SUMMIT, NJ — In Republican Ellen Dickson’s four-year term as mayor of Summit, the distribution of the local tax bill underwent a major shift: The amount of residents’ taxes which goes to the county, up to 30 percent, now dwarfs the volume of money that goes to running the city, which Dickson said is down to 20 percent.
In part because of increasing county taxes, says Dickson, Summit restricted the increase of school and city budgets to about 1 percent per year, half of the 2 percent cap.
It’s one of many reasons that Dickson, a staple in Summit politics since 2007, says she can be happy about her time in office.
“That’s even though we’ve increased services and done a lot of building programs. So I’m happy with that,” said Dickson, highlighting the city’s new rec center and gym. “I don’t think I’ll ever run for public office again. It’s been a great experience, but that part of my life is over. Now I’m choosing to go on boards where I really enjoy the work — not that I didn’t enjoy most of what I did as mayor — but now I get to pick and choose what I’m involved with. I’m going to travel more. I’m ready to move on.”
A veteran of the Zoning Board, Planning Board and Summit Council, where she spent two terms before running for mayor in November 2011, Dickson was “more than ready to be mayor for another four years, but it didn’t happen,” as Summit voters gave city hall a blue makeover in the latest election.
Summit’s new mayor, Democrat Nora Radest — who was set to be formally introduced at the city’s reorganization meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 5 — captured 58 percent of the vote to Dickson’s 41 percent, while two seats on the council changed hands from Republicans to Democrats.
While the council looks different than it did in 2009, when Dickson served as council president, the experiences it offers to its seven members are just as valuable, she said. Dickson’s own four years on Summit Council helped her prepare for what to expect in her stint as mayor.
“For a while, for the first year, I thought of myself as the eighth councilperson. My role was very different, I gradually realized that, but it helped me know all of the city issues,” said Dickson. “I’ve been on every single committee that the council has, I’ve also been on the planning board and the zoning board, so I had a good frame of reference. But I did need to learn to step away and be mayor, rather than the eighth councilperson.”
Among the priorities for the new-look council and mayor, said Dickson, should be to consider further developing Summit’s downtown, which draws in new residents with features like the one-stop ride to Manhattan.
“We’re becoming one of the first suburbs that young families moving out of Jersey City, Hoboken and Manhattan look at. We’re getting a lot of young families to move here,” said Dickson. “I personally believe we need some more density in our downtown. We need more housing for millennials and baby boomers that don’t necessarily want to own a house on a half-acre lot.”
Another draw that attracts families to Summit is the school district, which Dickson strongly emphasized in her tenure as mayor. In Summit, one of the mayor’s responsibilities is to appoint members of the Summit Board of Education, which “became my focus” early on, said Dickson, which showed.
The school budget funded new science labs in every middle school, increased security across the board, and made other improvements to an already well-regarded school district. In a 2015 U.S. News & World Report report, Summit High School was ranked as the 26th best high school in the state, and 436th best in the country.
“I’m very happy with our school board,” said Dickson. “We’ve been recognized as one of the best high schools in the country, one of the best in the state. We were able to pick a new superintendent and the vote was unanimous. We were able to settle the teachers’ contract in a shorter period than before. So I think the school board works together very well, and it’s very diverse and balanced.”
Because of the quality of the school system, residents “don’t want to leave Summit, once their kids are in our schools,” says Dickson, even if they were initially attracted by the city’s other characteristics: The one-stop ride to Manhattan, proximity to Newark Liberty airport, a safe community, and so on.
Other changes made in Dickson’s time include an emphasis on community policing, like increased patrols walking around downtown; a mayor’s TV show; improved community relations by the police department, who are more likely to hear issues “before they bubble up to become a problem,” said Dickson; and biotech giant Celgene purchasing the former Merck campus, which had been the city’s biggest taxpayer before relocating to Kenilworth.
And any of that success, added Dickson, is owed in part to the experience she gained when she ran for council nearly a decade ago.
“I think to really understand the issues in town, it helps to start off in the council first. Most, or many, of our mayors have been on council first,” said Dickson. “It just so happened that it synced up with my last year on council. I could have run for a third term, but I certainly could do more change, and add a different perspective, and that’s why I ran for mayor. And I really, thoroughly enjoyed my four years as mayor.”