At the first and probably only borough mayoral debate last night, both candidates fell short of either endorsing or opposing the consolidation of the two Princetons.
Democratic candidate Yina Moore and Republican Jill Jachera both questioned whether consolidation will achieve the financial benefits supporters claim.
More than 125 people attended the debate that was hosted by the Jewish Center of Princeton and moderated by the League of Women Voters. Consolidation was one of the hottest topics among the dozens of questions submitted by attendees during the hour-long forum.
“It’s a very difficult topic, one that I have studied a lot over the summer, and the more I’ve studied it the more complex it is,” Jachera said of consolidation. “Personally I would like to see the communities consolidate, but when it comes to the benefits we are seeking, I question whether we can achieve the savings.”
Jachera said good examples of consolidated communities unfortunately don’t exist, and that some recent studies show the cost savings from consolidation don’t meet expectations. She said she would want to see a consolidated Princeton build its budget from the ground up.
“I’ve tried to seek assurances that if consolidation passed, we would have a zero-based budget and start from scratch,” Jachera said. “We shouldn’t just take two budgets and lump them together.”
Jachera, a lawyer and Princeton YWCA board member for the last decade, said each department should develop a strategic plan, look at its mission and determine how best to accomplish its mission. “Maybe we would even find additional cost savings,” she said. “If I had those assurances I would be much more likely to vote for consolidation.”
Moore, a planning board member who was born and raised in Princeton, said she is not convinced that consolidation is a good move and has been asking numerous questions that have gone unanswered for months.
” It is an important decision, and each citizen will need to make up his or her own mind,” Moore said. She asked what consideration was given regarding the $3.7 million in non-tax revenue the borough brings in annually, as well as the $2 million in property tax revenue the new Palmer Square development will bring in, in addition to future revenues from the hospital site downtown.
“These are our dowry,” Moore said of the borough, adding that she wants to see an annual projected budget for the consolidated municipality as well as a projected budget for a five-year period.
“How will all this impact the citizen, including anticipated savings from staff cuts? What is the joint five-year plan that guides us on a straight and agreed upon path? These seem to be the steps that would make the projections more accurate,” Moore said. “The projections – the prenuptial agreement -has not happened. We are all interested in having those types of questions answered, but the commission failed to answer these questions . Are the savings significant enough?…It’s clear to me there was never any prospect of love or money in this (marriage).”
Questions during the debate also focused on Princeton University’s payments to the borough and the relocation of the Dinky station.
Jachera has repeatedly said the dysfunctional relationship between the borough and the university needs to be fixed.
“Pilot payments are a misnomer in some sense, implying the university is required to pay taxes, which they are not,” Jachera said, then adding though that other universities make larger contributions to their communities and that the university places a large tax burden on borough residents because it owns 40 percent of the property in the borough.
Moore, a Princeton University alumna, said she has never known the school to have financial problems and that the lack of proper university support cripples the town from having the same kind of diversity the university has.
“Residential property owners subsidize the nonpayment of the university,” Moore said. “We need them to pay their fair share.”
Jachera said while she does not want to see the Dinky station moved, the university has a legal right to require NJ Transit to move it. She said she supports a proposal outlined in a draft “memorandum of understanding” between the township , borough and university to relocate the right of way along Alexander for future light rail.
“I don’t want to move it, I doubt they want to move it, but they have made determination to move it and that is their right,” Jachera said. “The worst case scenario is, they move it and we don’t approve the zoning to put the arts center in. Then we will be left with nothing.”
Jachera added that university officials could become “sufficiently annoyed” about the process that when it comes time to renegotiate their voluntary payment in lieu of taxes, “they would not be in a good mood to give more tho the community. They would give less.”
Moore, who has a professional background in transportation and planning, said moving the station is not the right thing to do.
“You want to try to bring transit services closer to the population and make the town more walkable,” Moore said. “Moving the station further from town risks the future of the Dinky and encourages more people to drive to the Junction. The university does not need to move the Dinky to build the arts complex. They are tying the wrong issue to the future.”
Both candidates said communication from the borough during and after Hurricane Irene could have been much better, both agreed the options for the Valley Road school site and financing for need further study and public discussion, and both called for better management of borough budgets, with Jachera saying the borough has not been as prudent as it could be in terms of spending.
Jachera argued that even though the tax rate has remained flat the last two years, the borough surplus has been used to hold the rate steady while spending has gone up.
“It provides a false sense of security,” Jachera said. “We have delved in to the surplus fund that is for things we might need in the future. It’s a way to make things look good…One of the reasons we have a Double A bond rating rather than a Triple A rating is because we are spending our surplus.” (Editor’s note: The borough’s bond rating is AA+.)
Asked about promoting diversity in Princeton, Jachera said the borough is culturally diverse and nonprofits and the university offer programs that celebrate differences. Moore said she was more concerned about the economic diversity in town.
“Our oldest and less fortunate are at the greatest risk,” Moore said. “The revaluation has caused the low and middle income neighborhoods to have their taxes increased while the wealthy saw theirs reduced. It has had a devastating effect. As a borough council and a community, we need to work to find ways to provide relief for people who were suddenly hit with increases.”
The debate was probably the only chance voters had to see the two candidates square off. The YWCA offered to host another debate, but Moore declined, citing Jachera’s ties to the organization. The public library also discussed the possibility of hosting a mayoral debate, but later decided against it. Jachera has said she is willing to attend as many debates as needed in order for voters to have as many chances as possible to get to know both candidates.
The general election is Nov. 8. Borough voters will choose two council members in addition to the mayor, with two Republicans challenging two Democrats for three-year terms on the council. In Princeton Township, two township committee seats are up for grabs, with two Republicans challenging the two Democratic incumbents for the three-year terms. Voters in both municipalities will also vote on the consolidation referendum.
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