Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Show Us the Data

At a recent Borough Council meeting, Brian Taxman, chair of Main Street Highland Park's Board of Directors, made a startling claim when he stated that the last three to five years have been the most successful ones in the history of Highland Park's business district.

When one makes such a claim with the intent of it appearing credible, it is expected that one will provide either quantitative or qualitative data or both to back up that claim. Yet no such data other than this one man's opinion was provided to the public at that meeting.

Have Main Street Highland Park officials reviewed the profit and loss averages for local businesses over not just the last three to five years, but over a longer period so as to have a standard of comparison? Have they spoken with as many business owners as possible or communicated with them via a survey? Without this information, there is no way of verifying Mr. Taxman's claim as anything other than a politically motivated statement.

Why politically motivated? Maybe because he has made such a statement before. Several years ago, in a Main Street newsletter, he credited success in the business district to the election of Mayor Meryl Frank. When one talks about elections and brings in partisan politics, especially in a town as polarized as this one, he or she is making a political statement. This is especially noteworthy because Main Street, as a 501 C3, is required to be nonpartisan and prohibited from engaging in electioneering or promoting any political candidates.

Mr. Taxman's statement amounts to a claim that the last three to five years have been the business district's most successful ones in all Highland Park history, which is 102 years! That requires review of a century of business activity to verify! At the very least, we should consult long time residents and businesses for their take on this even though the chances of obtaining records dating back to 1905 are very slim.

New businesses have always opened in the borough, and some have always closed and gone out of business over the years. There is no proof that the last three to five years have been any different. In fact, many businesses have found this period more difficult, as for the first time, they have been struggling with an additional tax burden through the Business Improvement District (BID). BID money is largely going to expensive consultants and PR firms to promote and conduct events that could be done by volunteers when in all justice it should go directly back to the business owners in the form of assistance in upgrading their properties. On average, business and property owners are now paying an extra $1,000-$2,000 a year in the BID tax.

It is noteworthy that in the recent primary, several businesses displayed signs for the opposition slate while none displayed signs in support of the current mayor.

The streetscape improvements scheduled for the springs of 2005, 2006, and 2007 respectively still have not begun. What has happened, however, is several revisions of the design concept requested by the consultant, the engineer and the architect. Each revision costs additional taxpayer dollars. The results on the ground are once again, more spending of our money and nothing done.

To determine exactly how much money has been wasted on endless revisions of the streetscape design, I have submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request seeking copies of all contracts with consultants, engineers, and architects on the project, which I will share on this blog once I obtain the information.

In all fairness, I ask Highland Park's business and commercial property owners: Have you experienced the last three to five years as your most successful ever? If your assessment differs from Mr. Taxman's, tell the Borough Council at one of its next meetings (Wednesday, November 7 and Tuesday, November 20, both at 7 PM in Borough Hall) or write to the mayor and council at Borough Hall, 221 South Fifth Avenue, Highland Park, NJ 08904. Better yet, write letters to the editors of local newspapers or contact Main Street at . You are the heart of our business district. Make your voices heard.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Memoriam: David Rebovich

New Jersey politics lost one of its few good guys with the sudden death of political commentator David Rebovich, Director of the Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. For those who have not yet heard, Rebovich died of a sudden heart attack at age 58 on Friday, October 12 while teaching a class at Rider.

According to Senator Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who was quoted in The Home News Tribune, Rebovich "was never encumbered by politics or partisanship. He was about what was right and what was wrong," said Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, whose district includes the city of Perth Amboy.

I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Rebovich for his comments in a March 27, 2007 Star Ledger article in which he recognized Mayor Meryl Frank's attempt to intimidate me from running for office by filing a false and ridiculous police report against me on March 12 of this year as the abuse of power it was. That article ran in the statewide section of the newspaper.

In this state of pay to play, where money and power so often triumph over justice and fairness, where corruption runs so deep that even US Attorney Chris Christie is shocked at the depth and extent of wrongdoing that permeates our political culture, it is not easy to side with a watchdog over a person with an official position such as the mayor of a town.

Yet Rebovich, unlike so many politicians and political consultants in this state, found the courage to do just that, to speak the truth as he saw it, unafraid of repercussions from bosses and party leaders. And for that, he was respected on all sides of the political spectrum--not an easy feat to accomplish in New Jersey or in the country.

"Public officials are fair game," he wrote in the March 27 article on the false police report, an article I initiated by contacting the press to expose this obvious abuse of power.

"They have to have thick skin. It comes as part of the price in holding office to be accountable to all constituents, and the rule of decorum is to respond to queries politely. They can't use police reports to stifle political opponents, as annoying as they may be."

