SUMMIT, NJ - The Summit Taxpayers Association (STA), a non-profit, non-partisan volunteer organization that advocates for fiscally responsible government with a goal of reducing property tax increases, has asked both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Mayor of Summit, Ellen Dickson and Nora Radest, to articulate their respective platforms relative to limiting  property tax increases and promoting fiscally responsible government in the Hilltop City.

In a letter to the candidates, STA President Thomas M. Garvey noted their membership includes "hundreds of taxpayers who want fiscally responsible leadership managing our City, School and Union County tax assessment, which last year totaled $131.4MM and an average of $16,497 for each household in Summit."

The STA posed the following four questions to each candidate, and their responses are noted verbatim:

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The Union County tax assessment for 2015 was $37.6MM, up 6% and three times the Governors mandated 2% cap on property tax increases. Will you commit to fight against any future tax assessment from Union County which exceeds the 2% nominal tax cap and, if so, what exactly will you do?

Ellen Dickson

"I have worked and fought hard to reduce the burden of Union County tax increases on Summit property holders and will continue to do so. My efforts along those of others contributed to the County’s decisions to shed the money losing Runnell’s Hospital and costly Music Fest. I will continue to talk with the Union County Freeholders about the burden placed on Summit, push for Union County to provide greater financial transparency like we have in Summit, and do my best to help Summit residents better understand County finances and their impact on Summit.  

Summit property taxes to Union County increased at a compound growth rate over 6% since 2011 and since 2000.  The share of Summit’s property taxes going to Union County is approaching 30% and very little of it returns.  It reduces our financial flexibility.  Between 2011 and 2014, Summit’s average property tax increased from $15,524 to $16.623, Summit’s city services and schools were responsible for less than $250 of the increase of almost $1,100.  Union County and Summit are just part of a broader matter New Jersey citizens need to understand and evaluate.  In 2014, New Jersey property taxes totaled $27.1 billion, of which $4.87 billion went to the counties, $8.09 billion went to municipalities, and $14.15 billion went to schools.   By the way, in 2013, state gross income taxes were $12.1 billion, and sales and use taxes were $8.5 billion."

Nora Radest

"I will certainly fight against any Union County tax assessment that exceeds the 2% cap; and would work hard to do so. I will open the lines of communication with the Union County freeholders at the outset of my term and endeavor to maintain working relationships by meeting with them on a regular basis. As someone affiliated with the same party as the freeholders I may be able to make more headway with them in pressing the case for Summit."

The Summit School tax assessment for 2015 was $65.67MM, up 1.4%, and now equals 50% of our total tax assessment. What is your position regarding taxpayer funded full day kindergarten and how do you believe it will financially impact the many privately funded kindergarten budgets, employees, and buildings? More specifically, how will you continue to manage the Summit School Budget so as not to exceed the current 50% of our total tax assessment?

Ellen Dickson

"We now have six full day kindergarten classes operating in Summit. The second half of the day is tuition based, which makes it cost neutral to the taxpayer. It is need blind with a lottery system. Those on free or reduced lunch do not pay. We were able to enroll almost every student interested this year. If we made FDK mandatory building costs as of 2013 would have been an additional $5 million for additions to Jefferson and Wilson. That is the bricks and mortar. Staffing, of course, would increase. The 2013 presentation indicated we would add 9 new teachers."

Nora Radest

"I believe full day kindergarten is important for all of our children. Five and six year old children have a wide range of developmental needs -- social, emotional, physical and cognitive -- all of which should be addressed in the classroom. Full day kindergarten aims to meet ALL of the developmental needs of this age-group through play and developmentally appropriate curriculum, whereas a half day program only has time to address the academic demands that are more pressing then they have ever been at the kindergarten level. Furthermore, the realtor community is reporting that our lack of full day kindergarten is having a negative impact on first-time home buyers’ view of Summit.

The current lottery system is the equivalent of a tax on Summit’s middle class residents. Those who can afford $7000 per year can enter the lottery as well as those who are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Those in the middle cannot even afford to enter the lottery.  As for the impact upon the private kindergartens, the market economy will adjust; those organizations will adapt to the changing needs in the community, and I believe they will thrive.

