This October's Issue of the Metuchen Mirror, you will find my very abridged responses to the paper's questionnaire. For the benefit of the public who I wish to serve and be their advocate as Borough Council Member, I decided to self publish my full detailed responses to the questionnaire herein.
1.) What is the No. 1 issue facing Metuchen and how do you plan to address it as a member of the Borough Council?
In my opinion, affordability and the financial budget are the biggest intertwined issues facing Metuchen residents now and in the future. The cost of living has increased significantly across NJ. A significant part of that increase is property taxes that continue to rise with no end in sight. Middle class families and retirees simply cannot get ahead. We were once a town where people embraced starter homes, then when their families outgrew these gems, they would stay to buy larger homes but stay rooted to the town. They invested their lives and their money in Metuchen. The Borough should be protecting and cultivating that investment of financial, cultural, and community assets.
We spend generously in certain areas. Yet, our basic back-office function needs more support and staff. It is a fact that we pay our independent accounting/audit firm much less than our neighboring boroughs. Our current government has viewed accounting audit firm function as a cost rather than an investment. We could use the lowest bidder if we only look at the money spent as a drain on our coffers. I believe the auditing function is a powerful tool to rev up the efficiency of our government, to root out waste, to identify weakness. Look at the sophisticated financial transactions we have undertaken in the last few years (renovation of Borough Hall, development of downtown parking lot, rezoning of a significant portion of our downtown). We should be retaining the best firms to represent our interests. The fees paid are a strategic investment, not simply a line item on a budget.
Further we need to ACT when an auditor identifies a problem or issue. The administration has only recently addressed some of the auditor’s findings from the last 2 years. We need to strengthen our compliance and oversight to increase transparency and financial resilience.
I will support the hiring of full-time Grant writer who will be responsible for helping close gaps to budget to minimize the burden on residents and perhaps pass on tax relief to residents. Would it not be great to experience a reduction for once and assurance that there will be no disruption to much needed public services as outlined below?
2.) What should be done to relieve traffic congestion in the borough, particularly on Middlesex Avenue?
We all recognize that traffic through Metuchen is a love/hate dichotomy. We want more people in our downtown, but we want fewer cars on the road. We want people to view Metuchen as a destination town for its cultural arts and charming Main Street, but we want them to get here without their cars. We want money from the Parking Authority, a bustling local economy, and a vibrant community, but we want no crosstown traffic. This is a complex issue but I believe we can address relief as follows:
(1) First, we need a Borough-wide traffic study including recommendations as to all municipal, county and state roads. Enough of the piecemeal approach.
(2) Second, initiate a Task Force to be advocates to our District 18 representatives and the appropriate departments in Trenton (e.g. DOT) to help sponsor the redirection of the traffic flow for Route 287 before entering Metuchen. This could include collaboration with Edison.
(3) Third, reinstate the Jitney bus service. It may help alleviate the traffic into downtown from local residents and also may help resolve the parking issue at the same time. In the past, NJ Transit funded a significant portion of this service. This service can start initially with some seed money from the Parking Authority and then be funded by the Metuchen Downtown Alliance. In addition, on weekends the service will help our neighbors that do not live within walking distance to commute to Downtown to help the small business owners. Whole Foods could be an initial sponsor as a responsible corporation to help the town.
3.) What steps would you propose to help maintain the integrity of Metuchen’s neighborhoods?
To maintain integrity of our neighborhoods, we need to be balanced in how we make decisions and set priorities. For years, the focal point has been Main Street. With the creation of the MDA, it is time to let Downtown and Main Street proceed unfettered. We now need to shift our focus to the rest of the community and our neighborhoods. Here are a few of steps I would recommend to the Council:
· Walk around the neighborhood and survey regularly what matters to residents regardless of political affiliations and liaison roles.
· Institute informal quarterly town halls on the weekends to allow more participation from local residents to discuss what matters the most so the issues are framed and addressed.
