By JOHN T. WARD
A day after Burnham, a former Republican seeking re-election as an independent, told an audience that “we need to get rid of RiverCenter,” the autonomous entity’s executive director wrote letter that challenged her on several points, including the sum it collects from downtown property owners.
RiverCenter executive director Jim Scavone has in the past challenged Burnham at borough council meetings on her factual assertions, and did so at Tuesday’s annual Candidate’s Night sponsored by the West Side Community Group.
In response to a question by Temple Gourmet Chinese owner Victor Kuo about what the candidates would do to prevent businesses from leaving town, Burnham responded, “we need to really get rid of RiverCenter” because it “takes 10 percent” a building’s “assessed value.”
When Scavone attempted to correct her from the audience, Burnham said, “I heard it’s 10 percent.”
She continued that “if we got rid of RiverCenter, and that’s gone from taxes, you could afford to charge less for tenants coming into your building. Because that’s what I think the problem is. I think the rents are too high.”
The exchange begins at 21 minutes into this video posted on YouTube by resident Sue Viscomi.
RiverCenter, a quasi-governmental agency, was formed in 1991 to reverse a business exodus, largely to malls, that earned the town the moniker “Dead Bank.” Funded solely by a surtax on commercial properties in a designated “special improvement district,” it has a wide-ranging charge: from filling retail vacancies to drawing tourists to town to keeping plants watered. Its annual budget has remained unchanged for a decade at $512,120.
In Wednesday’s letter, Scavone asked Burnham which “studies and/or reports” show that Red Bank rents are too high. He said RiverCenter’s research “has consistently shown that commercial rents in Red Bank are at or below average for comparable municipalities in New Jersey (Westfield, Princeton, Summit, Ridgewood, Somerville, etc.) and are a small fraction of rents at The Grove, in Shrewsbury, so we are curious to know where your information comes from.”
Regarding the levy, Scavone wrote, “you publicly stated that commercial property owners in the improvement district pay 10% of their assessed value to RiverCenter. The assessment, in fact, is actually 0.1%, or 100 times lower than you represented.”
More broadly, Scavone asked Burnham who, if RiverCenter was eliminated, who would perform and pay for the work it does, including organizing events, such as two annual food festivals, that each draw more than 15,000 visitors to town and bolster the agency’s budget; business recruitment; and sidewalk and landscaping upkeep.
“Or is it your suggestion that we just eliminate all of the above programs and sit idly by as the business community makes a mass exodus from Red Bank?” Scavone asked.
Burnham did not respond to a redbankgreen request for comment about the letter by early Thursday morning.
Here’s the full letter: rivercenter-burnham-101916