Sunday, February 15, 2009

To BID or Not to BID: A very important question for Highlands

The Highlands Business Partnership (HBP) has been the economic development engine for the Borough of Highlands for a number of years. There has been benefit to not only the businesses but to the residents of Highlands as a result of the efforts of this organization. However, there is little understanding by the businesses and by the residents of Highlands as to how this organization came into existence, how it operates, and what its relationship is to the Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands. This lack of understanding exists despite extreme efforts on the part of the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP) to explain itself to all. My hope is that a blog entry of a more permanent nature may be helpful in this regard.

The Borough of Highlands was enabled by state statute to created a Special Improvement District (SID), and so did by Ordinance. The law requires all commercial property within the district must be assessed an additional tax to fund economic development efforts within the Special Improvement District (SID). The law also requires establishment of a nonprofit corporation to manage the district. Thus, the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP) was formed.

Every entity assessed by law is a member of the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP). The Board of Directors is established by annual election among the members of the nonprofit corporation. The purpose is that economic development be funded by the businesses and for the businesses, and that the managing corporation be governed by the businesses via democratically elected leadership. The Borough of Highlands participates in the management of the corporation by appointing two voting members of the Board of Directors.

The benefit to the Governing Body of Highlands is that there is no line item for economic development in the borough's municipal budget. Likewise, there is no staff in Borough Hall with duties toward economic development. In essence, the people of the Borough of Highlands have been saved this taxpayer funded expense because Highlands businesses pay for it themselves. In addition, Highlands residents benefit from a series of events funded by the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP), e.g. the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Clamfest, the Oktoberfest, and others.

The current economic downturn, political agendas, and personal agendas have culminated in an effort by the Borough Council to reconsider the benefits of the Special Improvement District (SID) and the managing corporation, the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP). The context of discussions regarding this issue is submission and approval of the HBP 2009 Budget. The Borough Council has suggested that it may not approve the HBP Budget, but rather that events previously run by the HBP would be run by Highlands Borough instead.

A few difficulties exist with execution of the Borough Council's suggested plan. First, contracts for vendors and participants in 2009 events may have been signed in 2008 with the HBP. All or part payments may have been made to or from the vendors/participants at that time. Second, all advertising of the events was made at the expense of and in the name of the HBP. HBP has the right to advertise events as canceled. Highlands Borough would have to re-advertise events as not canceled. Third, Highlands Borough does not have staff or funding in place to support this year's events. Highlands Borough would have to establish staff and funding to do the work that the HBP now does. Fourth, equipment and utility upgrades paid for by the Highlands Business Partnership may belong to the Highlands Business Partnership and might have to be paid for or replaced. Highlands Borough could not use the assessments to pay for expenses, as there are no assessments unless a budget is approved. Fifth, Highlands Borough would not have the right to information collected by the HBP in running past events, as this information belongs to the HBP. In essence, Highlands Borough would be starting from scratch to run events that the HBP now successfully runs, and spending funds not allocated in the 2009 and 2010 Budgets at a time when services are being cut and layoffs are contemplated.

It is true that the Special Improvement District (SID) and the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP) have been politicized in the past. This tactic was unwise and inappropriate. Regardless, the benefits of the Special Improvement District (SID) and the HBP are undeniable.

The Borough Council has suggested that there might be more suitable projects for the HBP to champion, and that the Borough is capable of running Highlands' signature events. This may be so. However, transition of the events from HBP sponsorship to Highlands Borough sponsorship must be a collaborative and cooperative project. The Borough Council should send communication to the Board of Directors requesting the transition. Transition could take one to two years to complete. The HBP could then focus on these other projects with cooperation from the Borough Council without negative impact on the Borough's economy or loss of diversions for borough residents at a time when life at home may be an economic struggle.

The Borough Council has suggested that a chamber might be a more suitable organization funded by donations instead of by an assessment. This may be so. However, businesses who are assessed should be making this suggestion. Not hearing this from the HBP Board of Directors, and not hearing businesses lobby the HBP Board of Directors for relief, I cannot justify the Borough Council taking action upon this matter at this time.

Some members of the Borough Council state that businesses need a break during this difficult economic time, and therefore the HBP budget should not be approved. It is the responsibility and the prerogative of the businesses serving on the HBP Board of Directors to vote to disband the organization or cut their budget due to the economic downturn. I cannot justify Borough Council action that works against the spirit and purpose of state law and the borough ordinance that established the SID. Likewise, I cannot justify additional expense line items in the 2009 or the 2010 Municipal Budgets at a time when we are approaching breach of our statutory levy caps.

Highlands Borough is undertaking a Master Plan re-examination to increase potential commercial uses on Bay Avenue, e.g. professional service/office type uses. Highlands is also examining the benefits of reinvigorating our active seafood industry downtown via potential improvements to the Clam Depuration Plant and potentially establishing a new seafood distribution center in cooperation with Aqualife. Highlands Borough has been the center of discussions regarding expansion and development of water based transportation in the Bayshore Region of Monmouth County. This transportation alternative is significant in light of the Route 36 Bridge Construction and summer traffic conditions. Now is a time to build on our successful endeavors. Now is not the time to destabilize our economic engine.

There are so many pressing issues before the Borough Council, e.g. downtown flooding, budget reductions to comply with statutory levy caps, the need for a new Borough Hall, fighting gang influence, guns and drugs, code enforcement matters involving unsafe vacant buildings and property maintenance issues. The HBP issues can be solved via the HBP meetings and subcommittee meetings where businesses, council members and the public can plug in making statements and suggestions. The Borough Council should not unilaterally shut down a functioning organization without trying to effect changes appropriately through its process. If the Borough Council has tried to effect changes and failed because businesses do not agree, then we must not overstep our boundaries.

I hope that this matter can be decided based upon rational analysis, and not on political or personal agendas. A small town is like a family. We do not always agree with one another. Living in close quarters, our quirks can get on each other's nerves. However, none of us intends to leave Highlands. Thus, we must find a way to work together. Residents, Businesses, Governing Body, HBP: All for one, one for all. Better said: United we stand, divided we fall.