West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe has spent the last month settling into his job as the township’s first new mayor since the early 2000s.
In addition to steering the helm on day-to-day operations of the township, Marathe also faces a number of challenges in the community.
First off, there’s a decision looming from Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson on the township’s affordable housing burden.
The Fair Share Housing Center is arguing that the township needs to build almost 2,000 affordable housing units.
The township decided not to settle with FSHC, as a number of other Mercer County communities have, gambling that the judge will decide on a significantly lower number.
The future of the 653-acre Howard Hughes tract—the former site of American Cyanamid at the corner of Quakerbridge Road and Route 1—is also a concern for Marathe.
The developer has proposed a plan that calls for a mixed-use development, which includes retail, commercial and almost 1,976 homes, including about 400 affordable units.
Marathe and his two council running mates during the election in November—Linda Geevers and Virgina Manzari—said they want to keep the site primarily commercial, as it is currently zoned.
Marathe is also hoping to improve mayor-council relations—something that was a frequent problem for former Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh.
A number of improvements to township infrastructure are a priority, as well as much-needed work on Route 1 by the state and Route 571 by the county.
Bill Sanservino, editor of The News, sat down with Marathe on Feb. 2—almost exactly a month after he was sworn in—to talk about his plans for this year, as well as the rest of his term.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Now that you’ve been in the job for about a month, how are you settling in?
One of the things I did was talk to Mayor Hsueh, and I talked to Gene O’Brien, who helped me with the campaign and is a former mayor. My style is to talk to as many people as possible and get as much input as possible.
I’ve talked to a lot of township employees, people in various communities and people who have served on township committees to get an idea of what is involved. I openly admit I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know everything about how the whole system works. But I’m trying.
Most of this year’s budget was already set by the time I took office, but I still met with Joanne (Louth, township chief financial officer) and Marlena (Schmid, business administrator) about my vision for the township for the next four years.
Let’s talk about some ongoing issues that the township has been dealing with. What’s going on with the township’s affordable housing court case?
The township is still waiting for an opinion from the judge, and the longer it goes, the more I feel like the judge will just wait for the new governor to do something.
It’s an absolute shame what is happening. West Windsor spent roughly $300,000 last year (in legal costs on the case) and $200,000 in the budget this year. So a half a million dollars just on legal costs, without a single home being built. West Windsor is just one small town in all of New Jersey. I’m sure millions and millions of dollars are being spent for absolutely unproductive work.
The courts and the legislature should realize that the state is not growing residentially at 5 percent or even 10 percent. When you force a town to grow at 20 percent that’s completely unreasonable.
The developer is jumping up and down now, but eventually if you keep building at 20 percent, half of them are going to go bankrupt.
There’s no way that West Windsor can grow at 20 percent, when the state is only growing at 1 or 2 percent. At some point there’s a breaking point, and the courts and the legislature need to realize that. If they want to make New Jersey affordable, they should have some sensible way of accomplishing that.
No one here is against affordable housing. West Windsor has been doing its job even when COAH was nonexistent for eight years. That was a big disservice Gov. Christie did by not following that issue, because when we were first sued, the accepted consensus was that a town’s obligation was capped at 1,000 (units of affordable housing), because the legislature said so.
Well, the state Supreme Court just threw it out. I for the life of me cannot understand why the legislators can’t just go back and clarify as to what exactly they meant and pass the laws. That’s their job. Rather than saying, “Hey, go fight it out in court.”
Not a single person is being helped, and the people on the other side are being completely unreasonable. To expect West Windsor to build 1,900 affordable units, which you then multiply by five (because four market-rate units are built to subsidize every affordable unit), it’s completely unreasonable.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why the court entertains such unreasonable numbers. That’s why the politics in this country is broken. That’s why the common person is so fed up. Because people keep talking without taking any action.
I have talked to a number of experts as well as local officials. They all agree that the situation is a result of a total and compete lack of action by the governor and the legislature. What do you think?
Absolutely, and I’m really outspoken about it. I will say what’s on my mind, whether people like it or not. I’m being told, “Oh don’t say that, the court might get mad.” Let the court get mad. What is the court going to do? How are they going to punish West Windsor? They aren’t going to punish me. They can’t put me in jail, so instead they’re going to punish the common person in West Windsor? Not everyone in West Windsor is rich. The general consensus is, “you’re a rich town, you can afford it.”
There are people in West Windsor that are hurting. There are people in West Windsor who would not consider themselves rich, and when you impose a burden on the town, everybody shares the same percentage wise.
