Emotions ran high on July 20 as the South Orange Special Improvement District (SID) advisory committee held its first public forum in front of a packed house at The Loft in SOPAC. In January, the South Orange Board of Trustees passed a resolution creating the committee and charged it with the task of assessing the feasibility of a SID.
The thirteen member committee has met every week to work on a recommendation. Among the main discussions of the committee was creating a draft budget, the SID’s responsibilities and how Main Street South Orange (MSSO) would be incorporated by the SID.
The forum started off with an overview of what an improvement district actually is. Described by Jef Buehler, State Director of Main Street New Jersey/Improvement District Programs, an improvement district is a geographically-defined assessment district created by a municipal ordinance with an annual municipal budget approval. It is run by a municipally-assigned District Management Corporation (DMC) with a Board made up of private and public stakeholders.
“Improvement districts, if they are well run and well managed, and certainly in South Orange, they are locally empowered,” said Buehler. “The public and private sector would be working together with residents of the district to better the downtown and better the value of everybody’s assets of the entire town.”
A model budget was presented to the public. The committee presented a model that would rely heavily on money formally supplied by MSSO contracts, assessments of businesses in the district and a contribution from the Village for downtown services. However, many business owners expressed concern that the budget was too “top heavy” as over 50% of the budget would be spent on administrative costs.
Tony Wonski, owner of , opened up the public comments and questions section by asking what the downsides were of a SID.
“The downsides are what you create,” said Buehler. “If you are a poorly managed business, your business fails. If you are a poorly managed improvement district, the improvement district gets closed down by a municipality after a year, or any year thereafter. There’s no specific downside, but honestly it’s really how you manage it.”
Leslie Pogany, owner of , compared the budgets of the SID and the South Orange Parking Authority. She explained that the budget of the Parking Authority started small and grew over the years. The SID would be an autonomous board, similar to the Parking Authority.
“As we examine what the Parking Authority’s budget was, because it’s an autonomous board in this town, how they started out because they were the “end all” for the business community,” said Pogany. “They were supposed to solve all the business problems in this town.”
Jeff DuBowy, a commissioner with the Parking Authority as well as a member of the SID advisory committee, explained that the Parking Authority would work with the SID in ways determined by the elected board of the SID. He then welcomed anyone with ideas to come to a Parking Authority meeting.
SID advisory committee member, Kyle McLaughlin, discussed the difference between the two budgets since the Parking Authority gets a large chunk of revenue from tolls and fines, while the SID will work more with grants and contributions.
Elaine Harris, longtime business owner in South Orange, told how “problematic” it is that the Parking Authority will not be contributing to the SID. Since various parking lots are in the proposed district, Harris wanted to know who would be responsible for payments regarding maintenance of those lots. South Orange Village Administrator John Gross explained that the Parking Authority would have to contribute if they released responsibility of any lots.
“If the Parking Authority were to reduce responsibilities to a Special Improvement District, any funds that the Parking Authority spent on those services would have to pass through as well,” said Gross. “So there would be no way to defer costs of that onto the SID.”
Stuart Wainberg, owner of 75 South Orange Avenue, asked what Main Street South Orange’s role would be in the SID.
“Main Street, in the past, cast itself as a much broader organization giving design and consulting services to individual property owners and businesses, so that is a much wider net than the scope of the SID,” said Wainberg. “So if Main Street is folded into the SID, most of those services would disappear.”
McLaughlin, also a member of Main Street South Orange, explained that he didn’t think that was correct because all contracts with MSSO would be honored. He didn’t feel the scope of those services would change.
Wainberg then went on to ask whether additional Village services would be added as a result of the fees paid to the SID. John Gross advised that the Village’s role in clean up would not change with the SID’s addition and that with any services that the Village currently provides that would be handed off to the SID, the funds that the Village spends on those services would be handed off as well.
Harris asked about the lack of a “sunset clause” which would end the SID if certain conditions were not met. McLaughlin told Harris that the South Orange Board of Trustees would ultimately be responsible for ending the SID if they felt it was not accomplishing its goals. Committee member Alan Noel furthered that explanation by telling the business owners in the audience that they could end the SID since the board would be “fifty plus one percent” of business owners.
“Members of the business community will have a voice in determining their destiny,” said Noel.
