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15 Mountain Blvd
Watchung, NJ 07069

KEITH S. BALLA- MAYOR’S ADDRESS 1-6-2022

Happy New Year and welcome to all of our residents, friends, relatives and elected officials who have come to join us at this reorganization of the Watchung Municipal Governing Body.

I want to welcome newly elected Council member Christine Ead and Council member Curtis Dahl who join the Watchung Governing Body to govern with honesty, integrity, humility, respect for everyone and in the best interest of Watchung. 

I am extremely thankful for the opportunity and privilege to serve as Mayor of Watchung. As elected public servants we have been entrusted by our residents to manage the affairs of the Borough to create and keep a safe environment for all people who live, work and visit Watchung. This responsibility includes our police, fire, emergency services as well as safe streets and roads and  quality education programs for children and activities for our residents health, education well-being, recreation  and enjoyment. 

2021 was the second year filled with challenges regarding  the public safety of our residents during the COVID 19 pandemic. This unprecedented worldwide pandemic has strained the resources and lives of our employees, volunteers, residents and businesses working to maintain order, safety and help all in need regarding life, employment, education, business and health needs within our community. I thank all of our employees, volunteers, residents and businesses for their tireless efforts, understanding  and cooperation to help get through these difficult times. I look forward to working with all of my Council colleagues, Ron Jubin, Pietro Martino, Wendy Robinson, Freddie Hayeck, Christine Ead and Curtis Dahl and all of our employees as we move forward into the future to make Watchung the best community for all. 

Clearly our residents with their diverse experiences, expertise and abilities are the greatest assets in our community. I look forward in 2022 to working together as a unified Watchung community in  bipartisan collaboration to strengthen the bonds between us and help each other as we live, work, educate and raise families in Watchung.

Our number one responsibility is public safety for all of our residents, businesses and visitors.  In 2021 I installed our new Police Chief Andrew Hart, Lt Kenneth Boyle, Lt Sherif Zaiton, Sergeants Jason Moberly, Brad Sporer, Ryan Dunne, and Officers Michael Bahadourian,  Casy Breese, Darren Calleo, and Alyssa Krum. Through our persistence working in collaboration with our businesses, residents, State  and Somerset County Officials we plan to continue to improve public safety on our county roads in Watchung by having new crossing lights erected on Stirling Rd and at the circle along with lowered speed limits. As a result of unending truck accidents on Hillcrest Rd we submitted detailed support and facts to NJDOT and the County with recommended changes at Rte 78 and Hillcrest Rd to mitigate the illegal truck use of Hillcrest Rd and to make Hillcrest Rd safer. On September 2, 2021 I spent the night at the Watchung Police station and Court room with individuals rescued from the raging flood waters that swept through Watchung. By the swift actions of our first responders and the grace of God no one died in Watchung from the floods. We ultimately over the course of the night ensured that each person rescued made it safely home. I want to thank and recognize the sacrifices made by our Police Chief Hart and the entire Police Department and many volunteers in Watchung who serve in various capacities on the Rescue Squad and Volunteer Fire Department who saved many lives when Hurricane Ida dumped  10 inches of rain in just a few hours causing flash floods in Watchung, the most severe flooding since the flood of August 1973. As we emerge from COVID our Rescue Squad and Volunteer Fire dept. have seen a resurgence bolstering enthusiasm and strengthening the numbers of volunteers for our Fire Department and Rescue Squad. I encourage everyone to consider volunteering in some capacity. As a volunteer working side by side with your neighbor you recognize the value and importance of helping neighbors and friends and bringing unity among the community. 

Second Hurricane IDA’s flooding exposed the past decades neglect of our roads and infrastructure.  Fortunately the cost of the Elsinore culvert reconstruction was covered by FEMA. Moving forward I have planned that all culverts in Watchung with corrugated pipe be mapped and assesses for priority repair or replacement to ensure that we do not have another roadway that collapses or gets washed away. We have scheduled various Watchung road improvements utilizing NJ DOT matching grants from 2020 and 2021 totaling $675,000 along with Borough funds for a total of $1,350,000 which work will be done in 2022.  With the Federal Fiscal Recovery Funds received of $589,000 we will also have our sewer lines evaluated for storm water intrusion and repair to save the Borough on unnecessary sewer charges from storm water intrusion. 

