax payments.

Much of the discussion began with the appearance on the council’s agenda of an item to pay $6,852,090 in quarterly property tax payments to Union County and $255,592.08 as the city’s share of county open space taxes along with Summit Special Improvement District taxes of $47,200.

Councilman Thomas Getzendanner asked that the tax payment questions be separated from the governing body’s consent agenda so they could be voted on as a separate question, then Councilman Patrick Hurley asked that the county tax matters be separated from the special improvement tax question.

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Getzendanner said the council had lobbied the Union County Board of Freeholders for many years to get the open space tax cut in half but these pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

He then said the city should submit only half of its quarterly tax payment and put the rest in escrow and that the county should be urged to once again put the question of the open space tax on the general election ballot in November.

Noting that he agreed with the spirit of Getzendanner’s request, Hurley noted Summit was being asked to support a county budget that required it to pay almost as much in total tax dollars at the city of Elizabeth, which has 120,000 people to Summit’s approximately 22,000.

One of the problems, he said, is the equalization ratio that, in effect, is a formula for redistribution of wealth.

“Not many communities in the United States are penalized as much as Summit is just because we have some wealthy residents, “ Hurley added.

While Council President Richard Madden agreed with many of the comments of his colleagues, and noted the city has no direct representation on the freeholder board, he said it would be illegal for the city not to pay its county taxes.

“It would be a terrible example to set for our young people if we told them they could stop paying taxes when they didn’t agree with their government,” he said.

City Solicitor Thomas Scrivo said the governing body had no discretion under state law but to authorize payment of the county taxes when requested.

Councilman Robert Rubino said the council should not violate the law but it had started to “create a groove in the rock” against high county spending by speaking out against it at freeholder meetings while trying to establish a better working relationship with the county.

Summit Taxpayer Association President Thomas Garvey, however, said, if the county should file suit against the city for non-payment of taxes the $100,000 or so spent defending against the suit would be “well worth the money” because discovery involved in the suit would enable the city to get more accountability of how county tax money, especially that in the open space fund, was being spent.

He added that the open space tax was being misused.

Garvey also said the 280 employees being laid off only represented about 10 percent of the county workforce. He added the freeholders had voted to provide lifetime health benefits to many county workers that will cost county taxpayers more than $50 million.

Madden asked Scrivo to research the county open space tax to see whether it had been correctly voted in by county residents and whether it had been correctly used over the years.

The solicitor is expected to make a report on the open space fund at the governing body’s next meeting.

In the meantime, Madden said during a recent HomeTowneTV show with Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and County Freeholder Chair Alexander Mirabella, the issue of turning control of County Parks over to the Cities of Union County was discussed. Madden commented that such action could eliminate the need for County Police to patrol the parks and County Public Works employees to maintain the parks that would be turned over to the Cities at a substantial savings. He also stated that without Open Spaces, the County would no longer have a need to impose an Open Space Tax.

These measures, he added, could “score a homerun,” possibly cutting the cost of county government by 50 percent.

Hurley urged his colleagues to pass a resolution in time for the next freeholder meeting asking Union County to reduce spending by 50 percent.

When the vote was taken on the county tax measures, payment of the quarterly county taxes was passed unanimously, but Getzendanner voted against payment of the open space tax.

On a more positive note, City Administrator Chris Cotter reported on the results of the recently completed National Citizens Survey Group poll of 1200 Summit residents.

The survey was financed with a $9,900 grant from the Summit Area Public Foundation.

Around 36 percent of those who received the survey returned it—a large return rate, according to the survey group.

Of the respondents, 32 percent lived in Summit more than 20 years, seven in 10 owned their own homes and six of 10 resided in single-family homes.

Forty-four percent had housing costs of more than $2500 per month, 59 percent did not have children living at home, 48 percent had incomes over $150,000 per year, and the majority of respondents did not have children in school.

On overall community quality, 91 percent rated the city as a good or excellent place to live and 94 percent said they would recommend living in Summit to someone who asked them about it.

A majority of respondents said they planned to remain in the city for at least the next five years.

Among the city’s amenities, the ease of rail travel from Summit along with the ease of walking and bicycling in the city received high marks.

However, the availability of hiking or walking trails in the city rated below benchmarks in the survey.

Street repair was rated good in the survey, although the amount of public parking fell much below benchmark figures.

Although the availability of affordable housing fell below benchmark indicators, the variety of housing was similar to that of the benchmark indicators, according to Cotter.

The quality of new development in Summit rated much higher than benchmark indicators.

Although survey takers felt they had a high level of safety in both their neighborhoods and the central business district during the day, that level decreased somewhat for the central business district in the evening.

Police protection was rated good to excellent by 94 percent of respondents, fire protection by 98 percent of the respondents and 95 percent gave the same ratings to emergency medical services in the city.

Ninety-three percent rated the city’s garbage collection and recycling efforts good to excellent.

Summit’s cleanliness, air quality and overall environment scored “much above” the benchmark indicators.

Public schools and libraries rated much above the benchmarks.

While 58 percent said they had a good sense of community, 43 percent gave a good score to Summit’s sense of openness to others, while 18 percent rated it excellent in that category.

The opportunity to participate in community matters and volunteers scored much about the benchmark indicators.

In the public trust category, Summit scored similar to benchmark figures in the value of services provided for taxes paid and a welcoming spirit, while its overall image in the category scored much above the benchmarks.

Services provided by the city and federal governments scored above benchmarks, that provided by state government about the same as benchmark indicators and county services scored below indicators.

Contact with city employees in terms of knowledge, responsiveness, courtesy and overall scored above the benchmarks.

Among the forms of communication through which respondents receive information about their community, local news media was seen as the chief source of information.

In other actions at Tuesday’s meeting, John A. Brunetto, III was sworn in as a police officer, Police Chief Exceptional Duty Awards were presented to Officers John Padilla and Elizabeth Rice and Detective Christopher Medina for helping to disarm a man with a knife who threatened a woman and her daughter on a Summit street.

Police Dispatcher Nikki Griffiths was given the Police Chief’s Meritorius Service Award for assisting in apprehension of a robbery suspect.

Mayor Ellen Dickson proclaimed May as Older Americans Month in Summit.

In addition,  American Legion Commander William Rapp, along with veterans Al Mickens and Gil Owren announced the All American Fish Fry for the benefit of veterans at the Lyons Veterans Administration Hospital will be held on Saturday, May 19, from 11 am to 5pm on Beechwood Road.

Rapp added that May 19 also is Armed Forces Day.

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