Last year was a rough one for Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann. Not only did he have to deal with the issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, he also contracted the virus and wound up having to be hospitalized.
Fortunately he overcame the illness and Business Administrator Jim McManimon was able to run the town while the mayor convalesced.
The Ewing Observer interviewed Steinmann in mid-April to discuss various issues impacting the township, including the way the pandemic has affected the township and the way it will conduct business into the future.
The pandemic also impacted township revenues, the tax base, property values and commercial and residential development.
The mayor also addressed other issues, including a lawsuit filed by the state against the federal government over environmental contamination at the Naval Air Warfare Center site on Parkway Avenue.
Below is the first part of a Q&A based on the interview with Steinmann. It has been edited for length and clarity. The second part will run next month.
Ewing Observer: Let’s start by talking about the thing that has probably affected the town the most over the past year, which is the pandemic. How has the town dealt with the situation?
Bert Steinmann: Our employees did a yeoman’s job in keeping the town running and making sure that there was little disruption if any.
I know there was some disruption because of the situation, but for the most part we kind of weathered it okay. Closing town hall was a very difficult thing to do but, on the other hand, it did help in a sense that made people aware of other opportunities for them to communicate with the town hall through e-mail or other electronic versions of things.
So a lot of that now probably will be done that way forever. People now realize that they don’t need to come to town hall, because all this information is here and they can pay things online and do all of those things.
We will continue to maintain a drop-off box for people to leave documents or pay tax bills, or other things that they need to do, like dog licensing and stuff.
There’s always those individuals that would rather talk to a live person, and we can now accommodate that basically, but when you come into town hall you need to, first of all, give a temperature a check. You also need to give your name and your telephone number and that’s not for the town.
It’s basically if something happens where somebody contracts COVID, then we have ways of contacting for contact tracing. We still limit the number of people that can be in the building at any one time, but so far, with the last two weeks, we haven’t even approached that number. So it’s been good.
EO: What was the situation with employees working remotely?
BS: Whoever could work from home, we were allowing them to work from home. We continue to allow people to work from home, and we will probably continue to let people work from home.
It does help as far as space at town hall, because we’re not as cramped as we were, and all our work is getting done. If somehow the work gets affected, then obviously that would be re-thought as to what to do, but for the most part, yes, we’re still allowing to do that and we did get a new phone system.
We were planning on doing that anyway. So basically the secretaries and some individuals, their phone actually rings on their phone at home, so you can always get somebody.
That all has worked out really well and the morale is much, much better. Obviously there are still individuals that you cannot have work from home. I can’t have Public Works work from home. They can’t cut a tree down from their living room, you know?
EO: I think a lot of companies have discovered that—ones who might have been reluctant in the past to have people working from home. Most have discovered that they can let people work from home, and the job gets done as good as, if not better, than when everybody was together.
BS: Exactly. And so far, people are completing jobs ahead of time, because there are no other distractions. So again, that’s been good.
EO: What was the financial impact of the pandemic on the town?
BS: It did affect the budget because there was a revenue that we lost. Obviously with the camps and the revenue that was generated through recreation, that really dried up and it went away.
Court revenue was really, really down because there weren’t as many traffic stops because of the situation. Every court has been virtual. And the courts are finding that, “hey, this works pretty good.” So, they may keep this as opposed to coming to a live court.
Now, obviously, if people request that they really want to be in front of the judge, then we will accommodate it, but that hasn’t happened too often.
The way things are done and ideas have been rethought. What was normal two years ago and what’s normal today is entirely different. I mean, I’ve talked to corporations and business owners who said they needed at least 50,000 square feet. Well now they’re finding out that they only need 25,000 square feet.
So that whole market now is certainly turned upside down, and now I’ve got developers/owners of these properties saying “hey, you got to help me because my building’s half empty.”
There have been some tax appeals for that. The hotels took a really big hit, and we lost a lot of revenue on the room tax for almost a year now. Although that market is coming back, it’s still not where it was.
So yeah, it definitely had an impact on the way we think and the way we do things currently.
EO: Have you had to make any special considerations in the budget as a result of the decrease in revenues?
BS: Every year when we go through the budget process, we go through it with fine-tooth comb. We try to stay within certain ranges so that we don’t have a big spike up or a big spike down in taxes.
We were still able to do that this year. We’re also on rate equalization that was started by the county tax board. We did it this year. Hamilton and Lawrence did it two years ago. Princeton is actually doing it every year.
