The local Democratic club did not endorse a candidate for the Princeton Council at its meeting Sunday night because all four candidates failed to win enough votes, even after a run off.
Only 166 members of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) attended that gathering at the Jewish Center of Princeton, a much lower number than in recent years. Some members said the low turnout was because of the timing at the start of spring break, while others felt the turnout showed a lack of enthusiasm. The forum lasted about 90 minutes and the ballot counting took more than an hour.
Three of the four candidates received the support of the PCDO but not a full endorsement – incumbent Jenny Crumiller, and newcomers Tim Quinn and Anne Neumann. Candidate Letitia Fraga did get enough votes for the 40 percent threshold required to be supported by the organization.
In the runoff voting, Crumiller was the top vote getter with 93 votes, Quinn received 88 votes, and Neumann received 68 votes.
The first ballot tallies were as follows: Crumiller 80, Quinn 79, Neumann 54, Fraga 52.
The local Democratic municipal committee will vote on the candidates on Tuesday night.
Affordability was the top topic at the PCDO forum, which was moderated by Nicole Plett of the League of Women Voters.
Neumann, the only one of the four candidates who did not read from notes throughout the night, said the town needs an economic development commission to retain existing businesses and attract new ones. She cited soaring taxes and skyrocketing house values at the top two issues when it comes to affordability for residents.
“After consolidation, we realized some savings, but meanwhile all municipal salaries rose to the higher township level,” Neumann said, adding that the town could be more frugal while increasing revenue sources.
She also said Princeton University should pay more of its fair share when it comes to taxes, and pointed to the current lawsuit against the school regarding taxing some university properties, causing many members of the audience to clap and cheer. She also said the town’s 2006 McMansion law needs to be toughened to slow gentrification, and the town needs to offer a variety of housing options, including micro-housing and single-unit affordable housing.
Crumiller said part of the problem is how schools are funded.
“Income tax is better to fund school taxes,” she said, adding that the municipal budget makes up only 21 percent of property taxes in Princeton and has only increased 1 percent since she was elected. “The portion that goes to the municipality has shrunk considerably,” she said.
The town needs to provide more non-market affordable housing, she said, and work with developers to create more options such as the group home that will soon be opening in town. She said the town also needs to strengthen its zoning to prevent teardowns and McMansions.
Quinn, the former school board president, said the town needs to be diligent to grow revenues at the same pace of growth as expenditures. “We need to be disciplined and pay attention to the cost of everything we do,” he said.
The town, with community input, needs to decide what the town needs, what the town wants, and what opportunities the town can’t pass up, Quinn said. The town can also share services with other agencies like the school district, he said. Quinn said he is uniquely qualified to understand the school culture because of his experience on the school board.
He said housing needs to be built in Princeton that the middle class can afford. “What happened to the duplex in Princeton?” he asked. He added that local government can connect people with resources to help them lower their own expenses.
Fraga said the town needs additional affordable housing units, and needs to preserve its current housing stock through zoning. The town also needs to enforce fair housing laws, she said.
“We need to create a local tenant bill of rights,” she said. “I know of many families who have been displaced in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. Just this year alone, 20 families had to move out. They didn’t know their rights. Outreach and education are key. If we train people about their rights and responsibilities, it’s a win-win solution for tenants and landlords.”
Fraga said affordability is not just about what one pays for housing. Many families are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, she said, but many are also paying up to $10,000 a year in transportation costs.
“We need to ease high transportation costs by expanding transit options and building walkability into everything,” she said.
The portion of the Valley Road school building fronting Witherspoon Street has been vacant for a few years now and is in a state of disrepair. School officials say the rehabilitation of the building would cost more than $10 million, a figure a group of residents supporting the reuse of the building has challenged, claiming the cost is much lower. Candidates were asked what they would do with the building.
“It’s a shame to have such a beautiful building not being put to good use,” Fraga said, adding that it should be used for some civic purpose.
Neumann said the building could be renovated and become a new home for many of Princeton’s nonprofits. “It belongs to the school board now, but that means it belongs to all of us in Princeton,” she said.
Quinn said anything that goes on the Valley Road site must meet board of education standards. “Does anyone have between $10 and $15 million in the room tonight? That is the price tag for adaptive reuse. The rehab of that building would clearly be a want and not a need,” Quinn said. “Speaking of needs, I understand school enrollment is rising and is expected to continue to rise. It’s possible at some point the school board will need that building or whatever is on the site for the education of our children.”
Crumiller said in a perfect world the building could be used for municipal offices or affordable housing for seniors. She added that doing something about the vacant building has been on her priority list as a council member.
“I do feel the school board has dropped ball,” Crumiller said. “The building is falling into more disrepair. Every time I ask the administrator about it, he talks to the superintendent, who says the district has a plan for it but they don’t have the money for it. That is not a plan. A plan without the money is the same as no plan.”
Crumiller said the building should be sold or used for some creative purpose. She said the town could partner with nonprofit developers who specialize in the adaptive reuse of buildings.
“That gaping, empty building is a blot on our town,” she said. “It’s dark, boarded up building.”
Candidates were asked how they would increase town revenues without increasing taxes.
Neumann said in addition to creating an economic development commission, the town should create a special improvement district that would include the university and downtown businesses.
“The burden of paying for downtown maintenance and policing could be shifted off the shoulders of the taxpayers and on to the shoulders of the university,” Neumann said. “It is a wonderful bargaining chip as we wait to see a settlement from the university in the court case.”
Quinn said the town needs to look at sites where businesses are moving out and work with businesses that are coming in. He added that the town should look at parcels of land where new businesses could be built that are “low-impact businesses along the lines of TigerLabs, businesses in the tech sector that works with the university.”
He added that the town should seek payments in lieu of taxes from the Institute for Advanced Study. Faculty there send their children to the Princeton Public Schools but the Institute does not make any kind of payment to the town and none of its housing is on the tax rolls. “It seems to me the institute is getting a free ride while the university keeps its residential properties on the tax roles,” he said.
Crumiller said the town should participate in more public-private partnerships. She said the town could work more with the university on projects and added that she would not want to create a special improvement district downtown unless the merchants agree. She noted that many businesses have recently left downtown because of the high rent.
Fraga said she would focus on shared services. The town needs to explore sharing more services with other municipalities or the county, she said.
Asked about a complete streets policy that meets the needs of drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and residents who still want to park their cars on the streets, Quinn said the town needs to build a culture that is friendly to cyclists and lower the speed limit to create an atmosphere like downtown Pennington.
Crumiller said the town needs to focus on traffic calming measures and other ways to make the streets safer for cyclists.
Fraga said the town needs to create safe options for cyclists. She added that for some residents, biking is the only transportation option. Fraga said she is a consensus builder who can bring people with opposing views together.
Neumann said she favors road markings called sharrows over dedicated bike lanes, because bike lane safety is dependent on drivers noticing and respecting the bike lanes. She said she also thinks the town should post signs on streets that say “bike uses complete lane.”
Mayor Liz Lempert, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, gave a brief statement, and then the club leadership had the members do a voice vote to affirm her endorsement. Lempert said two guiding principles have steered her during her first term as mayor.
“The first is doing more with less. Certainly consolidation was to do more with less,” she said. “Affordability is a huge issue. We owe it to taxpayers to squeeze every bit of value our of the dollars we spend. We’ve been more prudent about how we allocate resources.”
She said she thinks the other responsibility of government is “to lift all boats” and think of future generations.
She cited affordable housing, workers, creating a welcoming environment for immigrants, and the historical importance of older neighborhoods as top priorities.