And West Windsor gets the short end of the stick in every matter. We don’t get enough school aid, we get imposed on other things. And there is going to be a point when people are going to say enough is enough. And then they’ll wonder what happened. People can only take so much.
The issue of affordable housing also has an impact on the Howard Hughes site. Based on how the court rules, it could affect how much, if any housing is built there. What is the status of the project?
I have scheduled a meeting with the Howard Hughes people. I would encourage them to look at developing that site so it doesn’t include much housing. I honestly believe that West Windsor cannot support more housing, and there’s already 350 more apartments coming at Woodstone (on Canal Pointe Boulevard and Wheeler Way).
I was talking to the developer of Princeton Terrace and he told me that he has a 30 or 40 percent vacancy, and he said that the Mews has a similar vacancy. If there are so many vacancies in existing apartment complexes, what sense does it make to go and build another one? What we need to do is to generate more jobs to make people want to live here.
New Jersey Transit doesn’t instill much confidence that it’s going to get people to or from a job in New York in less than an hour. That’s creating a problem.
Only God knows whether the (Gateway) tunnel will ever be built, with the way the political football is being tossed around. New Jersey should focus on getting the jobs in state rather than depending on New York all the time.
New York has not done any favors for us. They collect all the taxes from anyone who works in New York. So we should just band together and try to develop something on our side. I will work with them and talk to them to try to attract businesses to West Windsor, because we have a lot to offer.
You spoke to a lot of people as you campaigned around town. What did residents say they want on Howard Hughes?
Nobody wanted housing I can tell you that.
So they want it to stay commercial, as currently zoned?
Right. That’s what it is right now and they would like to keep it that way and attract more businesses. Now, somebody told me that Costco was thinking about moving to this side of the tracks (on Howard Hughes) before deciding to build down the road in Lawrence.
I heard the same thing.
I wasn’t mayor at that time, so I don’t know if it’s true, but that would have been something good because we get 100 percent of the traffic anyway.
If anyone like that is interested in developing in West Windsor, I would certainly encourage them and talk to them. One of the things we had promised during the campaign was trying to make operations easier in West Windsor, and we are working on one or two things that I’m not ready to announce yet. But we would make it easier for people to come here and open up business.
During the campaign you and your running mates said that, if elected, you wanted to bring on a business development director. Is that still the plan?
We want a person who essentially is an advocate for West Windsor and not necessarily a full time job. Maybe a consultant. We have talked to one or two people to get an idea of how you can do these kinds of things, so I don’t have anything concrete to tell you, but we are still very much committed to finding someone who can be an advocate for West Windsor. Someone who tells people that we will help them through the process, what to do and that they’re very welcome here.
A lot of companies want to move here. I have already been to two ribbon cuttings. A lot of health care facilities want to move here because the hospital is close by. In fact, we are ideal because we are in the middle of two hospitals—one in Hopewell and one in Plainsboro.
In January, the planning board, which you now sit on as mayor, started a review of the township’s master plan. What’s happening with that process?
We have just finished the first review of the draft reexamination report and we have given it back to our planner, who is going to come back and give us a new version of the report.
Everybody in town will have an opportunity to comment on it, and then we will give the planner instructions to finalize it. Then over the next 18 months or two years, we will look at the different elements of the master plan and try to develop them.
Part of that is possibly looking at all the zonings in town to see if anybody is interested in doing certain projects on certain land, whether the township is interested in changing the zoning to make it possible. So that is part of the next 18 months.
Like every other tract, the Howard Hughes tract will be looked at in that sense. But we will also go back and look at which applications came to the zoning board, which applications came to the planning board and whether it makes sense to change the zoning so those kinds of applications don’t have apply for any variances.
In recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of businesses who are deciding to locate along Route 95 or relocate from this area due to traffic problems on Route 1. Experts and elected officials I’ve spoken to have recognized this problem. What are your thoughts on how to make this area more desirable for companies to locate?
I think we need to pay a lot of attention to Route 1. The state presented a plan to the township council and I supported it fully. It expands Route 1, making it wider. There are some people who oppose it, because they think no matter how much wider you make it, it will always get traffic. They would rather spend the money on mass transit.
I don’t see mass transit on Route 1 happening in my lifetime. I may be pessimistic, but I don’t see that happening.
I work in Piscataway. When I come home from work, Route 1 flows fine up to Plainsboro, and then as soon as you hit West Windsor it jams up all the way to Lawrence, and then it opens up. We are one of the places along Route 1 where you get the worst traffic.