Sadly, in this case, Billy Joel's song is right on the money in stating "only the good die young."

However, the holding of government officials accountable for their actions and the vigilance of government watchdogs will go on. For that, David Rebovich would be proud.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Borrowing Big, Spending Bigger

The October 6, 2007 edition of The Mirror, a local newspaper, states on its front page that Main Street Highland Park plans to borrow big in 2008. The program will receive a loan of $500,000 from the State Department of Community Affairs , which will go toward the Business Improvement District (BID) to fund long promised and long postponed streetscape improvements including pedestrian and highway lighting, signs, street furniture, planters, other decorations,and "other contributions to design and construction costs."

This loan comes on top of a $69,000 loan already obtained by the BID and used in previous years' BID budgets. It will be paid back through the quarterly BID assessment on commercial properties and businesses in the BID area.

What stands out here is what the article does not tell us. Is this loan being paid back with interest, and if so, what is the rate? What is the repayment schedule? Most importantly, since it will be repaid through the BID assessment, will it involve an increase in the annual BID assessment to already overburdened businesses and business property owners?

What exactly are the "other contributions to design and construction costs?" This sounds a lot like a euphemism for consultants' fees. The BID has already been paying consultant Jennifer Sennick, who just happened to nominate Mayor Frank for a state environmental award in 2005, via contract for several years, with the streetscape design having been changed at least four times. What is going on here? Why so many revisions? Are any designers or architects being paid extra for endless reconfiguration of these designs?

And why, when the mayor and council announced that the streetscape work is scheduled to begin soon, did they not mention the fact that $500,000 is being borrowed on the backs of local business and property owners to pay for this?

In September, about 30 people attended a Borough Council meeting to protest draconian cuts in the budget of the Highland Park Public Library. These cuts forced the layoff of many part-time library employees, the elimination of some children's programs, and the closing of the library on one weekend day every week.

The reason given for these cuts is that the borough anticipated $750,000 in state extraordinary aid and only received $200,000, leading to a huge shortfall. If so, how is it we can continue to afford paying expensive media consultant Jonathan Jaffe for production of the Quarterly, the borough's propaganda "newsletter," the latest issue of which was mailed to all borough residents last week?

Supposedly, the non-profit 501c3 Fund for Highland Park is paying for production of the Quarterly. The Fund gave approximately $50,000 to the borough in 2005, but no itemized list of exactly what they funded was ever made available. If they have this type of money to give, why isn't it going to the library, one of the most valuable community resources in town? If we had to choose between the library and the Quarterly, most people would pick the library without second thought.

And here are several other areas that could be cut instead of the library's budget. The borough's Redevelopment Director, a friend of the mayor's, is making $35,000 a year? Is this position really necessary? What return on investment has the borough had in the three years since this position and the Redevelopment Agency were established? Wouldn't the public be better served in eliminating this position and putting the $35,000 toward the library?

Then there is the so-called training for municipal officials, all at taxpayers' expense. The borough usually sends 12 people to the annual New Jersey State League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City--seven Governing Body members plus several employees. At $55 per person, the registration fees for these participants amounts to $660.

The conference takes four days, and borough officials typically stay at Caesar's Hotel, where the cost is $150 per night (see the League site at That equals $450 per individual assuming that person stays for the whole conference. Multiply that by 12 participants, and the total is $5,400. If you add the $660 registration fee, the grand total for elected officials and borough employees to take part in this conference equals $6,060.

Elected officials are also encouraged to complete an Elected Officials Certification Program through the Rutgers Center for Government Services. This program requires a 15-hour course, which costs $330 per person, plus five four-hour courses, each of which cost $100 (see ). Multiply that by seven Governing Body members, and you get $5,810.

So, between the League conference and the certificate program, the taxpayers are subsidizing the "training" of our elected officials to the tune of $6,060 plus $5,810, a total of $11,870.

If our elected officials really want to put the public interest first, they will voluntarily pay for these trainings themselves and donate the savings to help fully fund the library.

Interestingly, just today I found out that Park Decorating on Route 27 is going out of business after 12 years because of inability to afford Highland Park's exorbitant taxes. Property and business owners all over town are struggling to stay afloat and finding no sympathy from our elected officials. All this misplaced borrowing and spending threatens to bankrupt our business district and/or replace local mom and pop shops with an avenue of chain stores--not the ideal for Highland Park.

If these misplaced priorities disturb you, go to public meetings of the Borough Council and make your voice heard. The next meeting is Tuesday, October 15, and the one after that is Wednesday, November 7. Both take place at 7 PM. Let's never let up in holding our elected representatives accountable for the way they manage our hard-earned taxpayer dollars.