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."

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.