Third on Administration we keep improving  technology and communications, with the development of our new website and more access online to forms and information with postings on the website, Facebook and Nixle alerts; we increased transparency of information with live streaming of the council meetings as well as on zoom provides residents with the ability to keep informed and to interact with all Borough officials about information that affects their lives and our community even if unable to attend in person. We redesigned the Borough website and are installing modules to better inform our residents and improve responsiveness of the Borough to meet the needs of the community.  We continue to digitize our records to eventually have all of our records digital and accessible on line. We are advancing the initiative on inclusion, diversity, equality and respect and I look forward to the establishment of a standing Watchung Inclusion, Diversity, Equality and Respect committee which will continue to review our policies, procedures and operations regarding recruitment, retention, training, support, advancement and recognition in all operations of the Borough including our volunteer committees. 

Fourth the Borough unfortunately was not a recipient of the State Library grant award to construct a new state of the art combination, library, arts and community center. I will appoint a new Ad Hoc Facilities committee to develop alternative plans for required improvements to the existing library, evaluation of the library and arts center properties and recommended alternatives and costs.   

Fifth, We continue to search for properties and areas where the Borough can meet its future affordable housing obligations. We are proactive to develop solutions for the affordable housing requirements so that they are beneficial to the community in meeting the mandates well before the deadlines.  In 2021 I was able to use my professional expertise as a forensic accountant working for municipalities when I negotiated the Financial Agreement with the developer of the Bonnie Burn site which as a result of my professional experience and expiries increased the expected revenue to Watchung by over $6.2 million. The first 15 years payments are 13% of Gross Revenue of the Project and increase to 15% for the last 15 years. Over the 30 year term the Project is estimated to generate $31.8 million in net revenue to the Borough as compared to only $15.2 million if the Project was taxed under conventional taxation.

Sixth, For 2022 moving out of COVID, I plan to have more community activities for our residents of all ages including our Watchung seniors; a family sports challenge competition with various events; an international foods night to bring residents together to sample foods from different cultures around the world; a community band concert and music on the green; arts and crafts fair on the green; community barbeque; a chili cook-off contest; and reinvigoration of Camp Endeavor for community use.  

We have drafted a survey to enlist community feedback and will continue to embrace thoughtful dialogue and communication and input from our residents to share in the molding of critical agendas so that we provide the best solutions utilizing the experience and talent from within our community. 

We thank our outgoing Council Members Eisenberg Knegten and Goodloe for their service to the residents and businesses of Watchung, Thank you for the hard work of our Historical committee to reopen the Texier House after the flood damaged the property. Special thanks to our Borough Administrator James Damato, who has stepped up numerous times while we had a vacancy in our Public Works Manager position and ensuring that the many emergent projects were completed during 2021 including the removal of the old pool and collapsed retaining wall at the Library, painting of the Arts Center Building, reconstruction of the Elsinore culvert which the cost was covered by FEMA.

On behalf of our entire community I thank our frontline medical workers and emergency services, police, fire and EMTs for dedicating their lives to preserve the lives of others.

I ask all of our residents to please be patient, forgiving, respectful, and provide encouragement as we move forward in 2022 so we can work together in peace and harmony for the good and well being of everyone in Watchung.

I thank my loving wife Karen for all of her love and support and my three children, Jonah, Noah and Hannah for being a tremendous help, support and blessing throughout the year. 

I thank everyone in  Watchung for your encouragement, help and support  providing advice and  valuable time, talents and treasures to make Watchung a great community. These past two COVID years have given  each of us time to reflect on the blessings we have and the opportunities to brighten someone’s day with kind words, a smile, helping hands and a giving heart as we unite to make Watchung the best.   

I welcome your help and assistance in making Watchung united for a brighter future for each of us.

God Bless You All, 

Keith S. Balla, Mayor