Tax hikes, school renovations took center stage in 2005

Top Stories of 2005

By: The Herald Staff
   While the war in Iraq and the South’s devastation from two hurricanes rightfully drew most of our attention in 2005, there was no lack of important local news for residents of East Windsor and Hightstown. Rising taxes, unfinished school renovations and a Democratic election landslide were among them.
   Here are what we see as the top 10 local stories of 2005:
Steep hike in

township taxes
   East Windsor residents saw their tax rate increase by 10 percent in 2005, after Township Council approved an $18.1 million municipal budget in May that instituted its largest tax hike in a decade.
   The 3.9-cent tax increase raised the tax rate to 44.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That meant the owner of a property assessed at $130,000 would pay $580 in municipal taxes, a $51 increase from 2004.
   The budget also allocated funds for two new police officers. Township Council approved a resolution in October that officially increased the number of officers in the East Windsor Police Department to 50, including Chief William Spain.
   Mayor Janice Mironov said in May that taxes increased because of flat state aid and a new requirement that the township must pay $262,000 for police and fire pensions.
   The cost of employee health insurance — the largest line increase in the township’s budget — rose to almost $3 million, a $678,588 increase from 2004.
State aid

helps borough
   A $280,000 allocation of extraordinary aid from the state saved the average Hightstown resident about $154 in annual taxes, as a municipal budget approved in the summer included a potential tax increase that was 13 cents less than that contained in the preliminary budget.
   The $4.8 million budget OK’d by Borough Council in July carried a tax rate of $1.125 per $100 of assessed property value, a 4-cent increase from $1.09 of assessed value last year. That meant a homeowner with an assessed property value of $118,372 would pay $1,330.88 in municipal taxes for 2005, about $41 more than in 2004.
   A preliminary budget, introduced in February and revised in June without including state aid, would have sent the tax rate to $1.255 per $100 of assessed property value. The average homeowner would have paid $1,484 in municipal taxes with this rate.
   Extraordinary aid is given by the state Department of Community Affairs to municipalities deemed to have a fiscal crisis outside of the municipality’s control. The borough had requested $350,000 in aid, which was $100,000 more than the state provided in extraordinary aid in 2004.
   Councilman Walter Sikorski was the only member of the six-person council to vote against the budget, citing concerns about the town’s reliance on emergency aid.
    The 2005 budget was about $250,000 more than the previous year’s $4.5 million budget.
   Hightstown was awarded the funds in part due to the closing of the Minute Maid plant. The borough’s largest employer, with 275 people, Minute Maid closed the plant in November 2003.
School renovations

still undone
   Thus far, the 2005-2006 school year in the East Windsor Regional School District can be easily graded as incomplete. But at least the 2005 calendar year ended with some completion in sight.
   Faced in September with planned renovations behind schedule at the Perry L. Drew Elementary School and the Melvin H. Kreps Middle School, Superintendent Ron Bolandi decided to open Kreps on time, but delay the opening at Drew by two days.
   Soon after, the Board of Education approved a resolution terminating general contractor TriRidge Construction, which had been awarded about $21 million of work, although Mr. Bolandi said the resolution was really a way of trying to get things moving. Less than two weeks later, TriRidge canceled its contract with the district, claiming fraud, mismanagement and nonpayments of some bills on the part of the district.
In the meantime, students were eating cold lunches because cafeterias were incomplete and district officials were grateful that the weather hadn’t turned cold and forced gym classes indoors where the gyms were unfinished.
   Finally, earlier this month, the district’s bonding company for TriRidge’s work hired a new general contractor, Forcon International, to finish the work at Drew and Kreps and enclose a new elementary school begun by TriRidge next to the Ethel McKnight Elementary School.
   Mr. Bolandi said the work at all three buildings would be complete by the end of March at no additional cost to taxpayers.
Test scores rise

   Schools Superintendent Ronald Bolandi made good on his pledge to turn around failing standardized test scores in the East Windsor Regional School District.
   In a dramatic improvement from 2003-2004, the district met 10 of the 13 educational goals set by the state for the 2004-05 school year.
   The Quality Assurance Annual Report, a comparison of annual test scores and a gauge of schools’ compliance with education goals, showed the district’s progress when it was released in September. The report came a year after Mr. Bolandi pledged better test scores following the district’s dismal 2003-04 results. That year East Windsor failed 11 of 12 objectives.
   After the shortcomings in 2003-04, much of the attention turned to the elementary schools, Director of Curriculum Michael Dzwonar said, and it appears to have paid off.
   "(In 2003-04) one out of eight elementary school goals were met. Now all eight have been met," Mr. Bolandi said.
   Mr. Dzwonar credited the much-improved scores to an "aggressive, targeted intervention" to reach struggling students and help teachers focus lessons.
   However, test scores for some special-needs students fell short of the mark.
   The Melvin H. Kreps Middle School failed to decrease by 10 percent the number of special-needs students ranked as nonproficient in math and language arts. Language arts scores actually fell for Kreps’ special-education students, while math scores stayed flat. Hightstown High School drew a split result. Special-education students failed to achieve a 24-percent pass rate in math scores, though the goal would have been met had one more student passed the test.
   The failed goals in the middle and high schools could be the byproduct of the district’s focus last year on the elementary schools, Mr. Dzwonar said, a focus that has been tuned more directly to the upper schools this school year.
Two newcomers

