Mayor Bert Steinmann sat down with Bill Sanservino, Ewing Observer editor, in mid-January to discuss issues in the township. Part one of the interview appeared in the February issue, and part two appears below.
Is the plan for Wal-Mart to be built at the Navy Jet Propulsion site still in place?
We did hit a snag with the Navy Jet Propulsion Center. We’re basically back to square one. There has been interest from other parties in the property, we’re moving forward and trying to set up meetings with the group that owns it.
What was the snag?
Basically the developer and Wal-Mart were asking for a lot of concessions. Not tax wise, but for a lot of things they were going to add. The building was already going to be 150,000 square feet, and then they wanted to enlarge it to 165,000 square feet. And then they wanted to put in a gas station, and then they had a dispensary for prescription drugs, which was more or less like a drive through situation.
All of these would have needed variances. They wanted a piece of property that they could develop variance-free so they could build and nobody could challenge it. We didn’t see that that was necessary, because we believe they would have gotten what they wanted anyway. But Wal-Mart is always afraid there’s going to be a challenge, and they didn’t want to get caught up in a protracted court battle.
At the end of the day, they decided that they weren’t coming here. At the time, it also had a lot to do with the economics of things. People were downsizing a little bit, stores were getting smaller, people were doing more shopping online.
Does the property still have the same owner?
It does. We do have interest in the property, but it’s not a project that I’m 100 percent in favor of. It’s an office/warehouse-type combination thing. I’m meeting with the group in the next two to three weeks, and we’ll discuss it and see what comes out of that. We’re not going to just say no.
I know you’ve said in the past that your philosophy is to push for the right kind of development on that property. One of the things you’ve said you don’t want is warehouses there. Is that still your philosophy, or are you willing to be patient?
I’m willing to be patient, but I’m still trying to work a deal with the county where we can make a convention center out there, which they are telling me doesn’t make sense.
It may not make any sense, but somebody really needs to put together the numbers to show me that it doesn’t make any sense. I’m still a little bit skeptical about that. I do think that it does make some sense. But again, I’m not the expert. I’m sure they’ll have someone telling me why it can’t work, but we’ll sit and listen. It’s still something I’m actively trying to pursue.
My position as far as warehouses is still the same. Unless they come up with something very unique, the answer is no. We have other properties that are in more of a commercial or industrial-type setting, and those are a good fit. We are trying to clean up and bring betterment to Parkway and Olden avenues, and warehousing isn’t the way to do that.
I wouldn’t think you’d want trucks carrying merchandise and other stuff up and down Parkway Avenue.
It would have been enough with Wal-Mart there, because they generate truck traffic too, but it certainly wouldn’t be as much as a warehouse.
I know there’s some serious environmental concerns on that site as well, and it can’t be developed as residential. Would it be okay for a hotel there?
You can put a hotel there, depending on how deep you want to go with remediation. The property can be capped and built on. A hotel could be, because most of the rooms would be up above that. I don’t think a hotel with rooms on the first floor would work, but most hotels don’t have that.
Changing gears a bit, we have heard that one upcoming challenge municipalities face is the fact that there are a number of people in the municipal workforce who are reaching retirement age, and they’re going to be difficult to replace. Is that something you’re seeing here in Ewing?
We do have a number of people who have expressed interest in retiring and/or are retiring. We have already brought people on board that can replace those individuals.
As far as the overall workforce is concerned, we do have some that can retire, and I’ve asked them what their intentions are. Right now, they’ve said they don’t have any intention to retire—at least not within the next three or four years. What’s good is that we have been giving people within the township the opportunity to get their certifications for when those individuals do retire. So we’re in a good position for when John Doe retires to put Jane Doe right into that spot, and then that open spot will be much easier to fill.
You’re in the process now of putting together the annual budget. What do things look look this year in terms of expenditures, revenue, taxes?
We looked at what we budgeted for last year. We look at every area of that budget. Some departments have money left over, and some people didn’t have money left over. So those adjustments are made. I’m anticipating probably a slight tax increase. We’ve been very conservative and very consistent since I’ve become mayor to not start playing games with the budget. Having no increase some years and then a big increase in other years. I’ve been very consistent during my term—it’s generally been between a penny and two cents.
There was one emergency that came up last year. Our emergency generator downstairs took a dump, and we had to replace it. When the initial estimates came in, they were a lot lower than we thought. After we started designing for it, we found that under state law, when you put an emergency generator in, it needs to be able to handle the entire building. The cost went up a lot. We didn’t anticipate the cost going up on it, so we had to do a bond for that.
The generator is in now and it works efficiently. It does help in a lot of ways. For example, I don’t need to send people home in a storm any more if we lose power. I try to avoid a shut down of the building at all costs. It is too costly for the office to get shut down.
Are there any costs where there were significant increases? Insurance, fees or anything like that?
No, our insurance has been pretty stable. In fact there’s no increase on our insurance policies for next year. Through our HR department, we’ve been able to control disability claims. They have gone way down from where they were.
