UNION – Tension between Union and Kean University intensified late last week when the mayor decided he had enough.
It appears the last straw came when Kean purchased the $219,024 conference table and Mayor Clifton People Jr. decided it was time the gloves came off and the township started playing hardball.
Friday the mayor issued several press releases, one involving the tax appeal by Kean’s upscale gourmet restaurant Ursino’s and another requesting N.J. Transit to terminate its parking agreement at the train station with the university.
The mayor called upon the owners of Ursino’s, the gourmet restaurant that acquired space to operate out of the new state-of-the-art STEM building in 2010 with the approval of the board of trustees, to drop their $100,000 tax appeal.
The township levied a $50,000 tax bill on Ursino’s, owned by Gourmet dining, LLC, in the fall of 2012, even though the company is on university property. While the company paid its tax bill for 2011 and 2012, they later filed a tax appeal for 2013 with the Union County Board of Taxation claiming the restaurant qualified for exemption status and should not be required to pay property taxes.
The township, though, felt the restaurant should pay its fair share since it is a profit making business.
At the time township administrator Ron Manzella explained they used a special provision in the law that allows a municipality to levy a tax if a state-run facility rents the property to a for profit business.
Gourmet Dining, LLC, though, did not agree that they should have to pay the $50,000 annual tax bill and filed a claim with the Union County Board of Taxation. The appeal was subsequently denied and the property declared to be taxable.
Subsequently, Gourmet Dining filed an appeal with the New Jersey Tax Court and has been awaiting a hearing date. However, once it surfaced that Kean used taxpayer dollars to buy the expensive conference table while refusing to deal fairly with the township involving the purchase of the 50-acre track of land owned by Merck, the mayor put his foot down.
“University leadership continues to put Union Township taxpayers directly in the line of fire as it relates to their various financial issues. While we are all asked to bear the burden of paying for a $219,000 hand crafted table from China, the board of trustees continues to champion a court battle to refuse a land deal that would fill a $220 per household tax hole for residents,” the mayor said.
“We are also being forced to absorb the costs associated with the appeal of over $100,000 in taxes for the restaurant being run out of the university,” People added, pointing out that this was all being done in the midst of skyrocketing tuitions, plummeting bond ratings and drastic decreases in enrollment.
The Union mayor also felt taxpayers should not be forced to continuously foot the bill for Kean President Dawood Farahi and the board of trustees “ongoing fiscal mismanagement.”
According to township officials, Farahi was the driving force behind the creation of Ursino’s, which he wanted showcased in the new STEM building. However, while Ursino’s is supposed to be a culinary trend setter, sources claim it is bleeding money. These sources confirmed last year, though, that while the facility is losing money, this loss will be made up by Kean’s food services contract with Gourmet Dining.
“While we have made every effort to be strong partners with Kean University in their academic mission, they continue to take advantage of township residents at every turn,” People said, adding the owners of Ursino’s “should drop their tax appeal today and university leadership should begin working towards taking Union taxpayers into account before they make any more disastrous financial decisions.”
The township also hit Kean back by meeting with NJ Transit officials regarding the parking issues at the Green Lane NJ Transit parking lot. The lot — which residents and commuters use through the use of paid parking permits — came under fire in late November when it was discovered university students were taking up many spots prior to the time they were allowed to park there.
Parking at Kean has always been an issue because there are 15,000 students, the majority of which commute to the university, and only 4,300 available spots throughout the campus.
In 2007 NJ Transit negotiated a deal with Kean allowing students to park in “not more than 230 of the 467 spaces” during off-peak hours, which is after 10 a.m. week days.
Unfortunately, students did not abide by this agreement, taking spots as early as 7 a.m. from paying permit holders.
Things came to a head when permit holders began to complain to township officials that students were not honoring the agreement and as paid permit holders, they had no place to park.
Although township police issued a considerable number of parking violations and warnings, the situation has not improved. The mayor decided to do something about that and asked NJ Transit this week to terminate its agreement with Kean University.
People explained Friday there is a clause in the 2007 agreement NJ Transit made with Kean that if sustained rail ridership parking use at the station “meets or exceeds” 85 percent capacity of the lot’s available parking spaces, NJ Transit has the right to “reduce or suspend” the allotted peak parking allocation for the university.
Thursday Manzella and township attorney Daniel Antonelli met with transit officials to iron out the problems permit holders are having and to request that the company honor its 2007 agreement.
Manzella followed up that meeting with a letter to NJ Transit explaining their role is to provide, promote and expand the use of mass transit and reduce vehicular travel, while the role of local government is provide great service to its taxpaying public at the lowest cost.
“The station in Union has grown in only 10 years to become one of the highest riderships on the Raritan Valley line and because of the recent residential construction in the general area, it also has the greatest potential for future growth,” the township administrator said, adding that it was “not in the interest of the riding public to potentially lose the parking availability of 230 spaces.”
“As we work together to achieve our goal of a One-Seat-Ride into New York City for both on- and off-peak hours, the needs of the community and the public must be addressed by ensuring that every commuter has the opportunity for on-site parking,” Manzella said in his letter to NJ Transit.
The township administrator went on to explain that Kean University has “greatly benefited” from the Union station for the past 10 years, not only because they received free parking but also by increasing the school’s enrollment from communities west of Union along the Raritian Valley Line.
“One only needs to stand at the station to see the hundreds of students arriving each day,” the township administrator said.
“By allowing this parking arrangement to continue, NJ Transit is doing a great disservice to the riding public. It is time to continue our mission of providing service to the taxpayers of this region,” Manzella added, requesting that NJ Transit review the leasing agreement “and then ask for swift action to cure this problem.”