I am happy the state has found the money to expand Route 1, and from my understanding they are going to start the engineering work this year, and hopefully they can start in a couple of years to make it wider. That should solve West Windsor’s problem. The way I see it, this is the worst trait of Route One.
What about the reconfiguration of Route 571 by the county in the downtown Princeton Junction area?
One of the people I met with after the election was Brian Hughes (county executive). They are moving forward, and I do expect something to happen within the next year to 18 months.
Not the entire road, but at least part of the road. I understand that a previous council, and I forgot the year, passed a resolution agreeing to a plan for the road.
The county is moving forward based on that resolution. I expect them to come to the township council to ask for approval certainly within my first term. I am optimistic that more businesses will move there, and it will be looking much nicer in four years than it is now.
Over the years, and even on some councils that you have sat on, there has been friction between the council and the mayor/administration. What would you like to do to make sure that communications are good?
Communication is a two way street and my style is very much different than Mayor Hsueh’s style.
I’ve talked to the council, and I’ve told them I have an open style, I will share things with them. I won’t use the strongman kind of argument and say, “I don’t have to share those type of things.”
If they disagree with me, then they disagree. All I ask is that they give me an up or down vote. If they don’t like it, then they don’t like it, and we move on with life.
I plan to actively participate in discussions. The way I see things, a recommendation that administration puts forward is my recommendation, so I’m obligated to defend it if there’s any questions.
I have told the township staff that it’s their job to convince me that what they’re proposing is best for the township, and then it’s my job to convince the council and the rest of the township that that’s what’s best for the township.
I don’t want the township employees to get between the mayor and the council. I will be the one that will be saying why it needs to be done, why it’s a good thing. It’s not the job of the township employees to play defense for me. I’m perfectly capable of defending myself.
Do you think the difference in communication styles between you and Shing is a result of your professional backgrounds? You have been a businessman, while Shing worked for the government his whole career?
It’s very much possible. I can’t comment why Shing feels the way he feels, but I’ve always felt like I can stand on my own, to do what is the best, in my opinion. I have always conducted myself so I don’t owe anything to anybody, simply so I can do what I think is the right thing to do.
I don’t take things personally. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I always say that if two people agree 100 percent of the time, then one of them is not thinking. We all come with our own biases, because we come from different backgrounds.
My job is to hear all the experts, take advice from everybody, and make a decision that makes sense to me. I’m not an expert in many fields, but I can always have a smell test. If it makes sense to me, then I will support it.
I have no problem talking to anyone on any issue and try to figure out where they’re coming from. If you give me a better solution than what I think is best, then lets go and do that.
That will help me with my relationship with the council. Two people can look at the same piece of data and think completely different than the other person. At the end of the day, if we disagree that’s perfectly fine. We will move on and find something else to work on.
Are you going to be making any changes to township staff, especially with department heads?
No, I have not made any changes. A lot of people ask me if I’m going to be firing people. These are career employees and they’re doing the best they can.
How important do you think it is for a mayor to trust his administrative staff?
It’s extremely important. Even in my time in the school board, over the years, I would ask a lot of questions. As time went on, I started to trust people more because you begin to develop a sense of how a person thinks, and you start to feel more comfortable giving your own opinion.
So I think it’s very important for the mayor to trust the people who are working in the township and the township employees to know that the mayor is open to all the ideas, is open to hearing their opinions and trusting their opinions because they’re professionals.
I’ve done it for a number of years. I can understand the issues. If you explain to me what the problem is, I am smart enough to understand, and if I don’t understand then I will ask lots of questions until I understand in a rudimentary manner. If it makes sense to me I will support it and I will aggressively support it to council.
It’s extremely important to have trust on both sides. They’re making the recommendations they are because they feel that that is the best decision to make. I don’t want anyone to tell me something because they expect that’s what I want to hear.
They should never just tell me something because they think that’s what I want them to say. They should always give me their honest opinion in their true judgment. I hope the township employees can give me their honest opinion without holding back.
Do you feel it’s incumbent upon you to make sure that council trusts township professionals? I ask, because it’s been an ongoing problem in the township over the years.
I do. I have had a lot of conversations with individual council members.
One thing Shing didn’t let us do on council was talk to the employees directly, but I will.
Now, each township employee gives X number of hours every week, and I don’t want the council to waste their time asking them questions every two hours. Then those are two hours they aren’t working for the taxpayers.
Ask meaningful questions, not political questions. Don’t ask questions just to find ways to support your view. I told them they just need to let Marlena, the council president or me know that they are asking them questions. I will not go to any township employee and say, “No don’t answer their questions.”
It will help them make an informed decision.