The reason why we went to the rate equalization is because it would avoid us getting caught in that situation again where we were a couple of years ago, when we had to do a revaluation of the whole town, which costs almost a little bit less than a $1 million. This way it’s up to date every year.
EO: What’s an equalization?
BS: Say you buy a house today and you spent $200,000 for the house. The way the market is today, there’s such a glut, and people can get basically what they want for a house.
That $200,000 house that you paid for five years ago is now going for $400,000. That’s creating a disparity and the tax rate was starting to get bigger and bigger and bigger again. What they’re doing is looking at areas and adjusting the tax rate.
Say they looked at an area right here around town hall. They look at the market rate of a house and the number of houses that have been sold, and then they look at the range with which these houses are sold at so to equalize that.
They won’t do it for one or two homes, it’s mostly 25-30 homes. Now, they can get close to what the actual value of the houses are, but it does affect everybody.
EO: So this is the tax assessor’s office? Basically you’re being proactive in trying to keep values up to date, correct?
BS: Right. We had the situation before where people in the Madison were really being overcharged as far as taxes were concerned, because their condos were valued so high at the selling rate, but they went down significantly in value.
That’s why we had to do the revaluation. There were people like myself—I didn’t get an adjustment for a very very long time. So the Madison and other areas were paying what I should have been paying. So anyway, that helped in that situation.
Now we don’t want that to fluctuate that much and have everybody paying their fair share.
EO: Are you doing that with commercial properties as well?
BS: Absolutely. With commercial properties, we always did it because it’s a little bit easier than homes.
EO: Do you anticipate that commercial real estate valuations will drop a little bit, and how would that affect township revenues overall.
BS: Well, to answer your question— yes. I see that happening already and it does affect values. So, the town, whether it’s Ewing or other towns, have to go on and get creative in doing some other things.
But I do think that where those vacancies occur creates opportunities for other projects to start—maybe a new type of business or something just a little bit different than the way people are used to.
A lot of people are buying things online, but you still need places to store stuff and make sure that this gets shipped out. Warehousing today is a very, very hot commodity.
I get calls every day, “can we plop a warehouse here” or “plop a warehouse there?” I’m not crazy about warehousing, because it does bring a lot of truck traffic, but in some cases it does make sense.
So, with our zoning officer, we are looking at areas where it would make sense to do a warehouse of some sort. We look at areas where it’s basically close to the interstate or highways to lessen the impact and rural area. We are constantly aware of what can happen and there’s a lot of potential here for that situation. So we’re looking at those things.
EO: I understand there’s an issue on the old Naval Air Warfare site on Parkway Avenue. The state DEP filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense in January regarding contamination on the property.
The state claims that firefighting chemicals used on the site are now of concern, because they’ve been found to cause cancer.
There were monitoring wells and the chemicals were found on the on the property and the surrounding area. The state wants the federal government to pay for the cleanup. What do you know at this point about what’s going on there?
BS: Obviously we’re concerned about what type of chemical it is and why it wasn’t disclosed earlier. I didn’t even learn about it until somebody brought it to my attention about a month or so ago.
We’ve been trying to make some inquiries as to where that situation is concerned. My understanding is that it will not impact as far as what we’re trying to do with that particular site, but certainly again, we would not now ever consider putting some sort of residential property on there.
So, it limits the marketability of that property, but the people that we’re talking to wouldn’t want to do that anyway, to be quite honest with you, but now it’s not as simple as just capping the property, now there’s more to it.
EO: The way I understand it, they’re the type of chemicals that leach into the water table. As far as you know, what level of concern should the homeowners who live around that area have? I don’t think anybody is on well water there.
BS: No, they shouldn’t have to—only to the extent that it’s on the property and not to where their drinking water would be affected. The way that particular water that’s in the ground travels doesn’t go that way.
It would affect more people that are downstream, towards the Marrazzo’s shopping center, and then leach across the street into town center, but not where they’re building. That’s the way it travels.
Obviously we want clean water that runs through there and then eventually winds up in the Delaware River or the canal. So yeah, absolutely we want it taken care of, but people should not be overly concerned.
EO: From what I understand, the state never notified the township that it was filing the lawsuit. Or even that there was an issue on the property. What are your thoughts on maybe having a little bit better communication from the state that this action was going to happen on a pretty significant site in your community?
