Spreading the tax burden

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a few weeks but it’s gone through a number of drafts trying to avoid getting bogged down in a lot of numbers. There haven’t been many meetings the last couple of weeks, so now is as good a time as any.

During the budget process this year, city officials boasted about the increase in “net valuation taxable.” That’s basically the value of the entire city when it comes to taxing property and it rose $10 million, or about 0.67 percent, to $1.517 billion. The bulk of the $10-million hike was attributed to several projects. City officials provided this breakdown of main additions to the tax rolls for 2007, with the following improvement values added to existing land assessments:

Riverwalk [32 units] $4,930,800
Best Western Motel (Route 1), $2,149,600
Mini-U-Storage [partial assessment], $1,223,600
Quick Chek (Route 1), $523,000
Sterling Place [three homes] $477,100
Luciano’s [14 apts, partial assessment], $199,300
Subtotal $9,503,400

Those figures are strictly for building improvements and don’t include the separate land assessments. The partial assessments are just that, as they weren’t completely done at the time assessments were made. What’s it all mean for taxpayers? Well, the idea is to keep the valuation going up so there’s more places from which to collect taxes.

For instance, when completed, Riverwalk is expected to be assessed at more than $14 million. Under the 2008 budget, with a municipal tax rate of $1.713 per $100 of assessed value, that would have equaled about $250,000 in municipal property taxes. [Don’t forget, there’s also the county tax rate (about a 1/4) and school board tax rate (1/2) that make up the total property taxes.]

Does that mean taxes go down for everyone else? Ideally perhaps, but this year’s increase was eaten up within the municipal budget. Tax Assessor Bill Marbach estimated that without the $10-million rise in the assessed values, the tax rate might have gone up about 3 cents rather than remaining the same this year. For an average assessed home in Rahway ($133,000), a 3-cent hike in the tax rate would have meant $40 [$0.03 x ($133,000/100) = $39.9 — got that?]. For a home assessed at $500,000, the effect would be closer to $150 [$0.03 x ($500,000/100) = $150].

New developments and properties will add to the tax rolls but won’t they also in theory put more pressure on services, like the Police Department? When I posed that question to City Administrator/Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier earlier this year, he said he doesn’t expect to hire more cops, but instead use the existing squad more efficiently.

Four new police officers were sworn in earlier this year, replacing retiring officers, with another expected this summer that will bring the police force to its full complement of 80. The city last summer approved a new seven-year contract (through June 2013) with PBA Local 31, which represents Rahway police officers.

Under the agreement, officers are scheduled to receive 4-percent annual pay hikes, but new hires also will begin to contribute to health benefits, be enrolled in a Point Of Service health plan, and no longer receive longevity pay. The clothing allowance was raised to $1,000. The starting salary as of July 2007 was $33,280 and by 2012 will be $40,490.

It better do my laundry and wash my car too

I’m no coffee dork — can I be if I only drink it black? — I just want a decent coffeehouse downtown. An $11,000 coffee machine might be a bit much though, don’t you think? Come to think of it, that’s more than I paid for my sweet ride.

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Did you know Rahway ranks 16th among the stations in the NJ Transit system with 3,014 average weekday boardings (not including transfers)? Just a bit of trivia I was interested in the last time I spoke with NJ Transit. A spokesman also mentioned that the Department of Community Affairs approved the lease for a new tenant at the Moca Motion space; now the DCA must OK building permits before the tenant can hire contractors, etc.

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We’re in our fifth month of existence but it’s only been about two months since we started tracking readership with Google Analytics, among others. Last week we surpassed 4,000 visits to the blog (we get almost 100 each weekday) and now have more than 50 readers who subscribe by email. It’s all through word of mouth and mostly stumbling upon us through Internet searches (trust me, I don’t have that many friends and family). Thanks to everyone who’s been interested in this little hobby of mine and to everyone who’s offered their input, suggestions or questions over the last few months.

Ampitheater designs to be revealed

The conceptual design of a 1,000-seat ampitheater on Hamilton Street could come before the Redevelopment Agency next month.

City Administrator/Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier said he would request the city engineer to make a presentation on the status of the ampitheater. The Arts District Advisory Board has been working with an architect on ampitheatre concepts. The agency is next scheduled to meet April 9.

State approval for the demolition of the Hamilton Laundry building (below) could come as early as this month with actual demolition by summer’s end. The Arts District Advisory Board will work to complete the design for construction to begin next spring and be completed next summer. Funding then would be sought to retrofit the Bell Building (above), so by summer 2010 it’s ready to go for a black box theater. There also would be plans to create loft housing for artists and residents affilated with the arts district programs.

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For those who are commuters, it was a pretty good week for news. It looks like NJ Transit will be one of the few places not raising prices this year while it becomes the first transit system in the Northeast to start using Google Transit. But it can’t all be good news, at least for those who travel toward Trenton.

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A couple of mentions this past week of “The Wrestler” filming in Rahway; one story about filming at the hospital, and another on shooting at a local bar in Roselle Park.

More losses for builder

Hovnanian Enterprises — the parent company of Matzel & Mumford, developers of the Wheatena site on Elizabeth and Grand avenues — reported more bad news from the last quarter.

The Rahway Redevelopment Agency last year accepted a revised concept for the former oatmeal factory site adjacent to the railroad tracks and Rahway River Park. Instead of the 264 condominium flats and 36 townhouses, M&M plans 130 townhouse units with clubhouse amenities. (The image above is from the city’s Web site).

Negotiations with the largest property owner have been going on for an extended period of time, according to Redevelopment Agency attorney Frank Regan, with the sticking point being environment issues. “The environmental issues are not nearly as bad as all had expected,” he said at last week’s RRA meeting, so some concessions are being sought from the property owners.