· Mandate that all committees have a balance of political affiliations. This will help with the issue of inclusiveness and open up a welcoming of all residents to the table. We are indeed Stronger Together.
· Digitize records in Borough Hall to facilitate access and improve administrative operations.
· Leverage technology (not Facebook) by establishing on the internet a portal to enter a concern and allow all residents the right to vote up current issues/concerns every month. The top 3 voted concerns by the community will be addressed by the Mayor or Council during a live webcast or the quarterly town hall forums.
4.) Do you favor passage of an historic preservation ordinance to grant the borough the power to review alterations or demolition of historic structures?
I really love history and my wife and I almost bought a pre-revolutionary war home. The realtor was patient with us as we looked at the home a dozen times. However, our decision was based on affordability and the upkeep needed. I believe there is an alternative way to giving more power to our local government. We need to leverage the tax code and/or ordinances for special assessment and if it requires seeking legislation at the District 18 level, we should be doing so today. We can approach this in two ways and possibly at the same time. First, we can address the affordability issue so these homes are loved and more buyers are attracted to these homes. This can be done with incentives, whether a tax rebate or a tax ratable adjustment that will help put some money in the homeowners’ pocket. We have the power to adopt ordinances granting exemptions or abatements from taxation on buildings and structures in areas declared in need of rehabilitation in accordance with current statutory criteria. We should be proactive on this issue.
The other way to deter tear-downs and protect our fabric is to pass an ordinance that any developer requiring a variance pay a special assessment that can accelerate the reassessment of the property value and require a full face value assessment be paid upfront. This would temper the issue of tear-downs of historic homes.
Lastly, I would recommend an exploratory review of a tax holiday program for All homeowner residents who want to invest in their properties (e.g. additions, restoration, etc.). This would give immediate tax relief to our residents, give incentives to stay in Metuchen and attract new homeowners to purchase starter homes. This would also help keep businesses like local NJ builders and real estate professionals.
5.) After the completion of the Woodmont and Whole Foods areas, what area should be the borough’s next focus for economic development and/or revitalization?
First, I would immediately recommend that all new apartment building structures require a back-up plan for the Borough to follow almost like a roadmap. For example, if Building A investment would fail or be foreclosed or abandoned, the town would designate what other investor or property use would be solicited immediately. We should have a governing body that monitors progress and proactively engages as a stakeholder in the success of these projects.
The town needs an anchor industry that does not include 1,000 of its employees but satellite offices that deal with international operations. Our town in NJ can be a leader if we have the proper proactive outreach to introduce new property usage or conversions. Ideally that would have been Woodmont as a mixed-use purpose (which could have served as a local stimulus to our downtown businesses during the daytime), but now it is time to look beyond the possibilities. I still believe high tech and bio-pharma industries should be our main focus, but not our sole focus. We have many foreign corporations looking to enter these industries in the US and what a better place than Metuchen to help steer them to. The state of NJ has a very generous tax incentive program and we need to leverage this program and our town assets to attract them. In order to achieve this, we need a better infrastructure that includes a revamped train station, we need to address the traffic and parking issues, and we need leadership to get this done.
The town’s master plan should include a university and a museum that houses artwork and relics of the town. We should be proactive in attracting satellite universities with graduate programs. We see a lot of this happening now where universities are expanding beyond their traditional footprint. If one of the Apartment building fails, perhaps one of the buildings could be the satellite university and also be used for the dorms. We can also help the Metuchen Library expand its usage through this effort.
The museum would be great for having indoor galleries and exhibits as well as have our long-time residents display their history and maybe donate to the museum for proper preservation. We could confer with well-established institutions to help kick start and opening our network to help get the proper grants.
South Main Street has been neglected for many years and it is time to help this area of town without sacrificing open space but extending our Main Street with lamp posts and helping build a new anchor in this area. Now that we have a parking garage, we can look at uses for the development of the South Main Street lot for open space community gatherings and events.