BS: I’m upset that they did not notify us, but to be quite candid with you, they really haven’t given us much more information.
Actually, you gave me more than what we got from the state. So that’s very disappointing. I don’t know exactly where they are.
It’s basically the same thing with Trenton Water Works.
We filed a suit along with Hamilton and the DEP basically, and I don’t know where that is.
All I know is we’re paying for lawyers to make sure that Trenton cleans the water up and that we should get treated fairly in that situation.
But where that stands as far as the lawsuit, I know that we’ve got some court dates. The DEP was being gung-ho about, “if you don’t do this ,we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do this,” and then all of a sudden it just quieted down. So, I don’t know what the reason is for that.
EO: Maybe the pandemic has something to do with it?
BS: That could be, because I know the state is still doing a lot of stuff virtually. I mean all our board meetings here are virtual. So yeah, I’m sure it’s the same over there. Everybody is still a little apprehensive about the situation, and we’re going to work and having live meetings and things like that.
EO: Can you talk about the economic aid the town will be receiving through the American Rescue Plan?
BS: There’s two payments Ewing Township is scheduled to receive— again, this just what I’ve been told by the state—around $6,070,000. We don’t get it in one payment, you get it in two shots. So, one is supposed to be 90 days of the effective date of the bill, and then I think either next year or the year after for the rest of the money.
People have already been suggesting what to do with this money, but I can’t do anything with it until guidelines come down from the state. And I do know one thing is we cannot use it for tax relief.
As silly as that sounds, we cannot use that money that way, because then we won’t get it. I guess we need to get creative.
We apply for grant money all the time, but if you start finagling a lot of things they’re going to look at that and say, “Wait a minute, you’re not really using it for what you’re saying you’re using it for.”
So anyway, so there’s a lot of grant money that we’re going after. We have been very fortunate to have been fully reimbursed for all the purchases that we made during the pandemic that actually fought COVID, like scrubbing machines, rubber gloves, masks. Basically anything related to COVID-type stuff. So we’re happy about that, and we can continue to receive that type of help.
EO: And that’s aside from the federal?
BS: Yes. For example, with vaccination clinics and stuff like that, we got partial reimbursement for that for help, for our employees, So again, we’ve been helped.
Not to the extent where I thought we should have been made 100% whole, but at the end of the day, half a loaf is better than no loaf, and we apply for everything that we possibly can where we feel that we fit into the criteria.
EO: The way I understand it is that most towns are waiting on some more specific guidance as to how they can spend that money.
BS: Yeah, because right now it’s a little bit vague.
We might be able to use it for some infrastructure stuff. But again, I want to make sure that we follow the rules when we distribute this money and how it gets distributed.
EO: I’m not sure how the new marijuana law is impacting it, but what’s the status of the Justice Grown medical marijuana grow center and distribution site on Olden Avenue? Will they be able to eventually sell recreational marijuana there?
BS: They could have recreational marijuana. Except the only thing that they would need to do is to completely separate the medical marijuana distribution from the recreational distribution.
So you can’t walk into the medical marijuana and get recreational—the gummy bears and cookies or whatever. It has to be in a separate part of the building, completely isolated from the medical marijuana.
I think the site that they’re distributing the medical marijuana from is probably too small to do that. But again, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Now, all the permitting has been done for them. So they should be coming online. They finally got the permit, and a lot of it was that they were dragging their feet, so,there was a lot lacking there.
But in any event, they finally got all the permits for the main grow building. So they’re going to be full bore, and hopefully by next year that will be fully done.
Right now they have, I think, six temporary pods on that particular site, and they’re growing and they’re distributing it. But I’m anxious to get the retail part of it open—it’s going to be located in the old pool place on Olden Avenue.
To be honest with you, now that the recreational part has passed, I’ve had three developers already saying, “Hey we want to come into town,” and we’re looking at it.
But again, we took the same approach with this that we did with the tattoo parlors. We’re zoning in such a way that they’re not on top of one another and that they’re limited to the number that can be in town. And then I think there’s two different types. There’s a micro grow and then obviously a bigger business type.
EO: I guess you there would be certain areas of town where you would want to locate them, like you did with the tattoo parlors. They would only be in a certain type of business zone, and you certainly wouldn’t want to locate one next to a school.
BS: Nope. Although, I think medical marijuana is allowed closer to a school but not recreational.