elected in borough
   Two Democratic newcomers seemed to ride Gov.-elect Jon Corzine’s coattails to victory in Hightstown in the November 2005 election and forge a one-party Borough Council.
   Changing demographics in the borough may also have played a role.
   Constance Harinxma, a 45-year-old social worker, was the top vote-getter with 737 votes, and running mate Ryan Rosenberg, a 29-year-old graphic designer, garnered 729. That compared to 700 votes for longtime Councilwoman Nancy Walker Laudenberger and 568 for Ron Sackowitz, who had been appointed to council in February.
   "I was surprised," admitted Mr. Rosenberg, who has lived in the borough less than three years. "Everything in the process was new to us. … Young people are moving into town and they want a voice that perhaps isn’t there now."
   Ms. Laudenberger, a 28-year borough resident, also spoke of the borough’s demographics.
   "The dynamics of the community are changing," she said.
   However, the Democrats’ campaign manager, Councilman David Schneider, noted the strong partywide showing for his party, as evident in the gubernatorial contest.
   Democrat Corzine won nearly 57 percent of the vote, while Republican Doug Forrester garnered only 39 percent.
   "I’m kind of surprised at the partisanship displayed," said Mr. Sackowitz, the 10-year borough resident. "It was about who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican. It’s the whole state, not just this community."
   Mayor Bob Patten agreed with Mr. Sackowitz and Mr. Schneider that the state numbers had a big effect on the local ones. Nonetheless, the Republican mayor said he is not worried about working with a council comprised solely of Democrats.
   When the election was over, East Windsor also had a one-party Democratic governing body as Perry Shapiro, Hector Duke and Alan Rosenberg were re-elected to Township Council.

plan stalls
   It looked like 2005 might be the year Hightstown hired someone to redevelop the 12-acre site of the former rug mill.
   But the two developers in play failed to submit a plan that satisfied the Borough Council, at least for the time being.
   Greystone Mill, of Paoli, Pa., the first conditional developer of the project, initially proposed a plan that called for 88 residential units. While that was above the 80 units called for in the borough’s redevelopment ordinance, it seemed the plan might fly until about a month later when the number reportedly climbed to more than 130. With that, Greystone found itself out as conditional developer.
   Soon after, area developer Sateesh Metha, who had been working with Greystone, presented a plan with 100 units (92 condos and four duplexes), and the council indicated it was ready to sign a memorandum of understanding with him that would have him pay for the borough’s review of his plans.
   But the number 80 still carried weight with some council members and there was another problem: Mr. Metha had no idea that the redevelopment ordinance calls for the developer to provide a new or reconstructed municipal facility. He initially said such work would be cost prohibitive but later said he decided to offer the borough $50,000 when asked for a contribution in lieu of that construction.
   Nonetheless, his plan, presented in October, was dropped from public comment through the end of the year.
   One reason cited was the pending arrival of a market research and marketability study commissioned by council. But that arrived a few weeks back and apparently changed nothing. Another reason the plan was put on the back-burner may have been that the council’s face will change in 2006 with newcomers Constance Harinxma and Ryan Rosenberg being sworn in.
Voters reject

school budget
   The East Windsor Regional School District’s vision was in need of revision, according to voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the proposed $66.6 million school board budget by a crushing 61-29 percent margin in April.
   Hightstown voters, who traditionally reject the budget, voted against it by a margin of 40 votes: 135 to 175. But in East Windsor, where voters usually approve the spending plan, 628 voters supported the budget and 996 rejected it.
   The budget would have increased the tax rate by 26 cents in East Windsor, resulting in a $3.08 tax rate per $100 of assessed property value. Hightstown residents would have seen an 18-cent tax-rate increase to $3.19 of assessed value.
   In May, the Hightstown and East Windsor councils unanimously voted to cut $1 million from the budget. The cuts decreased both towns’ tax-rate jump by 3 cents, putting East Windsor’s tax rate at $3.04 per $100 of assessed property value and $3.16 per $100 of assessed property value in Hightstown.
   The large margin of failure surprised Board of Education President Bruce Ettman, who said a word-of-mouth campaign in East Windsor against high taxes helped lead to the budget’s downfall.
   While Superintendent Ron Bolandi said he understood and shared the frustrations of residents who turned down the budget, he also said a low voter turnout meant the decision was not necessarily a reflection of resident opinion.
   But the turnout was large compared to the previous year, when 7.5 percent of the district’s voters turned out to approve the budget by a narrow margin of 593-513. In 2005, 316 Hightstown residents and 1,338 East Windsor residents voted, almost 11 percent of the district’s 15,245 registered voters.
Raids prompt

