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."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Mayor's "Three Legs" Fallacy

Back around 2004, at the height of Mayor Frank's push for redevelopment, she repeatedly emphasized what she called her "three legs" of downtown revitalization--Main Street, the Business Improvement District (BID), and redevelopment. Redevelopment is long dead, and it is time for the BID, which never should have been created in the first place, to go as well.

The concept of a Business Improvement District sounds good until you realize it requires business and property owners to pay an additional tax--in this case $1,000 to $2,000 a year--for services the borough is already supposed to provide.

In articulating her "2020 vision" for downtown revitalization, Frank deliberately blurred the distinction between Main Street, a BID, redevelopment, and going green, each of which is actually a completely separate policy on its own. A town can be part of the state's Main Street program without having a BID, just as a town can encourage environmentally-friendly or "green" practices without redevelopment.

Many property and business owners at the time objected to being burdened with yet another tax. Former Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons, in response to their concern, expressed serious reservations about enacting the BID. That position and her opposition to redevelopment led to her forced resignation.

Five years later, the facts show that those who opposed the BID and its tax, which was since increased several times, who believed we only needed one "leg," namely Main Street, are being proven right.

Six property owners on Woodbridge and Raritan Avenues recently attended a Borough Council meeting asking that their properties be withdrawn from the BID, as they are not getting any benefit from the additional tax.

What is especially troubling is that these property owners sent a letter to the Borough Council with this request in September 2008 and never received a response. That's September 2008, not 2009--over a year ago. The lack of response finally prompted them to approach the council directly.

If the mayor had had her way, the BID would have been expanded to all businesses in town, not just those on Raritan and portions of Woodbridge Avenue and Route 27. To their credit, the BID Board turned down this proposal, emphasizing they did not have the resources to serve even current BID members, let alone additional ones.

Last month, one property owner told the council the only benefit he is getting from this additional tax is a flower pot.

None of this is surprising. Five years ago, Mayor Frank and Councilman Steve Nolan specifically stated they wanted rents on Raritan Avenue to "skyrocket," based on the theory that that would bring in more "upscale" businesses and drive out the "less desirable" ones. In other words, the ultimate goal was gentrification.

Frank even went as far as recruiting one or two property owners who also were political supporters of hers to attend a council meeting and lament their not being included in the BID. Yes, they expressed their dismay at being excluded from the "privilege" of having to pay an additional $1,000-$2,000 a year in taxes.

Citizens and business owners who complained that the BID essentially is a form of "taxation without representation" were given a response from the mayor in the form of a political spin saying that the BID really was just a way of the business and property owners deciding how to spend their own money. After all, the BID Board of Directors, which is also the Board of Main Street, is composed of one-third property owners, one-third business owners, and one-third residents, the mayor emphasized.

The obvious question then was, who elects these board members? It would be one thing if every BID participant had a vote. But that is not how the BID leadership is chosen. In fact, the process by which the leadership--those who decide how much to tax and how to spend the money--is selected has never been made clear to anyone. I asked the mayor how a hypothetical business owner interested in joining the Board might run for the office or put his/her name up for consideration. Of course, I received no specific answer, just vague posturing and repetition of how all the BID really is is property and business owners deciding how to spend their own money.

A look at the BID's Board membership over the years reveals a disturbing but not unexpected pattern: the majority of members are political supporters of Mayor Frank. In other words, they were handpicked by her to enact her vision for the town--hardly a group of business and property owners deciding how to spend their own money.

Furthermore, the BID Board subsequently declared they are not subject to the state Open Public Records Act or Open Public Meetings Act and therefore do not have to release their budgets to the public or hold open meetings. A Star Ledger reporter investigating complaints about the BID's closed processes about two years ago noted that Highland Park's BID is the only one out of many she researched that made such a claim. Every other Main Street and BID in New Jersey was happy to disclose this information.

Maybe all the secrecy comes from the BID Board not wanting to reveal how much money has been spent and continues to be spent on outsourcing services such as organization of the Street Fair and publication of the Main Street newsletter to politically connected firms that just happen to support the mayor.

The previous Main Street director was one of the primary supporters of this outsourcing. Not only did he alienate business owners with a very unfriendly attitude, clearly representing nothing more than the mayor's redevelopment agenda--he also rejected offers by volunteers to provide services such as the newsletter in favor of spending large amounts of money on PR firms instead. Our property and business owners have been effectively subsidizing private firms that thrive on their political connections--otherwise known as Pay to Play.

In all fairness, Main Street is not the problem. Having a Main Street program is very valuable to a walking town like ours, and the current director is doing an amazing job reaching out to local businesses and working with them. But Main Street can exist without a BID, as it did in its first years in Highland Park. By abolishing the BID, we can go back to the original vision of centering the program on volunteers and at the same time relieve this additional tax burden on our business and property owners.

More than exempt these property owners, the Borough Council should either abolish the BID or adopt a suggestion made in 2003 by former mayor and then mayoral candidate Jeff Orbach. He recommended the alternative of a Special Improvement District, or SID, in which participation would be voluntary. Those business and property owners who want to participate, including Frank's eager-to-be-taxed supporters would have the option of doing so while those who wanted to opt out would have that option available as well.

The last thing Highland Park needs is for commercial rents to "skyrocket." Even Westfield, which the mayor repeatedly invoked as a shining example of her vision, now is filled with vacant storefronts left by businesses who could no longer afford the higher rents. Highland Park is not a wealthy town. It is a mixed-income town, and many of the mom and pop shops are barely making it, especially in this difficult economy. Skyrocketing rents would inevitably send them packing.

We need only one "leg," Main Street, not the three Frank repeatedly advocated, to revitalize our downtown and engage citizens and businesses in doing so. It is time for the borough to take a good hard look at the economic facts on the ground and listen to the business and property owners affected by failed public policies.