January 6, 2018 Watchung Reorganization Speech
Greetings to everyone who is here with us this afternoon, including several members of my family.
Good afternoon. Again I welcome you all to Borough Hall as we look back at our accomplishments this past year, and we position ourselves for the year ahead.
Let me first highlight some of the many accomplishments of the Borough in 2017.
Most visible of accomplishments to our residents is the beautiful 9/11 memorial which now stands firmly on our Village Green. We appreciate the work of the 9/11 Memorial Committee, as well the many contractors and residents who provided materials, labor, and financial support. We look to continue work on the sidewalk which will extend and connect our current walkway around the lake to the Memorial. There is still time to purchase an engraved brick in support of this effort. We should all be proud of this achievement.
Across the street we see that Texier House roof, siding, and foundation repairs have been made, and the home to our great history has now been painted to reflect something closer to its original colors.
Still around the circle, the rock wall in front of Borough Hall as you enter the circle from Mountain Blvd has been repaired. We also have planted several trees along Somerset Street, to pilot again our ability to sustain vegetation in a very confined area that is subject to the exhaust of thousands of cars along Somerset. We continue to work with owners of the gas station next to Spratford Park; we are frustrated by the careless treatment of our property through unnecessary fuel spillage; we hope to get this resolved soon.
Historical Committee has been a catalyst for some of the repairs at Texier House – but they also have been a catalyst behind the saving of the historic mural recently removed from the now closed Sears store, after 50+ years proudly depicting the Great Legend of Watchung on the walls at Sears.
In regards to the Sears property, meticulous work on the part of the Planning Board has resulted in the approval of plans with the Seritage Corporation to build 5 new retail stores and 4 pad sites where the Sears building is today. Across Terrill Road, where the Sears Auto Center has been, is the future site of a 10 movie cinema complex, from what we have reviewed, a state-of-the-art movie theater that will draw patrons from all over.
It took almost two years to finalize, but the Planning Board, along with the town’s strong partnership with Weldon Materials, has worked to complete plans that will continue to permit Weldon for decades to come to operate its quarry, while protecting the interests of our Watchung residents. I am extremely pleased with the efforts of our Planning Board and Weldon to protect the existing landscape where possible along Bonnie Burn Road, while putting in place an extensive and I think impressive reforestation of the area, especially where the now closed Colorado Café exists. Speaking of Weldon, we are working with them to ensure that a home for the town’s much needed emergency services communication antenna continues to exist somewhere on Weldon property where reception can be optimized. Weldon is also working with us to sign a long-term 25 year agreement which will allow the Borough to store salt and other materials on Weldon property, no longer requiring our DPW employees to have to go back to Somerset street to get salt for the East side of town.
Our borough continues to maintain a responsible budget, and we continue to work to balance the needs of the community with the need to remain within the current 2% levy cap. Our bond rating was elevated this past year from a rating of “AA” to an “AA+” rating. One of those balancing acts this past year was the signing of a four-year contract with our Police Department. I know that both sides are generally pleased not only with the results, but with the process for getting us there. Our Police force knows how much I, the Council and Administration, and residents value their services – as we are of all emergency services – and I believe they are appreciative of our efforts to work with them to ensure a fair and responsible contract.
We received some much needed Somerset County support on Hillcrest Road, putting down slip-resistant materials that have significantly improved traction at the upper part of Hillcrest. I believe more work is needed in regards to signage and surveillance, to maintain slower speeds and to better forewarn drivers of this treacherous area.
In 2017 the Mayor and Council, Administration, members of the Planning Board, and hired consultants, have collectively spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on the Affordable Housing issue which affects every municipality in this state. We are defendants in this affordable housing litigation and the plaintiff is the Fair Share Housing Center. We are working extremely hard to come up with a compromise solution. While understandably there are many residents in town, as in other towns, who are resistant to this change, make no mistake to think that this issue can or will go away; it is a reality we are making every effort to work through.
We made some progress this past year on renovations to the firehouse, and we look to resolving some issues and completing that work in 2018. In the past year we took the time to discuss in great detail the deer situation in town, and after both an aerial and ground count, as well presentations, discussions, and debate, some mutual agreement was reached. Among the accomplishments of our Environmental and Green Teams is an electric car charging station which will be installed right outside Borough Hall at the lower level over the next few weeks. And this year with the help of the Recreation Committee we restored our kids summer program at Brook Hill, and it was a great success.