local concern
   After a series of federal immigration raids in Hightstown, a group of area Latinos formed a committee in the spring to work with Borough Council.
   The 14 members of the Latino Advisory Council mostly live in Hightstown and represent a variety of nationalities. The group formed to address issues such as racial profiling, transportation deficiencies and work to improve relations with borough officials.
   Raids from the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement are a particular concern, Seton Hall professor and committee member David Abalos said, partially because they cause mistrust of the police in the Latino community.
   At one ICE raid on Feb. 3 on Mercer Street, a Hightstown police officer was present but reportedly not a participant. Following this incident, Borough Council approved a resolution encouraging ICE to "engage in conduct that does not create needless mistrust and fear of the Hightstown Police Department and other municipal agencies."
   Subsequent to the February raid, there were at least two more ICE raids in the area.
   Although the issues causing problems for Latinos are national, Dr. Abalos and Mayor Bob Patten said they both hope to create some local solutions, such as finding inexpensive transportation and helping citizens obtain legal driver’s licenses and other documents.
Mother kills

toddler son
   An East Windsor woman most likely will spend the majority of her adult life in prison, after being sentenced in 2005 to 31 years in the beating death of her toddler son.
   Maritza Soto, 29, was found guilty Oct. 14 of aggravated manslaughter in the June 4, 2003, death of her 21-month-old son, Daniel. An autopsy revealed that the boy died from a cut heart and bruised lungs. She was charged with murder one week after her son’s death.
   Ms. Soto was sentenced Dec. 16 by Superior Court Judge Maryann Bielamowicz.
   The jury rejected the defense argument that Daniel died from CPR improperly performed by Ms. Soto, who initially was charged with murder.
   Ms. Soto had regained physical custody of her children — including Daniel’s twin, Joel, and 5-year-old Carlos — several months before Daniel’s death. She had lost custody of the three boys following an October 2001 incident in which the twins were taken to a Philadelphia hospital with multiple injuries, including nearly identical skull fractures.
   At the time Ms. Soto said she fainted in the shower while holding Joel and Daniel, falling on top of both boys.
   Ms. Soto also was found guilty of two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. In addition to the 23 years in prison she will serve for aggravated manslaughter — 85 percent of which she must serve before becoming eligible for parole — she will spend eight years in jail for the child endangerment charge related to Joel. Her seven-year sentence on a child endangerment charge related to Daniel will be served concurrently.
   Ms. Soto plans to appeal her sentence with representation from another attorney, according to her lawyer, John Hartmann.
   Her common-law husband, Astolfo Sanchez, also was charged with two counts of child endangerment. A judge ordered him to enter a pre-trial rehabilitation program in October, a program that can last one to three years. The charges will be dropped if he finishes the program successfully.
Father shakes

son to death
   A Hightstown man pleaded guilty this fall to shaking his 2-month-old son to death.
   Angel Cartagena, 38, called 9-1-1 on Nov. 13, 2004 because his son, Angel Jr., was not breathing. He initially told police that he had gone outside for a cigarette and returned to find his son unconscious.
   Angel was pronounced brain dead two days later. An autopsy revealed all the signs of shaken baby syndrome.
   Mr. Cartagena later told Hightstown police that he had bounced Angel up and down and then threw him on a futon because he was crying.
   He initially was charged with endangering the welfare of a child. But the charge was upgraded to aggravated manslaughter, after an autopsy revealed hemorrhages in the retinas of both of Angel’s eyes as well as two broken legs and injured ribs.
   Mr. Cartagena pleaded guilty Sept. 28 in front of Superior Court Judge Darlene Perektsa. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6.
   Angel’s death was one of three cases cited in a June report from the state Office of the Child Advocate that criticized the conduct of the Division of Youth and Family Services. The report recommended that DYFS improve screening techniques, better integrate services from throughout the Department of Human Services, and give families better access to services such as mental health services for adults and medical care for children in placement.