6.) What would you propose to enhance Metuchen’s position as a thriving arts community?
Aside from what I noted above, to enhance Metuchen’s position, we need to think creatively to foster a thriving arts community. I am a big supporter of the arts ever since I almost attended the School of Visual Arts as an undergrad. We must invest more in more programs like Junebug (which was an idea spawned by our community residents) and consider working to provide more resources to enhance the Junebug. We must bring affordable opera, a vibrant performing arts community, to Metuchen as it will help educate residents who would not necessarily attend because of the lack of affordability or lack of interest. It would be an incredible endeavor if an Opera House was dedicated to the town that could also serve as a culture arts center for celebrating our diverse community. We need leadership to focus on this effort.
7.) Does Metuchen need a new fire station? Where should it be located? How should it be financed?
The existing Metuchen firehouse desperately needed support years ago. It is a shame how any local government can let the building deteriorate and any resident can simply search for the videos on YouTube to see the extent of the issues there. What alarms me the most is having to answer this question only now when it should have been addressed years ago. Our volunteer firefighters and all residents are at risk with the extent of the repairs needed in that building, but it can be done NOW if we allocate funding to repair the roof and other issues. I favor a new firehouse. We can make this a priority. What I would recommend is that needed funding to repair be done immediately to allow for a careful selection process for a new location and allow for a well thought out build-out that is efficient and allow for proper financing to be done. We may have missed the greatest opportunity to ask for contributions from all of the large developers (including Whole Foods) to contribute to the cause. This should be a goodwill to residents in many ways. As we decide on financing needs, we should also budget for a full-time Fire-chief especially if we are willing to make an investment of potentially $10 million into land and building. Our fire department has had talented leadership and dedicated members for years, we must pledge our support to our bravest citizens!
8.) Do you favor expanding the Middlesex Greenway? What else might be done to boost open space and recreational opportunities in the borough?
Expansion makes sense only if we have advocated for ease of access and more access points. Some of the entry points are not easily accessible with the flights of stairs. Perhaps some ramps are needed to assist those who cannot carry up bikes, strollers and wheel chairs. It is indeed a wonderful way to escape the busy feel of the town and I support the open space that it brings to all residents. As for boosting recreational opportunities, I believe that we need an indoor recreational area that is affordable. Adding a second or third floor to the senior center will help bring the community closer, make it more accessible and also bring more people downtown on the weekends. The open space adjacent to the Metuchen Public Library could be used for a heated bubble structure to allow for indoor recreational activities during the winter months.
9.) Are you proud of the general condition of Metuchen’s roads and streets? If not, how do you propose to improve them.
The real issue is the deployment of resources by our council. Our public works department is second to none. However, our council fails to provide it with the resources and manpower it requires. As a result, as their resources are stretched thin, they cannot address all of our needs all of the time.
Our roads and streets have been neglected because of these budget issues as I noted above. We need a part-time internal engineer who will survey the conditions of each and every road in our town. Then we need to determine what it will all cost, what grants are available, and prioritize the roads and streets that need to be repaved or patched. We need to focus on OUR infrastructure and not just piggyback on the work the county does on its roads. I have been in town now 12 years and have heard about our sidewalks, but no action has been taken. Let’s plan and address them. I cringe every time I see a senior trying to navigate the peaks and valleys of our sidewalks or our young families manhandle their strollers as they attempt a family walk through our beautiful neighborhoods. We cannot wait for accidents to happen. Our last opportunity to save some money concerns the wrap-around as Amboy Avenue was repaved by the County. It was an opportunity to work with the county to address the wrap-around to ensure safety for pedestrians, especially because Amboy Avenue is not well lit in the evening and a crack can lead to a trip or fall and possibly a deadly car or bike accident.
10.) What is your top public safety concern and how would you address it?