Oh absolutely. This is one of the things I always told people when they would come to me when I was on the school board. I told them that I know most of the employees who work for the school district.
You may disagree with their opinions and their thinking, but you know that they have the best intentions at heart. I hope that I give the same message to the council and everybody in the township. That these people are giving what they feel is the best opinion in their professional judgment. Don’t question somebody’s motives.
How is being mayor different than being school board president?
The main difference is that there’s a lot more focus on the mayor. There’s a lot more people looking at you. I find it a little strange, because the school board has four times the budget that the township does. Most of the people in this town are here for the schools. Even then, they somehow still thought the school board president doesn’t deserve as much attention as the mayor does.
In that sense it’s different. People have a lot more expectations. As a school board president I didn’t do any actual day to day work. It was a policy position.
I don’t do any actual day-to-day work as mayor, it’s mainly setting the direction of the township, and making sure the things that the township and mayor want are accomplished. In that sense it’s very much similar.
You mentioned that when you sat down with the staff you talked to them about where you’d like to be four years from now. What do you want to accomplish?
One of the main things is the budget. Even when I was sitting on the council, we talked about how we would do budgeting. Most of the focus on the budget is with the next month or so and then people forget about it.
Last year during the budget discussion, I made a point to my colleagues that, “Look, you’re just pulling numbers out of a hat.” For example, when they say the Uniform Construction Code revenue should be $1.2 million, you don’t know for sure if it’s going to be $900 or $1.5 million. Nobody knows the future.
In any one given year, if you want a zero percent tax increase, I can certainly give you that. But over a long period of time that’s not sustainable. So if you really want to control the budget you should work 12 months, not just those two months or those two weeks. It never goes exactly like you expect it to go.
If you really want to work on the budget, you need to look at it and figure out if it’s still in line with the way you want to go. Is this something you want to spend taxpayer money on or not? As I said before, most of the budget for this year was already done, but next year I should have a lot more control over what happens with how much money we spend over the year.
What we do now is to essentially borrow from our surplus, and then we purposely underestimate revenue and hope we generate enough money to make that surplus back. That has never made sense to me. Why don’t we just try to do an honest budget and use as little of our surplus as possible?
That surplus is there for emergencies. That surplus is not there to use it for every year’s budget. This year you’ll notice we’re using a lot less of the surplus than we were last year, and we are estimating revenues and expenses to be as close as possible to what we expect them to be.
Last year was a really good year in that, if you want to call it a loss, we only ran a loss of about $25,000. That’s ideal. At the end of the year you should come out to be close to what you estimated your revenues and expenses to be. Not come out way ahead or way behind.
That would be my focus. If I can get that done in four years and come to some level of surplus that everyone is comfortable with, and then use it for as little operating expenses a year as possible, then it would be a big success in my opinion.
What are some of your priorities as you start your term?
The first thing is that the infrastructure needs fixing. After I got elected I spoke to a few people and the township engineer did point out that most of the roads were built in this town with a useful life of about 25 years.
We went through a building boom in the early 1990s. My wife and I moved here in 1994, so I know we were building like crazy during that time. That’s when a lot of these roads were built then and they are reaching the end of their useful life. So it makes sense that we now need to spend more on our roads and sidewalks. In this budget we are increasing the amount we are spending.
One long term project is the possibility of building an enclosed recreational facility in the area where the solar field was proposed at the municipal site (Marathe opposed the solar project on the Censoni Tract behind the Princeton Junction firehouse, and it was ultimately rejected by township council).
I have already had a discussion with the rec commission. I know the West Windsor Soccer Association is interested in such a facility. So I would focus in my first term to get that project moving. This will be very useful to the township. We have a lot of kids, and we’re going to get more kids, and we don’t have as many recreational facilities as we should.
I would talk to other associations, too, because it would be a multi-purpose facility. We already have parking here and the hours of usage will be different than the hours of usage for the municipal buildings. That’s in the preliminary discussion phase.
Also, one of the things I have learned is that last year a company made a proposal to the Parking Authority to put solar panels on their parking lot at the train station.
The mosque (on Old Trenton Road) is also starting to do solar tracks on their parking lot. So I have let it be known if there is any company that is interested in doing that in a municipal facility, I’d be very much interested in talking to them and getting that done. I think that will serve the township well, and serve the residents well.
Is there anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t covered?
I would thank West Windsor residents for electing me. I’m really active on Facebook, but not everybody is on Facebook. If people have any concerns they can send a message to my township email address or reach out to me by phone at town hall. I try to answer every person back.