Despite new government, Princeton Council debates old issues as it approves U.’s $2.5 million PILOT payment
The University will voluntarily make a payment in lieu of taxes of $2.475 million to the Princeton government in 2013. The town council approved this amount at its meeting on Monday evening, with some Council members expressing lingering concerns over whether the process of negotiating the payment had been handled ethically.
The contribution, known as a PILOT, is an annual payment that the University makes to the local government in acknowledgment of the costs of providing services to the University, which is tax-exempt as a nonprofit institution. This year’s agreement is roughly equal to the University’s combined contribution to the Township and Borough governments in 2012, though it will remove the restrictions that were placed on last year’s funds. The full amount of the 2013 payment is unrestricted.
Additionally, $500,000 of last year’s contribution was earmarked specifically for costs associated with the consolidation of the two municipal governments.
The decision to match the amount of year’s payment was the result of an understanding reached during discussions of the 2012 payment last year, according to University and town sources involved in the negotiation process.
While discussing the resolution, Council members clashed over whether the oral agreement made last year was a satisfying basis for the 2013 payment and over whether potential conflicts of interest had been handled ethically in the negotiation of the payment. The six-member Council finally passed the resolution with four votes in favor and two abstentions.
Councilwoman and Wilson School professor Heather Howard recused herself from the discussion and abstained from the vote as an employee of the University. Councilwoman Jo Butler took issue with the fact that Mayor Liz Lempert, whose husband is a University professor, had not formally recused herself from the discussion.
“[Lempert is] widely quoted in the newspaper as having negotiated this agreement,” Butler said. “I really do feel quite strongly that there’s a conflict of interest involved in the negotiation with the University. And I think it’s something we’re going to need to address now; this isn’t the last time this will come up.”
Lempert said she did not plan to vote on the issue, as the town mayor is not a voting member of the Council and only votes in the event of a tie. “This is a carry-over from last year. It was agreed to last year,” Lempert said.
The University’s Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget, who was present in last year’s PILOT negotiation process, confirmed that both the University and the municipality had come to the understanding or “verbal indication” that the amount would be renewed in 2013.
“To say that there was a negotiation, I don’t think is the appropriate term,” Appelget said. “We had indicated at that time our willingness to potentially continue the contribution that we had in calendar year 2012 into 2013.” She added that University officials hope to negotiate a multiyear agreement for the PILOT amount in the coming months after the next University president, who has yet to be named, has been instated.
Butler also said this year’s PILOT was too small, arguing that it wasn’t appropriate for the University to make the same payment as it had last year as it will soon be undertaking construction of its approved Arts and Transit Neighborhood in the Alexander corridor.
“There will be great inconvenience to the public, and I just wonder whether when that starts we will feel like the same amount as last year was really adequate for that,” Butler said.
Local resident Joe Small also voiced his displeasure with the amount of the contribution and the way it had been determined.
“I think this number is inadequate. But there has been no basis other than, ‘Peasants, this is what we'll give you.’ ‘Thank you very much my lord, we'll take it,’ ” said Small, who spoke out of turn by making a public comment after the resolution had already been moved and seconded. “This is a new government and I think you'll have to start a new relationship with the exempt taxpayers in this town who are not fully contributing what they should contribute and are driving out the middle class from this town.”
Others expressed disapproval at the meeting at the way the resolution had been handled. Councilman Patrick Simon commented that he felt the Council had prevented the public from commenting on the issue by not introducing a formal period for public comment. Councilman Bernard Miller also criticized the Council’s discussion of the resolution, characterizing it as petty and caught in the past.
Miller, a former mayor of Princeton Township, also took issue with comparisons that some Council members made to the way PILOT negotiations had been handled by the former Borough government.
“This is the new Princeton,” he said. “And I think it's very sad to hear an elected official who supported consolidation publicly state that 'This is the way we did it in the Borough.' ”
Butler responded by saying that she took “great umbrage” at Miller’s remarks.
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