We must maintain a strong focus on pedestrian safety. The addition of Whole Foods to our downtown will mean an increase in traffic from outside our town which will need to be patrolled so that road rage incidents do not occur. Traffic concerns with pedestrians will also have to be balanced with the need to maintain a traffic flow within our town. The recent installation of many "No Turn on Red" signs where they previously weren't suffocates traffic in town. Moreover, intersections where there were limited hours on which one could turn right on red have been changed to a mandatory "no turn on red." We need to have enforcement to protect our pedestrians while maintaining a flow for our other visitors and citizens.
11.) How should Metuchen be planning today for its infrastructure needs over the next 20 years?
The greatest plan is a strategic plan that contemplates “what ifs” especially the “what if I had the investment dollars”. We must prioritize our Capital Plan and not leave it to be “that budget thing”. To think out the next 20 years may be a pipedream to some but it really isn’t. To start, one needs to inventory all assets, facilities and systems (e.g. buildings, roads, sewer systems, etc.) and lay out exactly when it is coming due for full or partial replacement which is no different than a homeowner determining when to replace their roof. That is the systematic way of determining what is coming due to be replaced and a way to determine how to extend the life of an asset with proper maintenance during the useful life. The Capital Plan should look out beyond what is required for reporting purposes and it should be built with the collection of data from various sources of information (internal and external via analogs) with the assistance of the other local government departments and the financial advisory committee and possibly with a Task Force to assist with taking stock of the needs across the entire borough. A detailed line item Capital Plan will facilitate a healthy dialogue of what is required to meet the needs of the community, identify potential gaps, identify with a forward-looking aspiration of what may be needed in a few years, and drive financial accountability and proactive management. It is to our best interest to know what it would cost to replace a sewer system that was built in the 1950’s and not be guessing when it will break down and how to replace and finance it when it breaks. We need to have a complete plan in order to have sufficient time to determine how to finance it either through public grants, bonds and/or be able to negotiate through private funding (e.g. developers and anchor investors).
What’s next for Metuchen in the next 20 years from an infrastructure perspective? It is never too early to start thinking about drones and how they can and will help our police and firemen perform their duties, help monitor traffic and patrol the Greenway. This will require capital investment for site launch pads, training sites, storage and will require new equipment to monitor unregistered/unscheduled drone flights and require formal ordinances to protect our resident’s privacy rights especially since Amazon will be the first of many corporations using drones to service customers.
Last but not least, the Capital Plan process should include infrastructure that may not be within the borough’s “control” (e.g. NJ Transit, County and State) because the borough should make every effort to stay on top of these institutions’ commitment to service and maintain the infrastructure for our community. There is no passing the buck when it comes to safety and quality of living.
12.) What important question did this questionnaire fail to ask, and how would you answer it?
Your questionnaire is comprehensive but one would expect you to inquire of what I think of Metuchen. Metuchen is the whole package. It is a fantastic place to live, raise a family, have fun, play sports, commute, make friends, enjoy the arts, enjoy a beer, enjoy a nice meal around town, exchange ideas, grow old, etc. We each love Metuchen for what it offers and what we each contribute to it. It is a great place to live. My family and I have been here now 12 years. We as a community need to prepare for the future and enhance our practices by having a proactive council looking to address issues head on and not be reactive to issues raised by its informed and intelligent citizens. I look forward to be a proactive member of the council with your support and contribute mightily to our great town for years to come.
If you’d like to make a general statement about your campaign or explain why you’re running, or want to add anything that you think would be good for us to know about you or your campaign, here’s your chance:
I truly believe Metuchen’s potential has yet to be fully unleashed. We are at cross roads of “What Was” and “What Is”. I want to be part of “What will Be” to leave an indelible mark for future generations of residents and their families. I believe with my background, professional experience, passion and tenacity, I will complement the experience of our existing Council members to help deliver solutions to difficult issues, assure residents I hear their voice, and vote for their best interests. Please consider my candidacy and vote on November 7th under Column A. Put Menz to Work for Metuchen.