In the second of what promises to be a biannual series of informal “town hall” meetings, a group of student participants in the Secaucus High School Junior State of America (JSA) sat with the Town Council and questioned them on everything from taxes to flood control to support for Gov. Christopher Christie.
“The JSA is a nonprofit, student-run organization that focuses primarily on fighting political apathy among high schoolers and community involvement and town involvement in general,” said JSA Chapter President Bethany Mancuso, a senior at the high school.
The Secaucus High School JSA chapter has about 100 members.
Joining the council for the event were Superintendent of Schools Robert Presuto and Board of Education President Jack McStowe. Mancuso kicked things off by asking a series of prepared questions. Below are a selection of the questions and responses.
Q: Do any of you hold the opinion that we are over-expanding Secaucus?
“It’s not that we’re seeing a lot of new development,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “What we’re seeing is a lot of redevelopment: existing buildings that are being torn down.” He explained that many older facilities and vacant parcels of land are being redeveloped for data centers, “which are great for us because they’re great ratables and they don’t demand a lot of services.
“One thing that happened in Secaucus, and it happened years ago, when a lot of development occurred, the core of the town, the old Secaucus center of town, kind of stayed the same,” he said. “All of the development took place around the outside the town: Harmon Meadow, Harmon Cove, Meadowlands Parkway. Which is really a great thing for a community, because most of our ratables, our tax base is paid by the industrial base, and you really don’t feel the effect of all of that stuff around us because in the middle is where we live.”
Regarding residential development, he pointed out that the state controls the zoning and planning for 88 percent of Secaucus through the Meadowlands Commission, so the town does not always have the ability to veto or adjust projects. The council does work with the Meadowlands Commission on project planning whenever possible.
“If they have three bedrooms we’ve asked them to scale some back to two bedrooms or one bedrooms or studios,” said Councilman Gary Jeffas. “Because we’ve found by and large [with smaller homes], less children come in, less into the system, less into the school system, which is a lot of the concern with redevelopment.”
“I think Secaucus is going through a change, and it’s a positive one,” added Councilman Robert Costantino. “We’re a victim of our own success. It’s a great place to raise a family. It’s affordable. So people are looking to move here with young families.”
“There’s going to be growth,” he said. “There has to be. You can’t have a stagnant community.”
Q: We were all very happy that it is the third year in a row with no town tax increase. Will the renovations on the high school cause major tax increases or drastic changes?
“Obviously if you’re going to spend $27 million on a school, you have to pay for that somehow,” said Mayor Gonnelli. “So you pretty much know what the tax implications are going to be.”
“There will be some increases. It’s all based on an average assessed value of the houses,” said Superintendent of Schools Robert Presuto, who added that the town was able to secure some funding from outside sources. “We got money from the state, which was a very small window of time that the governor opened our ability to get about $7 million in aid, and the timing was actually very good.”
Nonetheless, according to Board of Education President Jack McStowe, “Secaucus receives very little money from the state of New Jersey. Your income tax is supposed to come back in the way of funding your schools and Secaucus does not receive their fair share. A lot of small communities like ours do not receive their fair share. We’ll be passing a resolution at our next board meeting to send to the governor legislation to address this issue.”
Secaucus receives about $927,000 annually in state aid for schooling, according to Presuto.
“They put too much of a burden on our taxpayers to pay for our schools,” said McStowe. “Our budget is limited.”
Q: Do you still support the town’s decision to support Gov. Christie, considering the recent controversy?
“We supported Gov. Christie for two reasons,” said Mayor Gonnelli. “We thought that Gov. Christie’s leadership during Hurricane Sandy was second to none. He called me every single day. There was a point in time where I spoke to every member of his cabinet once or twice a week. And there was also a point in time that I actually spoke with the president of the United States with Gov. Christie on a phone call. So it kind of was above and beyond and we just felt that he earned our support.”
