PRINCETON: Renovation of public works facilities poised to be a big issue for council in 2017

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By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
In the nearly four years since consolidation, Princeton officials deliberately avoided spending money on any large, big-ticket projects, as the merged town inherited a debt load in excess of $100 million from the old borough and the township.
The thinking was that in the face of high debt and interest payments the town was going to have to pay early on post-consolidation, officials needed to stay within self-imposed spending and debt management guidelines. Essentially, the town was going to spend what it could pay for.
“No one wants to raise taxes,” Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said Monday.
Officials have worked to pay off the debt, to $104.9 million at the beginning of 2014 to $99.3 million at the beginning of 2015, according to the Citizens Finance Advisory Committee, a group that advises the governing body on its finances. But with those debt payments starting to drop off, officials can look at taking on major capital projects and prioritizing the order they get done.
Last week, Mayor Liz Lempert threw down the gauntlet of sorts by saying the Princeton Council needed to decide in 2017 whether to invest in renovating the various public works facilities scattered around town or put money into having one facility in a centralized location, likely River Road.
In an interview Monday, she did not back down from that stance by pointing out that decision-makers have been discussing the issue on and off, in the former borough and the township, since 1990. She said the town has come to the point where those facilities “need maintenance.”
“The decision is long past due. We’ve been talking about the need for a new public works facility before consolidation,” said Councilman Bernard. P. Miller on Tuesday.
He recalled how the then-borough and township had talked of having a joint facility on River Road. At the moment, town staff is examining the options of either renovating the facilities or having a new one.
Officials this week agree a decision will be made in 2017, “the sooner the better,” in Ms. Crumiller’s words.
The future of public works was what sparked the town’s interest earlier this year in trying to acquire the Princeton Packet building on Witherspoon Street, located directly next to a public works facility on John Street. The town saw a chance to consolidate its operations, although that opportunity was lost when another buyer, Helena May, stepped forward to acquire the property.
Yet there are competing interests for the council to consider when deciding where to put its money.
Councilwoman Jo S. Butler said Monday that Community Park South is in need of repair, with the price tag for that work at roughly $4 million. Officials also have talked of expanding the fire house on Witherspoon Street by acquiring part of the former Valley Road School, and of having a so-called “cold storage” facility, costing as much as $1.5 million, to keep municipal equipment out of the elements.
Mayor Lempert said having a centralized public works facility means “potentially” putting off other projects.
“There always will be competing interests,” Mr. Miller said. “And council gets paid to prioritize among the competing interests,
Ms. Butler said the council “will probably have to make a decision” on the public works issue.
“It’s something we know is out there to be done,” she said.
For taxpayers, the timing of all this comes with the school board poised to have a voter referendum, sometime in 2018, to borrow money to pay for various facility improvements at the schools. In the face of rising enrollment, the district indicated it might have to reopen Valley Road as a school and move its central administration, possibly to the Packet building.