January 5, 2017 Watchung Reorganization Speech
Council members, Borough employees, residents, and special guests, including my family: Greetings, and a Happy New Year again to everyone. Thank you for joining us this evening. I am excited to be here with you tonight and am very proud to discuss with you our accomplishments of 2016 and our plans for the year ahead!
Instead of waiting until the end, let me up front thank my Council for all the time and effort they put into their respective committees. You really did a great job this year. Deb, Steve, Bill, Rob, Dave, and George: my personal thanks to all of you!
I also want to extend my thanks to our employees, who really do most of the heavy lifting. Led by our Administrator Tom Atkins, Police Chief Joe Cina, Michelle DeRocco our Municipal Clerk, Bill Hance our CFO, and our DPW lead Bob Burns, your efforts this year have been outstanding; we could not have accomplished so much without you and your teams.
I also want to thank the wide group of professional services firms who are always there to help us throughout the year. And finally, a special thank you to our residents who, as I have expressed before, volunteer their precious time to make a welcomed difference in our town. This not only includes all of our volunteer committees, commissions, and boards, it also includes our volunteer emergency services, including the Rescue Squad, Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management, and our CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), who in particular have done a great job both in Watchung and working for other towns. You have been an inspiration to many. Thank you all.
In 2016, one thing we luckily did not face was too much bad weather. We had one bad winter storm on January 23rd when close to 30 inches fell, but other than that there was no other snow, and no bad summer hurricanes or storms. And we are grateful for that.
This past year was one of heads-down, roll-up your sleeves work on town projects. Multiple streets were milled and paved, including Knollwood, parts of Sherwood Drive, Dale Road (High Tor to Rt. 78), Spencer Lane (Between Hillcrest & Guinard Drive), High Oaks, Redmont Road, Cardinal Drive, Canterbury Lane, Hyde Circle, Brook Drive, Wetumpka Lane, Deer Run (from Washington Drive to Stanie Brae), Joan Drive (400’), Vail Lane (cul-de-sac).
Earlier in the year the Council and Administration worked to consolidate debt at previously higher interest rates; we consolidated debt of almost $8.2 million at an interest rate now at 2.23%, much lower than the 4.34% we previously had been paying (which itself was a competitive interest rate back in 2007 when we last bonded).
In this new year, additional old debt will become eligible for refunding and will likely save the town an additional $600K and $900K over the life of these loans. In 2016 we hired a part-time grant writer, and we hope with two grant applications pending – one for a fire truck and a second for sidewalk replacement along Valley Road and along the south side of Mountain Boulevard to Warren – that our taxpayer will greatly reap the benefits of these efforts.
In 2016 work was done on the Mobus field pavilion, both in regards to the roof and cement floor, as well the refurbishment of the basketball court. In 2017 we will complete the Mobus Field drainage project, and at Phillips fields we will replace the railings where needed, and the deck at the shack also on Phillips’ fields. We will continue maintenance on the Texier House. Last year the two fountains were replaced on Best Lake. In 2017 we will initiate the development of plans and associated costs with possibly dredging and reinforcing Watchung Lake in 2018.
If you are not already aware, over the last two years our long-time neighbor Weldon Materials has acquired all properties along the eastern side of Bonnie Burn Road, in order to expand their quarry operations. In 2016, after a year of analysis, multiple walks of the property, and many productive discussions between the Planning Board and Weldon, the town was successful in working with Weldon Materials to protect an adequate land buffer along Bonnie Burn Road. Weldon has and continues to be a stellar commercial business partner in this town.
The Planning Board will be equally busy in 2017 with the redevelopment of the Sears property, expected to be presented to the Planning Board early in 2017.
This year Watchung continued its active leadership role in the fight to prevent the Pilgrim Pipeline from being constructed through Watchung, along the PSE&G powerlines on the East Side of town. These bi-directional pipelines, if installed, would be carrying highly explosive Bakken crude from Albany NY to Linden NJ, and return as completed petroleum products like gasoline, home heating oil, or incredibly explosive aviation fuel. I and several other Mayors were down in Trenton a few months back to discuss with the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) the collective concerns of 15 towns, including Watchung, Chatham Borough and Township, Madison, Mahwah, Berkeley Heights, East Hanover, Fanwood, Florham Park, Livingston, Scotch Plains, and several other towns.
This coalition is the result of initial information sessions hosted by both Watchung and Madison in 2015. The Department of Environmental Protection has informed us that the Pilgrim Pipeline Corporation has already filed for its permits in NY State, and is expected to do so in NJ later this year. While there are many concerns associated with this pipeline, the single biggest risk I believe are the bodies of water and water aquifers this pipeline will literally be running through or above, along its path throughout the northern part of the state. This battle is and will be a marathon, and not quickly settled. We will keep you posted.
The Borough also continues to closely monitor the activity across the state as it relates to judicial decisions concerning low and moderate income housing. Watchung is carefully balancing its need to comply with what we believe is the direction of judicial decisions being made around housing, with the on-going need to protect our residents from an overreaching and unfair burden potentially put on our Borough. We need to, and will continue to both do and fight for what is reasonable and practical for this community.