A lot of credit goes to our HR director, who has insurance background and looks at a lot of these things. People are returning back to work at a much higher rate than before. We instituted a light duty policy. If someone got hurt, but they were able to sit, we assigned them to do certain things. For example, they could do some filing, or sit at the township dump and get information from people dropping stuff off.
Believe me, when someone tells you, “Here’s a box of paper clips. How many are in that box? Just let me know and write the number on the box.” All of a sudden they get well real quick. So big kudos to that department. We’ve curtailed that number significant and we’re really proud of that. Look, people get hurt. I get it. But then you have people who get hurt, and then play it to the next level. People don’t realize that the health care costs are another $20,000 to $30,000 more on top of their salaries. Its very expensive.
I know the number of officers in the police department was down due to a number of retirements, and that you were hiring officers over the last year. Where is the department now in terms of its numbers?
Right now I believe it’s at 84 officers, and I’m not anticipating hiring any more right now. There’s going to be some retirements, we anticipate that. But it’s kind of hard to plan for retirements. We’ve had people on this side of the door say, “I’m going to retire in June,” then when that time comes along they decide not to retire. In the meantime, you’re hiring people, and then the person they’re replacing doesn’t retire. I don’t want to get into a position where we end up with 100 people because 10 people said they were going to retire and then they didn’t.
Is the department’s manpower right now where you want it to be?
I’m confident. Now if you talked to the police chief, he would say that he could always use more people. But that doesn’t matter, because you could talk to the construction office, tax office, whatever office, and they’re always looking for more people. I get that, but again we’re trying to work within the framework where it’s going to be reasonable for the taxpayers to support.
I think we filled 11 or 12 positions last year, and we were filling positions before that. I’ve got five people in the academy now. I think we are at the levels where we were maybe 15 years ago. At one point it was 96 officers, but I don’t ever see going to that, but again, I guess it could happen. It depends on whether there is enough development in the township that would justify that many.
Speaking of more development, the state is building a juvenile detention center in town. I know there’s a lot of opposition to among residents. What are your feelings about the plan? (The state in December approved plans to build the jail on a 22-acre property off Esther Street near the intersection of Lower Ferry Road and Stuyvesant Avenue).
I don’t want it. It doesn’t create anything for Ewing Township. I would sit down and talk to the state if they would give me some money for a payment in lieu of taxes. This is a different type of facility that the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. It’s for low-level juvenile criminals.
My biggest objection was that they never talked to the town about it. They never explained what they wanted to do other than telling us that it’s brand new and it won’t have any impact on the community, and we won’t even know it’s there. You know what? That’s bullcrap. Everybody knows they’re there.
What I want is to be part of the conversation. Obviously if they want to put it there, they can put it there. They don’t need the township’s approval. It’s nice for us to be informed so that we can inform our citizens. There’s always a lot of trepidation when things like this go up.
Were you informed in any way before the state made the announcement?
No, I found out along with everyone else. The state claims that they sent an email saying they were going to do the project back in September. We went through our archives and there was never an email from the state of New Jersey.
Honestly, our assemblyman, Reed Gusciora, tipped us off that there was going to be a meeting of the State House Commission about it that day, and I was able to send Jim McManimon (business administrator), but before anything happened, they tabled the issue for further discussion.
But then Chris Christie (then-governor), threw some people off the commission, put on some new people and three weeks later they revisited it again. This time they approved it. So that was a gift from the Christie administration.
Will they come to the planning board to present their plans?
They have to come to the planning board. They have to give a cursory review—and that goes for projects by state, county or The College of New Jersey. We can give them input, but they don’t have to listen to it.
So it sounds like you’re having fun as mayor?
Being mayor has its challenges, and sometimes you question why you’re doing it. Overall, though, its been a very positive experience for me. I can come up with ideas and then see them come to fruition, which is the nice part.
I think we’ve accomplished a lot in my last seven-plus years. There’s still some things that I think need to be accomplished, and I want to be part of that.
So you’re going to run for re-election this year?
Yeah. For the most part the general population of the town believes that we have been doing a good job. Look, we’re not going to be able to satisfy everybody, but most of the time it’s good. We get a lot of compliments on our parks and a lot of things we’ve done and are still doing with the pool.
There’s always times where you have some issues, especially during inclement weather. And garbage always seems to be an issue for some people. So you address it as best as you can.
I still feel good. I do get tired at times, but physically I’m fine, and mentally I’m still capable of doing it. I think you realize yourself when it’s time.
I remember when I retired from my job. I had told my superiors that I was thinking about retiring and they talked me out of it. Had I been ready, they wouldn’t have been able to.
So two years later I said I was retiring and they tried to talk me out of it again, but I told them no. You get to a point where it’s enough. Where you’ve done everything you needed to accomplish at a job.
As for running again this year, had the General Motors site been at least halfway developed, my attitude may have been a little different. I think there’s still a lot of potential in this town for growth that I’d like to be part of. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of getting the right mix of business and residential into this town. I think I’m pretty well-respected in the business world and the development world. So why not?