Borough needs to share more services

CAMPAIGN CORNER by Mike Vanderbeck: The mayoral campaign of the Borough Council president will be based on a platform of sharing more municipal services with nearby towns.

   The key questions for any community considering its future are: How can we reduce taxes? How will our town look 10 or 20 years from now? What will we leave for our children and our seniors? Will we still enjoy living in Hightstown and if so, will we be able to afford it? What can we do in the next four years to ensure a prosperous, historical community that is truly inclusive for all, not just for some?
   Every four years Hightstown elects a mayor and in the process the borough stops and considers its most immediate priorities. The mayoral race is a major opportunity for our taxpayers to reject or affirm a direction for the borough, as stated by the candidates aspiring to lead the community.
   The direction this candidate would lead the borough in starts with understanding the fundamentals of Hightstown’s politics and economics.
   Let me start with the economics.
   There are exactly 98 tax-exempt parcels of land that comprise approximately 30 percent of the borough’s value. Our economic base consists of the remaining 70 percent.
   This economic base has two components on which we rely to raise the funds to run, maintain, service debt and improve the town. They approximately break down as follows: Residential property taxes equal 75 percent; business property taxes equal 25 percent. As a fully built-out community, the possibility of significantly expanding our ratable base is practically non-existent.
   The question, then, is whether this structure, in budgetary terms, is sustainable in the near and long-term future. At the current budget projected increase of 5.5 percent our taxes double in 13 years. As a built-out community with no room to attract new ratables, how, exactly, do we plan to address this?
   The solution lies in examining the costs covered by our current budget, many of which are fixed costs including police, courts, administration, emergency services, water and sewer, streets, schools, community relations and our critical social infrastructure (such as Better Beginnings Day Care and the Community Action Service Center).
   There is a direct relationship between these expenses and our economic sustainability and this is where the difference between my position and that of the current mayor lies. Here is also where politics enters into it.
   My approach, which is shared by an increasing number of Hightstonians, is sharing services with the neighboring communities. Beginning with courts or garbage collection possibly with East Windsor Township and then continuing with a systemic department-by-department public review of the next logical negotiated shared service. I believe this is the only realistic way to sustain both our historical uniqueness and our economic survivability.
   Hightstown is a changing community in terms of its demographics, its looks and its politics. But it seems that the policy change is seriously lagging and I am convinced that the next four years are crucial in creating the new policy foundation for our future.
   It could be asked why, while serving over three years on the council and for two years in the position of council president, I did not raise these issues publicly. The answer is that we have accomplished a lot as a team and important long-standing issues have been moved forward, such as the downtown revitalization, a streamlined finance department, rental property registration and the recent parking ordinance. And as a team we will continue to work together. However, the fundamental problems of politics and economics have remained.
   Today, the time and the community are ripe for this more pragmatic strategy. I am committed to working innumerable hours, as I always have been, to make sure that we have not just a dream, but results.
   This is how I will reduce Hightstown’s taxes as mayor. I have a new direction, which is essential for Hightstown’s future as a prosperous and inclusive community that reaches out to its people and its neighbors. This vision differs dramatically from the "in-house" approach of the current mayor. I have the expertise, initiative, track record and commitment necessary to create real change, as well as the leadership capabilities to involve the greater Hightstown community.
   I can be reached at vanderbeck@hightstownborough.com.
Mike Vanderbeck is a Democrat and president of the Borough Council. He is a candidate in the Democratic primary election for mayor.