The Board of Education needs continue to limit any spending increases. Any additional funds needed for full day kindergarten will have to be offset by savings elsewhere. Fortunately the Summit Educational Foundation, which contributes $750,000 in non-tax dollars to the schools each year, has a long history of supporting important initiatives."

The Summit City tax assessment for 2015 was $28.10MM and up .5% this year. Along with access to transportation, good schools and gracious neighborhoods, our vibrant downtown is critical to our recognition as one of the most beautiful small towns in America. Retail business in Summit appear to be challenged and a growing number of storefronts are vacant. What will you do to support our downtown?

Ellen Dickson

"Retail has significant challenges from online shopping and big box stores. Summit’s downtown is doing quite well with an occupancy rate of 93%. Much of the remaining 7% is under lease. Our downtown is undergoing a transformation from retail as we know it to many more restaurants and fitness studios. We will have 5 new restaurants within the next year. Other retail shops have planned openings. Summit Downtown Inc. (SDI), which is a separate taxing authority, manages the downtown. A recruiter has been hired to work with SDI to attract new complimentary businesses. SDI is working with storeowners to spruce up their windows to present a more inviting image.

The City has undertaken a beautification program to redo all crosswalks and the pocket parks, add new signage and new landscaping. This will be completed in the next few months. A major new building, 466 Springfield Ave. will open in a few months with Class A office space that is already rented. A plan for the Broad Street corridor is in the works and that should bring new dynamism to downtown.  One landlord told me he is more optimistic than he has been in a very long time. Stay tuned, many good things are happening."

Nora Radest

"The current mayor and council refuse to acknowledge that the retail climate downtown is troubling. In fact they continue to tout a high occupancy rate as proof that all is well in downtown Summit. A walk down Springfield Avenue reveals otherwise. In 2010 former Council President Bomgaars and former Mayor Glatt formed a Downtown Review Task Force.  One of their many recommendations was for Summit Downtown, Inc to hire an employee for retail recruitment and the facilitation of the permitting process. I’m glad that Council is finally considering this as I have been advocating for these things for over six months. Like many storeowners, Summit’s retailers are facing tough competition from online retail and the Short Hills Mall. Other towns have recognized this and are offering incentives to potential tenants and working with landlords to create appropriate space for new tenants."

The trajectory of Summit's demographics are trending toward affluent families with young children and away from older taxpayers with grown children (who can't afford Summit) and who themselves can no longer afford to pay property taxes which are among the highest top ten counties in the United States. Does Summit risk becoming a beautiful but hopelessly expensive "HILLTOPPER" community where families can live temporarily but have no real hope of putting down roots? 

Ellen Dickson

"Yesterday’s New York Times article, Summit, N.J., “a Place to Grow Into and Stay” sums up my thoughts. My experience in Summit is that people move 2,3 or 4 times depending on their finances and need for space. Most try to stay in Summit. Rentals and condos are now about 30% of the housing stock. I see that percentage growing as apartments are added around our city center. Not surprisingly, the strongest demand is for moderately priced housing.  I also see a movement to multi-generational housing. Early childcare and adult care is so expensive that I have seen a movement back toward shared living arrangements, which can benefit everyone.

As a member of the Finance Committee for the last four years I am acutely aware of the burden of tax increases. That is why we strive so hard to keep them low.  Social Security has no increase this year and savings vehicles offer minimal returns. Taxes are eating up a higher percentage of income. This City has to be run for ALL residents."

Nora Radest

"The issue of seniors feeling they need to move out of Summit after they have raised their children is not new. We need a constant and compassionate balance between providing excellent schools to continue to draw families to town along with the need of seniors to remain comfortably in the homes in which they have raised their families. I would encourage an invigorated private-public partnership to provide a stable source of funding for important existing senior services, such as the Big Wheel Bus, and give us the ability to create additional support services for seniors. I was able to spearhead a very effective endowment for the Summit Educational Foundation and would put some of those tactics into place on this issue."