I decided to run for re-election as a Borough Assemblyman because I think I am making a difference in how our government is run. This is a job that, frankly, is never finished. Our community, like many others, faces a lot of challenges.
I often find myself alone on crucial votes. But most of the time it is not because I disagree with the intent of the vote, I disagree on the method of accomplishing our goals or that we are spending too much for too little.
The Borough Assembly sometimes creates its own problems when we try to get creative or we spend more than we can afford. I am there to speak to that. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but all the time I hope I have considered the issue, the facts, and use my best judgment in spending your money.
Manager and staff
We are long overdue for a change in management at the Borough. We need a new manager to take us to the next level. We have a hard working staff in place who need a leader. I am chairing a subcommittee to select a new manager. The meetings are public and televised. If you have ideas or comments, please contact us - SOON as we are actively recruiting.
I believe we need a manager who has had at least some experience in the private sector. Someone who knows what it took to earn that taxed dollar. This new manager may have the unique opportunity to mold a new organization from the top down by handpicking the assistant manager, the public works director and the planning director. The new manager will need to know how to manage people and have a solid background in contracts and capital projects.
Schools & Funding
Schools are still "Job One". We have good schools and they are constantly striving to improve.
Contrary to what some say, the Borough has continued to increase funding to schools: their budget increased again this year and their budget has doubled in the past ten years to nearly $30 million. Local and state contributions over the past four years have increased over 40% while we have attempted to keep a lid on local taxes.
Interestingly, based on enrollment, we are currently spending over $12,500 per student per year but our results on standardized tests is only in the 60 percentile range and we have a serious drop out rate. Earlier this year, it was reported in the news that Holy Name, a private school, spends about a quarter of that amount and achieves standard test scores in the 90 percentile. So that begs the question, do we really have a funding problem? Or is it something else? That is a question for the school board, meantime we will continue to funds schools to the best of our ability from available tax revenue. Yes, Virginia, I still hear you, "No new taxes"!
Local planning, zoning and development should be done with a soft touch.
Government needs to focus on infrastructure and amenities and leave other economic development to market forces.
Borough infrastructure includes schools, fire protection and emergency medical response, public transit, water, sewer, animal control and yes, roads. Amenities include recreation centers, pools, parks, trails, and beaches. When this infrastructure is in place, operated and maintained properly, it provides the foundation to attract private investment.
Planning and zoning should encourage development and limits should only be placed where one person's use of property is in direct conflict or detrimental to another's use of theirs, or public safety and health is an issue. Beyond that, government should get out of the way. Permits, for the most part, should be a nominal fee or free.
By the way, we shouldn't try to compete with local banks because when we do, we lose. If a bank won't loan on a project, it's probably destined to fail. We should learn from our experiences in this area.
Money and Taxes
Government is not free. Government provides beneficial goods and services that the private sector is somewhat ill equipped to provide. The costs of these services should be kept to a minimum and every dollar spent at the government level must be justified at the voter's pocketbook level.
It takes a lot of hard work to earn a living and some people are just barely keeping their head above water financially. When the government takes part of their earnings, the people have a right to expect them not to spend it frivolously or capriciously. It is too darn easy to sit on a committee and say, "Oh, that seems like a reasonable expenditure" when you are spending someone else's hard earned money and there is no individual responsibility.
Elected officials and government staff need to remind themselves of that daily.
If you elect me, and I appear to have forgotten, please remind me! Sometimes we get pretty full of ourselves sitting around that table: "power drunk" comes to mind.
I support the bridge and full access to Gravina but the decision on whether to build the bridge or some other option like enhanced ferry service is entirely in the hands of the state: DOT and the legislature. That has been the case since the earmarks were removed at the federal level so we are wasting our breath discussing the issue.
We have managed without a bridge forever and while it will slow development on Gravina without one, our town will survive. Slower development will please some of my opponents in this election who detest any form of development like roads and logging.
We need to remember that enhanced ferry service is the most expensive route to Gravina because it is labor and maintenance intensive. I wonder if anyone will be able to afford a fare that will cover the costs. Will the state subsidize that? Will they set up some sort of endowment fund? Stay tuned.
