UNION – For years business owners in the Special Improvement District have questioned why the center needed a Special Improvement District and what Director Michael Minitelli actually did for the $55,000 a year he received to oversee it. They can stop wondering because the SID director is retiring at the end of the month.
Tuesday morning the SID board met but no decision was made about looking for another director, or putting someone temporarily in the position. In fact, according to Township Administrator Ron Manzella who attended the meeting, for the remainder of the year any issues or upcoming events involving the SID will be handled by SID secretary Natalie Silva or, when needed, a consultant.
Manzella said the board did not say why they decided not to take any action to replace Minitelli, merely stating that for the remainder of the year they would be “evaluating” things.
“I’m not sure what they are going to do,” the administrator said, but admitted he is not part of the SID board, only attending the meeting because it was Minitelli’s last. Manzella did praise the executive director for the work he did for the SID, pointing out that he would be missed.
“I think the board was very sad to see him go,” said the administrator, adding that it was “a sad and happy day” for Minitelli.
Although the SID board opted not to replace Minitelli at this time, there are events coming up, including the Festival on the Green in September. However, Manzella said that anything involving this event could be handled by Silva, or the vendors involved. He did not say who would be coordinating the event other than to say if there is a need, a consultant would be paid to handle it.
Although Minitelli’s departure appeared sudden, Manzella said the executive director had been considering the move “for awhile.”
“I tried to get him to change his mind but I couldn’t do it,” the administrator added.
Manzella said that he was not sure if the SID executive director and the Economic Development positions will be done by the same person or if the positions will be separated.
“The SID has to interact with the township committee,” the administrator said.
Although the SID is an autonomous board, according to state law the township still has jurisdiction over it, including approving the SID budget. They also can override any decision made by the board that is objectionable.
Minitelli, who has held the director position for 20 years, was also named economic development director 17 years ago. He received an additional $68,259 for this position, or a total of $123,259 annually for both jobs, in addition to health benefits and pension.
Township officials have fiercely defended the need for a SID director, despite business owners claiming in the past that Minitelli did little to help bring shoppers to the center. Property owners in Union Center have been paying an additional tax called a special improvement tax for 19 years that is supposed to fund promotions and services specifically for that district.
This year $144,000 was raised by this special tax, but the amount varies according to the tax rate. The SID is supported by 60 property owners representing 140 businesses, depending on the number of vacancies at any given time.
Since 1993 when the township decided for the SID as part of a revitalization effort in the center, property owners had to pay a mandatory SID assessment or tax. Not all property owners, though, felt the special tax they were paying was benefiting the center.
In the fall of 2011 when LocalSource addressed the issue of whether property owners and businesses were getting the best bang for their tax dollar, Minitelli said despite his efforts, it remained a difficult job. He said that although he had tried to get national retailers to come to Union, there was little chance that would happen because Union did not meet their demographics. This raised the question of why there were so many empty stores in the center and exactly what the executive director was doing to change that for shoppers and SID taxpayers.
Minitelli, while evasive in 2010, did believe the center was slowly coming back. Property and business owners did not agree. Efforts to discover how Minitelli spent the $59,000 budgeted for SID promotions did not shed any more light on the issue either, even when LocalSource used the Open Public Records Act to obtain documents and bills that should have revealed where the money went.
SID budgets obtained through OPRA for 2005 through 2010 were unclear as to how the money was allocated and what promotions actually took place. For instance, in 2009 and 2010, Minitelli budgeted the $77,700 for promotions, which included $14,000 for holiday lighting maintenance, $3,000 for newsletters, $1,700 for community affiliations and events, and $59,000 for each year for promotions. Again there was no detailed information about what this included. Business owners said there were little or no promotions, noting that Minitelli “did not like to be told what to do” or how to spend their special tax dollars.
Minitelli, however, defended the work he did as executive director, noting that without a SID director the center would be “in much worse condition.” The SID director did help advertise the center for special holidays, but not with promotional monies from the special tax. Business and property owners had to pay for these newspaper ads placed in The Star-Ledger and Suburban News, a weekly free newspaper.
At issue over the years has been the lack of events bringing shoppers to the center, but township officials have staunchly defended the work Minitelli did over the years, maintaining they were completely satisfied with his performance record.
Manzella reinforced that Tuesday morning, pointing out that the SID board, township committee and other officials were sorry to see him go.
“Everyone thinks he did a great job, and so do I,” the township administrator said.