The second reason was tax sharing. “We actually have to budget $3 million a year to send to other towns that have less development than us,” explained the mayor. “And we are really close to a solution with tax sharing. In fact, last year the state funded it to the tune of $6 million, which saved us $2.3 million.”
Tax sharing was instituted in 1969, Gonnelli said, and Gov. Christie was “the first governor that actually listened to us to hear what our concerns were.”
“Tax sharing was a huge issue and continues to be a huge issue,” added Councilman Jeffas. “Frankly, if Gov. Christie is willing to continue to support Secaucus in its effort to save taxpayers $3 million, that’s a good reason [to support him]. We’re here not for seven people. We’re here for 16,000 people. Our job is to save 16,000 people money if we can. If the governor supports that, that’s a very strong stance for us to give him more support in return.”
Q: Our educational system relies more than ever on standardized tests that compare students to one another as the dominant assessment instrument. According to a professor at U of M, this has created an unhealthy classroom scenario in which standardized tests provoke considerable anxiety among students that seems to increase with their age and experience. What is your reaction to this in relation to the new adoption of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing? (Asked by Mike Gehm, advisor for the Junior State of America.)
Superintendent Presuto explained that the new regulations are intended in part to allow for increased oversight of teacher performance. While the town is required to abide by state regulations, “I’m concerned about how we’re losing our own control,” he said. “I worry that non-educators make decisions about education. Education is a resource to the business community. The assessment is done by a private company.”
“One thing I will say, the Common Core would be great because we have students transfer in from other countries or states,” he said, referring to the national program to standardize curricula across states. He said that the Common Core ensures that all schools teach similar courses at equivalent levels for the same grades. “One good thing about PARCC if we do it right, it will make it easier for students and teachers. There’s a good element in everything.”
Board of Education President McStowe disagreed. “Common Core bothers me,” he said. “New Jersey is ranked fourth in the country in education,” he said. “Are they bringing New Jersey down or the others up? I don’t think the lower tier is going to keep up with us. They can’t catch up. I don’t see [Common Core] sticking around. I give it maybe four years. They’ll find something else.”
Q: You mentioned before that our town doesn’t have as much control as we would like. Why is that, and why are we being controlled by an outside influence? (Asked by sophomore Iqra Ahmed in relation to the comment that the Meadowlands Commission controls zoning and planning for 88 percent of Secaucus.)
“Back in the 60s, Secaucus was more of a farming community with a lot of open space and meadows,” said Mayor Gonnelli. “And I really firmly believe that at the time the Meadowlands Commission was put together, there was a need for it.”
“A lot was happening at a very, very fast pace, so you really needed professional planners and architects and engineers to really come up with a way to control that development so it happened correctly,” he said. “And I think they did a good job with that. What should have happened after that is when all the development was done… that charge of development should have been taken away from them and given back to the local communities. And that didn’t happen.”
He added that “I think the Meadowlands Commission, as far as development, I think their day has ended, and I think that the legislation will soon see that. I hope that they soon see that. And that [control] goes back to the community where it should be.”
Q: I recently found out that you built dikes or banks around town that are supposed to prevent another disaster, like Sandy. When will it be completed and why didn’t you wait for government aid? (Asked by sophomore Hannah Canonigo.)
“What they are really is just mounds of soil that are built above sea level,” said Mayor Gonnelli. “What they do is protect the town from tidal surge. Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, all of our flooding really came from tidal surge. So these things will stop that.”
“We started building them prior to Sandy but they weren’t completed when Sandy came,” he said. “They’re not that expensive to build. We built last year about 2.5 miles. It probably cost us about $100,000. A lot of that work was done by DPW laborers in-house and most of the materials we got for free. We take advantage of some of the projects happening like the road widening projects on Route 3 where we’ll get a lot of the soil and the rocks to build these, so they’re really effective. I think by the end of this year we’ll probably be done building whatever berms we have left to build.”
The event was videotaped and posted on the town website at www.secaucusnj.org.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.