City Administrator/Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier mentioned at a previous RRA meeting that the project could be done in phases, starting with the parking lots.

Park approved for Essex Street

The City Council approved a $1.05-million bond ordinance Monday night for park improvements near Riverwalk along Essex Street.

That makes for a good lead-in to our new poll question this month (to the right): How important is green/open space in your vision of downtown Rahway?
— Fewer condos, more parks.
— We don’t need Central Park, but balance new development with open space.
— If it doesn’t help pay taxes, don’t bother with it.

Rahway on film

On the occasion of a movie filming in Rahway last month, our latest poll question had nothing to do with redevelopment, but it was fun nonetheless. Is it just me, or wouldn’t it be a lot of fun to have a “Rahway Film Festival” of sorts with the Union County Arts Center featuring a bunch of these movies one weekend (even if Rahway’s scenes are only a few seconds long in some)?

“What’s your favorite movie that was filmed in Rahway?”
The School of Rock (2003), 40 percent (18/44)
Rounders (1998), 38 percent (17/44)
City Hall (1996), 9 percent (4/44)
Something Wild (1986), 9 percent (4/44)
Other, 2 percent (1/44)

“School of Rock” and “Rounders” jumped out to a monster lead early and never looked back, with “Rock” edging out the win among RR readers. Interestingly, or not, the 44 votes is the same number as the poll before last, though fewer than the 58 votes cast in the most recent one.

“The School of Rock” is probably the most prominent of those listed, with major scenes filmed in and around the Union County Arts Center, including the finale of the “Battle of the Bands.” It’s the biggest hit of those in the poll, raking in $81 million while costing $35 million to make, according to The International Movie Database (IMDB).

“Rounders” (costing an estimated $12 million and grossing $23 million) was Matt Damon’s next movie after his Oscar-winner, “Good Will Hunting,” along with “Saving Private Ryan.” It also starred a pre-“Fight Club” and “American History X” Ed Norton. IMDB doesn’t list Rahway as a location, but from what I’m told, the gambling scenes were in fact filmed at the Elks Lodge on West Milton Avenue.

“City Hall” is the weakest of the bunch when it comes to netting a profit at the box office — costing $40 million but barely grossing $20 million — starring big names in Al Pacino and John Cusack, and a big name at the time, Bridget Fonda. Rahway also isn’t included on the filming locations for “City Hall,” according to IMDB, but more than a few people I’ve spoken to recall a scene filmed at Lehrer-Gibilisco Funeral Home on West Milton (just down the street from the Elks Lodge). The filmmakers repainted the entire funeral home and made some cosmetic changes.

We didn’t include in the poll movies (“Malcolm X,” “He Got Game“) that IMDB listed as being filmed in Rahway but probably were filmed at East Jersey State Prison (formerly Rahway State) because it’s in Woodbridge, although it has a Rahway mailing address. But it wouldn’t surprise me if “Something Wild,” which grossed $8 million, should be included in that group now. Thinking back, I recall Ray Liotta’s character is released from prison, and I’d bet it’s East Jersey State.

For those interested, “The Wrestler” will be filming in Dover this week, according to the Daily Record. Something else I came across since the first post: Nicolas Cage had originally been tapped to star, at least according to this report. Also, IMDB has a lot more information about the cast, which includes one of the software engineers we haven’t seen since “Office Space.”

Thanks for indulging in some non-redevelopment blog posts. We’ll get back to some redevelopment-related items this week. And also thanks to the readers who have emailed comments the past few weeks.

Three side streets to reverse direction

The City Council will introduce an ordinance Monday night to reverse three streets in anticipation of other traffic changes throughout downtown. Three side streets will become one-way streets heading toward Irving Street: East Cherry Street (photo above) and Coach Street (now one-way toward Main Street), and Poplar Street (currently two-way).
Final approval of the ordinance likely will come at a special meeting later this month if city officials hope to make the changes by April 1. The next regularly scheduled City Council meeting isn’t until April 14. A separate ordinance is expected to authorize traffic signalization and two-way traffic along Irving and Main streets.

‘We’re Number 400!’

Sandwiched between Chesterfield Township (Burlington County) and West Long Branch (Monmouth County), Rahway ranks as the No. 400 “Best Place to Live,” according to the latest New Jersey Monthly magazine.

In its March edition, New Jersey Monthly publishes its annual “Best Places to Live” with the Top 100 in the print edition, but all 566 Garden State ranked and available online. No. 400 out of 566 ranks Rahway just inside the 30th percentile (so more than 70 percent of New Jersey towns higher).

The rankings take into account eight categories “best representing the quality of life” in New Jersey towns: property taxes, home values (2007 and % increase from 2000), population growth, land development, employment, crime rate, school performance and proximity to services (theater, hospital).” Household income was not included.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with the ranking? Outrageous, or just about right? Does Rahway still have a way to go before making its way up the list?

The former Spanktown ranked ahead of Union County municipalities like Hillside (429), Linden (461), Plainfield (490) and Elizabeth (499), but behind Roselle Park (260) and Roselle (384). The highest-ranked Union County towns were Mountainside (16), Summit (29), Clark (33), Cranford (37), Berkeley Heights (59) and Kenilworth (66).

The magazine also features a story about local theaters in New Jersey. The piece highlights 11 but not the Union County Performing Arts Center, which was purchased by Union County for $1.3 million as part of a $6-million expansion and renovation last year.

P.S. Chatham Township (Morris County) ranked No. 1 while Chesilhurst (Camden County) ranked No. 566.

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