At the onset of the forum, Trustee Michael Goldberg told the audience that the committee was formed after “a number of property owners approached the Village expressing a very strong concern they have about the state of downtown.” Harris questioned Goldberg on that, saying that she had “petitions from over 80 people who are in the central business district or immediately adjacent to it” stating that they “vehemently” don’t want a SID.
“There were at least three (business owners) that formally came to meetings to discuss the topic and others have informally over the years,” Goldberg told Patch following the meeting.
South Orange resident Jerry Andrews expressed concern about rising taxes as a result of the SID. He drew comparisons to the discussions before SOPAC was constructed.
“There’s a way that these costs seem to escalate,” said Andrews. “I remember seeing the spreadsheet of SOPAC, how it was going to be paid for by SOPAC itself. But then the town tends to give like a quarter million dollars a year because it can’t make its budget.”
A projected budget for 2011 saw the Village decrease funding to SOPAC, down to $160,000 a year.
Tom Suatter, owner of , continued Andrews’ concern about a tax increase.
“When everybody is cutting back all over the place, they are cutting services and cutting costs, shopping for this and shopping for that, we can’t afford another tax,” said Suatter.
Business owner and MSSO member, Matt Glass, defended the proposed SID saying that he felt it was going to make downtown a better place. He explained that MSSO is “limited in what it can do” and hopes the SID can help fill in the gaps that MSSO can’t.
“I truly believe that this downtown can be better than it is,” said Glass. “I feel like Main Street has done an incredibly good job, but there is only so much we can do with the primary funding and resources. With the funding and resources of the Special Improvement District, I personally will commit to use that money wisely and continue what was done in the last six years I have been here.”
Despite Glass’ commitment, there is no guarantee that he, nor anyone else present at the forum, would be appointed to the committee, should a SID be implemented. The committee board members would be selected via resolution by the South Orange Board of Trustees, as explained by the advisory committee.
South Orange resident Melanie Conklin expressed concern that the funds and services geared towards the SID would cause them to be diverted away from businesses on Irvington Avenue. Irvington Avenue is not included in the proposed Special Improvement District. Conklin expressed that residents and business owners in that district are “unanimously in support” of the proposed SID. However, they are also “equally unanimously concerned that there would be a reduction or disintegration of services provided for the Irvington Avenue business corridor.” She went on to ask for a guarantee that all services provided by the Village, as well as MSSO, would still be honored.
McLaughlin explained that all contracts with MSSO that Irvington Avenue businesses have will still be honored if the proposed SID rolls in Main Street. John Gross assured Conklin that no Village services would be affected.
Another issue brought up was the impact on residents who rent housing in buildings that fall under the realm of the SID. Kyle Trama, one such resident, expressed concern that extra fees charged to landlords would be kicked back to the tenants. He also questioned what return residents would get from these extra fees.
Committee member Denise Gray-Felder told the forum that it is up to landlords to decide how to pay for the extra fees.
Ross Fields, Glen Ridge resident, South Orange business owner and husband of SID advisory committee chairperson Robyn Fields, expressed his disappointment with the comments said during the forum by business owners. Ross Fields, also the merchant liaison for Main Street South Orange, took “offense” to the claims that taxes will go up. He wanted to clarify to the residents that they “won’t be paying an additional penny out of their pocket to have a SID.”
“That’s the same clarification we got about SOPAC,” came a shout from the crowd.
Chris Fuentes, business owner in South Orange, came out against the SID feeling it was unnecessary. He claimed “South Orange already went through a revitalization” and thinks that businesses know what they need to do.
“The premise of my being up here is keep doing what you are doing, but do it better,” said Fuentes. “There’s no reason to employ a SID to improve things.”
Trustee Janine Bauer, watching from the audience, furthered a question asked by other owners about whether SID fees would vary among the different services offered by each individual business. Jef Buehler explained that state laws “empower local stakeholders in each municipality to create an assessment structure that is wide open.” He explained that there can be different tiers that separate the businesses by what they offer.
Following the completion of the forum, additional comments were solicited via comment cards to be answered by the SID advisory committee in following meetings and online. The committee will continue public meetings throughout August with a goal of making a recommendation to the South Orange Board of Trustees by September.