It would be a shame to tear down White Cliff School but that may be what winds up happening. The Borough has a plan in place to sell the old building and there is not much interest out there. Alternatives such as siting a new library may work but at the end of the day it will likely be the private sector that decides the fate of White Cliff.
The Borough sold the property at Ward Cove to RKG on the basis of interest only for 18 months with a balloon of $9 million due this November. Rather than selling outright, we allowed a grace period for the new operator to get things going.
After only a few payments, RKG stopped paying us. When the default was discovered, the Assembly agreed to work with RKG by allowing double payments during the final six months to catch up. The Assembly also pledged our veneer equipment on a start-up loan for about another $500,000 to get the veneer plant up and running and provide local jobs. The caveat was that RKG make good and stay current on all future payments.
This was not done: RKG needs to pay up or get out. The Borough never intended to be partners on this project; we intended to sell the property to a private developer. If the buyer doesn't live up to the terms of the agreement, even after we have tried to accommodate him on a prior default, it is time to "just say NO".
Then we hold another auction!
This was an ongoing disaster when I was first elected. In fact, the first vote I got to try to say "NO" to was a $500,000 change order to McGraw for a delay claim. First, these types of change orders are normally sorted out at the end of the project not in the middle. Second, I believed a lot of that claim was spurious. In hindsight, perhaps I was right?
In my opinion, we again acted hastily to agree to settle part of this huge claim without settling all of it. McGraw is completely off the hook, we drew down our finances another $1.7 million, and we remain in a lawsuit with McGraw's insurance company for a multi-million dollar warranty claim. One wonders what incentive they have to settle before trial. It's almost amusing that we are suing our insurance company since they handle the Borough's insurance too
Likely this will go to court and be appealed and drag on for years. There is a remote possibility that the insurance company will settle, but their offer will be peanuts. There is also a remote possibility that the state will pony up a grant to bail us out. I'm not holding my breath.
So should we have another $10 million bond? I think not We will just "man up" and deal with it.
Is there a bright side?
Yes, the million-dollar kitchen is complete and the kids are in school.
Where's my T-shirt?
Jewelry Store Initiative
This initiative is flawed. It was poorly considered and the ramifications are severe. It will likely wind up in court and guess who will be dragged in: the Borough. More taxpayer dollars spent.
On the face of it, this sounds great: proponents are trying to change the "look and feel" of downtown to "the olden days" and encourage locals to come back downtown to start businesses and shop. No more "Caribbean circus" atmosphere on Front Street.
However, it is extremely doubtful this initiative will have the intended effect. People who despised consolidation because they thought their taxes might go up should take a really close look at this one.
Putting limits on the type of businesses that may operate in our town and targeting such a large sector of the tourism-related businesses might be very damaging to the value of the underlying commercial property and could disrupt the local economy. The trickle down effect of that will likely all be negative.
These effects will tend to reduce property values. Developers will look askance at new developments with these restrictive covenants. Existing property owners will have limited prospective tenants and likely will have to reduce rents to keep properties full. This lowers the assessed values because commercial property is valued mostly upon its ability to generate income.
To maintain property tax revenues (i.e. school funding) in the face of dwindling assessed values may require a mil rate increase that will have the effect of transferring the tax burden to residential property, (i.e. voters). Remember, property taxes get passed on to renters, too. Also, increased property taxes on businesses will create upward price pressure locally and would make local businesses less competitive.
There are already many vacant spaces in downtown with nobody standing in line to rent them. The market is already correcting the oversupply situation of jewelry stores. We should let the market work.
In the meantime, if we want to change the look and feel of downtown, we should look at planning and zoning covenants that do that, but apply them to all business equally. An great example is the sign ordinance.
The Borough Assembly has listened to the community. We have made this issue a priority and recently created a task force (Planning Liaison Committee) to deal with community planning issues. Rather than draconian measures, we should sit down as neighbors and work it out.
I have tried to vote to manage precious tax funds in the most efficient manner, balancing community priorities and needs. We have done a pretty good job controlling costs on the Borough side while funding schools to the maximum within our means. We have done a pretty good job controlling taxes, sorry about the slight increase this year. If elected, I will continue to vote based on my established principles and you can expect me to fight for lower taxes and efficient government.
P.S. I still don't like secret executive sessions! There are VERY few reasons to hold them. I trust the public to remain informed and involved in this public process.