This year the Council passed ordinances banning both the establishment of stores selling dogs, commonly known as “puppy mills”, as well banning the sale of some baby bumpers for cribs which have been proven to be the cause of infant suffocation. These are important quality-of-life issues, which when possible your Council tries to get in front of. I thank that Council for being “pioneers” and bringing these to our attention. We hope other towns will follow our lead.
Negotiations with the Watchung PBA regarding their new contract have been initiated, and I believe we are off to a good start with a critically important part of our town’s workforce.
The Recreation Commission was busy in 2016, hosting both the very successful Memorial Day picnic and the October Harvest Festival, both of which were even better than the year before. Recreation also hosted the Movie Night in the Park, as well the annual Jerry Mobus fishing derby.
Our Watchung Green team, partnering with Warren in 2016, hosted a very successful Green Day fair. The town also received a $5,000 grant for the town’s first automobile battery charging station, to be installed this spring behind Borough Hall. We had a very successful Farmers’ Market right off the circle, and in 2017 we will continue to extend the Sunday Market from end of July to October. And we started to clear the Ness property of environmental concerns, and that will continue in earnest this year. And in regards to the Ness property, we would welcome the opportunity to work with the Somerset County Park Commission! We would appreciate your help.
In the near future we will need to make some decisions around what to do to improve and maintain the section of rock wall near the DPW facility.
Very late last year we contracted with a firm to perform, early in 2017, an aerial study of the deer population in town. We will analyze the results when they are available, and will suggest next steps as the result of this survey.
This past year we made some significant progress towards two important projects to the town: the 9/11 memorial and the reconstruction of our Watchung Library. In regards to the 9/11 memorial, our site was chosen, and the memorial design was modified to fit that location. As all of you residents are aware through the recent mailing, fund raising is in full swing and we additionally have had several contractors offer materials, labor, and equipment to assist, which we appreciate. We expect the memorial to be finished by late spring.
In regards to the library, at the end of 2015 we had completed the structural analysis of the existing library. In 2016 we hired the architect Arcari and Iovino, who completed both the conceptual design and renderings of the new library, as well the preliminary plans relating to its construction. In 2017 we hope to complete plans for construction, prepare and pass a bond ordinance, all in preparation for construction in late 2017 or spring 2018.
I think last year Iovino and the Council had identified a size of the library that is both appropriate and adequate to meet our town’s needs. If one considers the currently low interest rates, our recent and future consolidation of debt, the relatively low construction prices, and the significant reduction in school debt in 2017 that will greatly reduce – in a positive way -- our school taxes by hundreds of dollars a household, this is a great time to incur these costs, which would be a fraction of the savings our taxpayers will get from the significant reductions in school bonding combined with the refinancing of our municipal debt.
As a partner with our local schools, I believe it is now the Borough’s turn and responsibility to produce a stellar library that complements the blue ribbon schools we have created.
As I have expressed many times before, as beautiful as our lakes are, and as strong as our schools are, we need to continue to find ways to both remain competitive with – and differentiate ourselves from – other towns, to ensure that the assessed value of our homes in Watchung is maintained. Both my Council and our residents know I firmly maintain that a strong library facility is a critical underpinning of both our town’s sense of community and its continued high property values.
Where there is the will, there is a way: In 2017 I hope that the Mayor and Council, with this great opportunity in front of us, can continue to work together to move this project forward. I really would appreciate the Council’s support to creatively help make this happen.
Additionally, in 2017 I am proposing that we create two temporary tasks forces. The first, which we already have begun to form, is a collection of residents, some of whom already have come forward – including those on Traffic and Beautification Committee – who I would like to hear from as it relates to what I am sure will be a varied set of ideas around how to improve the look and feel of our town; possibly in some cases cosmetic changes, additions, focus areas we need to be looking at, to give to our residents and those passing through a feeling that this is a great town (for example, landscaping around Borough Hall; sprucing up Somerset street potentially with plantings and holiday buntings, etc.). Some of the ideas raised I am sure are longer term. Some are just maintenance. Some might be expensive. But we can inventory, prioritize, and pursue some of these in 2017. Again, we look forward to working with Traffic and Beautification Committee, who I want to see play an integral role in this process.
The second task force may be created as the result of a meeting I would like to have at the end of the winter to define our town’s mission and strategy for the next 5 years. What is it we want to accomplish? What will it take? What must we be thinking about and planning for today so that it can be achieved in the defined future? What are the long-term differentiators we need to establish or refine to ensure that Watchung regains or remains on top of its game? We need to be building upon the Council’s plans and actions already taking place, thinking ahead, and have a vision for Watchung.
In conclusion, I want to thank everyone again for their hard work, and passion for this town. I look forward to working with all of you in 2017. I want to wish you all a happy, healthy, and safe new year.
God Bless all of you, and God Bless this great Borough called Watchung! Thank you.
Mayor's Address 2016
Mayor's Address 2015