MIDDLESEX, NJ—Disgraced former Mayor Ron DiMura reported to the Middlesex County Jail on May 5 to begin serving a seven-year sentence for second-degree theft by deception.
Six days later, he was transferred by the state Department of Corrections to its facility in Yardville, according to an online database.
Middlesex Borough officials and constituents he left behind after his December 2019 indictment have already been dealing with a different penalty.
A mess caused by his questionable ethics and financial failures ensued in DiMura’s wake. The pile of problems remaining after his three years and eleven months as mayor has been multi-faceted.
One long-term tax exemption agreement with a Lincoln Boulevard food store redeveloper was two years and more than $310,000 in arrears until payment was received on March 1.
Meanwhile, an audit gave merit to the borough’s concerns about the nearby four-story high-rise, The Lofts. Middlesex officials said this week that The Lofts ownership is more than $400,000 in arrears on its payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT’s).
The deficiency was caused when the high-rise owners “shorted” payments to the municipality back in 2017-2018 during DiMura’s mayoralty, according to Borough Administrator Marcia Karrow. The borough has informed ownership of its findings and acknowledged it’s caused friction between the two sides.
Until recently, the separate limited liability companies that own each project were both headed by Massimo Pinelli, a donor to past municipal Democratic campaigns managed by DiMura. Pinelli still leads The Lofts partnership. But several weeks ago, borough officials learned the food store was sold to one of Pinelli’s former partners.
There have been other challenges for officials left in behind by DiMura. A sewer fee formula he pushed in 2016 has proven problematic.
Numerous homeowners had their water usage amounts wildly overstated when the bills were issued. Some pointed out the errors. Others appealed based on having swimming pools or landscaping systems. That led to the creation of an exempt or inactive account list for non-billed properties.
Earlier this year, allegations were aired at a council meeting that DiMura unilaterally placed family friends and town employees on the inactive sewer account list without Borough Council consent. The jury is still out on whether that occurred and, if so, to what extent.
The list inexplicably contained at least two local businesses – Spray-Tek and J.H. Reid – that were past Democratic political contributors. Both firms donated to Middlesex Borough Democratic campaigns roughly 20 years ago, according to New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) filings.
There is another political money link: Spray-Tek CEO Mark Epstein donated $2,600 to State Senator Bob Smith’s 2013 campaign.
ELEC reports show Epstein also contributed to Smith nine years earlier when he worked for a different company in Piscataway.
Smith’s legal firm held the borough’s municipal attorney contract from 2012 through 2018, including the first three years of DiMura’s mayoral tenure.
“As for the two commercial entities, no one here has any idea as to why they should be on the list,” said Karrow.
Both have now lost their inactive status and “will be scrutinized as any other commercial entity,” she added.
In spring 2020, only months after DiMura’s exit, the Middlesex council’s new budget included a 5.47% tax increase. Already stressed financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, borough taxpayers cried foul. Current officials, however, pointed to a string of factors linked to the ex-Mayor.
The most pressing problem was that municipal surplus had been drained in recent years to maintain artificially low tax rates. A huge part of that was the evaporation of $1.5 million in proceeds from a long-term lease agreement signed in 2015 for a town-owned cellular phone tower.
The borough had been earning about $100,000 annually from renting tower space to cell phone companies. In exchange for the lump sum payment, that right to lease space was signed away for 50 years to Wireless Capital Partners.
Although the short-sighted deal was signed by his predecessor, DiMura compounded the fallout. He maneuvered annual budgets through that chipped away at the $1.5 million.
Each year, a few hundred thousand dollars was used as revenue in the town budget. By last spring, only $600,000 remained. When COVID-19 eroded permit fees and other revenues, the council was faced with using the remainder to avoid imposing an even larger tax increase.
Although taxpayers absorbed the financial hit in 2020, the 5.47% hike helped rectify the surplus shortage. After it leaked away during the DiMura years, financial firms threatened to lower the borough’s bond rating. By year-end 2021, it’s now projected the surplus will be built back to more than $900,000.
Council members asserted they’d been kept in the dark by DiMura regarding municipal finances. While the ex-Mayor dealt with his legal problems, he became a piñata for all things wrong in Middlesex.
Not all taxpayers, however, bought in completely to the “DiMura did it” excuse. Some contended opposition Republican council members should have pulled in the ex-Mayor’s reins years earlier.
That skepticism did not translate at the polls last November. The Middlesex Borough Democratic Organization, which DiMura ruled as long-time chairman before winning the 2015 mayoral election, continued its string of defeats.
Voters started hearing whispers about DiMura and having doubts a few years before the indictment.
Republicans won two council seats in 2020. The GOP has now taken the last eight council seats contested as well as the 2019 mayoral election when DiMura was dumped. It’s believed to be the first time in history that Republicans have held all seven seats on the borough’s governing body.
The ex-Mayor’s crippling of the Middlesex Borough Democratic Party hasn’t been lost on some of the town’s voters. One woman took to social media and vented in January.
“Basically, one man ruined an entire two-party system in this town,” she posted in a town-wide Facebook group. “No Democrat can be elected simply because they are a Democrat.”
That should not be surprising. Even DiMura has shown a lack of respect for his old Democratic colleagues.
DiMura’s indictment included charges that he stole from campaign accounts, laundered money through a scholarship fund he administered and ripped off private investors in a Ponzi scheme.
The investors he swindled included current Middlesex Borough Democratic Vice Chairwoman Michele Tackach and her parents. During DiMura’s mayoralty, Tackach chaired the local party.
Tackach and her parents told their heart-breaking stories of financial loss at DiMura’s February sentencing before state Superior Court Judge Benjamin S. Bucca. Last August, the former mayor pleaded guilty to one of the indictment’s nine counts.
Tackach accused DiMura of “one lie after another,” acknowledging others tried unsuccessfully to separate her from her one-time political ally.
“People warned me about him, over and over again,” she said, “and I didn’t believe anything.”