A pending lawsuit challenging the University’s property tax exemption is funded by a trust for litigation in the public interest. The trust was established in 2010 by the estate of local resident and attorney Eleanor Lewis in the amount of $120,000, and has also been used to fund three suits challenging the relocation of Dinky Station.
As an educational nonprofit, the University is exempt from property taxes on most of its property. The suit challenges this status on grounds that the school collects and distributes profits generated by patent products developed in its research facilities. It is expected to go to trial in September, according to Bruce Afran, the president and attorney of the trust.
One of the fund’s initial trustees has ended her relationship with the fund because of the tax challenge against the University. Jane De Lung, an old friend who met Lewis at Community Park Pool in 1980, said she left her position as trustee of the fund last year because she disagreed with the challenge.
“They were asking too much of the University,” De Lung said. “I just did not feel that it was productive for society. I do believe that the issue of the University paying property taxes on places where they generate revenue is a legitimate question, but I think it’s very difficult to parse out.”
De Lung said she left the trust in August or September of 2012. She added that she strongly supported the suit over the move of the Dinky Station because she feels the relocation has created a serious inconvenience for all local residents.
The trust has previously been used to fund three lawsuits challenging the University’s decision to relocate the Dinky station, all of which are currently pending. These suits challenge the approvals given by the local planning board and the local governing bodies to allow the project to go forward. Afran said he expects both cases to be resolved this spring. The third case is an injunction to halt work on the project until the zoning case is resolved. All three are currently pending.
University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 described all of the lawsuits filed by the trust as “without merit and an unfortunate waste of time and money.”
Lewis planned the Dinky challenges during her lifetime and even conceived of the tax challenge in an early form. She and the trustees of her fund considered challenging the University’s tax exemption on grounds that faculty often used their campus offices for non-University employment. As the University allows faculty members to work for for-profit companies a few days a week, many faculty members who work in industries, such as consulting, use their University offices and utilities to do so. They decided against suing on these grounds.
“Bruce and I decided that this was really sort of nickel-and-dime petty stuff. So as it turns out, we didn’t pursue that,” Ken Fields, the fund’s secretary and treasurer, explained. Fields was a friend and neighbor of Lewis.
After the tax challenge is resolved, the fund’s trustees plan to launch a few more suits out of the fund. One is a challenge to New Jersey’s electoral college system, which currently allocates its electoral votes in a winner-take-all fashion for the presidential election.
Under the current system, the presidential candidate who receives the majority of votes in New Jersey receives all 14 of the state’s electoral votes. This suit would challenge the winner-take-all distribution under the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which requires that all citizens must be treated equally by the government, Afran explained.
“It’s not treating those voters equally to say only one candidate’s voters get credit in the electoral college,” Afran said.
The fund’s trustees also hope to launch a suit on behalf of students who are born in New Jersey to parents who are undocumented immigrants.
“The state university has a policy of denying children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition,” Afran said. “What this means is that children of illegal immigrants are effectively barred from state universities.”
The trustees are currently looking for a student in this position who is willing to become a plaintiff for the case. They also plan to challenge the tax-exempt status of religious institutions out of the trust.
Lewis’s will also named Krystal Knapp, her friend and founder of the hyperlocal news site Planet Princeton, as a trustee of the fund. Knapp declined to become a trustee, explaining on Planet Princeton in January 2012 that it would create a conflict of interest with her role as a local journalist. She was not a trustee of the fund at any time.
Lewis, an attorney, also worked as a consultant for the federal government regarding affirmative action in college admissions. She was the first executive director of New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, a group for local organizing and advocacy founded in 1972. Lewis took great interest in community affairs and used to attend every meeting of the Borough Council, according to Knapp. She died of ovarian cancer in 2010, according to a Star-Ledger obituary.
“She was always involved in trying to help right wrongs,” said De Lung, who also described Lewis as having “a wonderful wicked sense of humor.”
Her will also created funds for several disadvantaged youths whom she met through a mentoring program at Princeton High School. De Lung remains a trustee on several of these trusts.
Afran said Lewis hoped the fund would eventually attract donations to grow and continue its projects.