As it relates to the environment, the Borough continues to play a leading role in defense against the Pilgrim Pipeline. To our advantage, the process has been slowed up in NY State, and many affected Mayors in NJ have mobilized our Councils to ensure that our voice continues to be heard in Trenton as it relates to protecting our watersheds, aquifers, and our residents. Today’s agenda included a resolution approving the continued use of existing funds made available in 2017, to provide continued support of this effort as needed.
In 2017 several roads were milled and paved, including Washington Drive and Valley Drive, Acorn Road, Glenview Drive, Crestwood Drive, and a portion of both Scott Drive and Winter Lane. We also did important drainage work on Crestwood Drive, Shawnee Drive, Will Lane, and Ellisen Road.
On a lighter note, in 2017 one of our jewels in Watchung, The Watchung Arts Center, celebrated its 40th anniversary this past year. For decades, this establishment has brought great artistry and talent to the area. The Art Center has contributed greatly to making Watchung a better place to live. Congratulations to both groups.
And speaking of congratulations, at the end of December, Sandy Fechtner concluded 36 years as one of Watchung’s two representatives on the Watchung Hills Regional High School Board of Education. We thank Sandy for her commitment and accomplishments on this Board, in addition to the 40+ years she has served on, and continues to serve on, Watchung’s Board of Adjustment. In December on behalf of the Council I presented Sandy with a proclamation before the High School Board of Education, but Sandy is here today and I would just like to recognize her.
In 2017 we also had some good discussion around the library and its reconstruction. As we enter 2018, this topic will be among several important issues that have to be addressed by the Mayor and Council. We will have more to discuss on this issue in near future meetings, but as I have stated for seven years, to improve the lives and sense of community in our town, a library consistent with the means and needs of Watchung needs to be built. A library is a basic service, with an investment return to all of its residents that I believe far outweighs its cost. With the recently passed $125Million Bond Referendum to rebuild our State’s libraries, the State of NJ will be giving Watchung the opportunity to have its investment in a library potentially matched 1:1. State Senator Kip Batemen, who helped to sponsor and shepherd this bill, has given our town a great opportunity to have a significant portion of the library paid for – and the Borough should be asking whatever it can from the State to offset the cost of a much needed library. Watchung residents pay their taxes, and Watchung deserves its fair share of this referendum in return, and we need to go after this grant money when the application becomes available.
As stated, we in 2018 will need to continue to address the Affordable Housing issue in Watchung. We will be going to court early in the year in an attempt to come to some resolution. Along these lines, while we greatly understand Berkeley Heights’ similar Affordable Housing commitments, we will need to continue to reach out to our neighboring town as we have done to get their assistance to help us with the consequential traffic concerns resulting from their commercial buildings, gym, new hotel, and affordable housing that will be put in the Connell area, all of which is affecting traffic on New Providence, Bonnie Burn, Valley, Somerset and Hillcrest Roads. We need to work together on this problem.
In 2018, we will be evaluating what needs to be done to dredge Watchung Lake, as well restore its shoreline along Mountain Boulevard. We continue to work on the remediation of the Ness property. We also will be looking to assist Watchung Little League with renovations to Phillips Field.
We have started investigating our options around a Park’n Ride; we will likely be issuing a survey to residents in the first quarter. We also are in conversations with Warren to understand their plans. Also in 2018, our Planning Board will have no respite following their work on Weldon and Sears/Seritage properties. The Board will continue assisting us on the Affordable Housing issue, and now will be taking on another important look at the Master Plan.
Our work on over a dozen other committees continues as well, and we continue our thank-you’s this afternoon to all of our wonderful residents who volunteer their valued time and skills to help Watchung be a better place. Our resident volunteers make a huge difference in our lives.
At this time I would like to thank the Council for their hard work and results throughout the year on a varied number of projects and work efforts. Some of our topics last year, and this year for that matter, are complex and require an open mind and some serious work and discussion. I appreciate the efforts and continued focus in the year ahead.
We also could not get this done without our administration. Tom Atkins, our Borough Administrator, Michelle DeRocco, our Borough Clerk, Bill Hance, our CFO, and Joe Cina, our Police Chief – they and their teams have done tremendous work and have accomplished a great deal when considering what is asked of them and their teams, day-in and day-out, throughout the year. And special thanks to our contracted services whose expertise and talents we appreciate.
In closing, let me at this time wish all of you a happy and healthy new year. I look forward to working with all of you in our collective efforts to maintain and improve Watchung Borough; we continue to strive to improve the quality of our lives and continue to further build a sense of community that we hope can be enjoyed by everyone.
God bless all of you, and God bless this great Borough of Watchung.
Thank you for the honor you have given me to serve as your Mayor.
Mayor's Address 2015
Mayor's Address 2016
Mayor's Address 2017