I am honored today to have been sworn in, once again, as Mayor of East Rutherford; I thank the people for that honor. As I begin my 32nd year on this governing body and as has been the case in my previous 31 years, we will face many challenges. We have had many successes but there is so much more to do and hopefully we have learned from some mistakes but one thing I can assure the people of East Rutherford is that I will address the many challenges we face with no less enthusiasm than I did on January 1st, 1985 when, with my father holding the bible, I was first sworn into office as a member of this governing body.
Once again I have the privilege of welcoming back Councilmen George Perry and Jeffery Lahullier. I thank them both for their past service and look forward to working with them along with all the council members in 2016. Hopefully we can put aside our differences and successfully serve the people of East Rutherford.
Thank you to Superior Court Judge, Honorable Peter Melchionne for issuing to me The Oath of Office. I am honored to have had him take the time to come back to this council chamber where he spent so much time as our prosecutor and municipal attorney, to issue The Oath of Office to me.
As we end 2015 and enter 2016 we are saddened by the loss of former Mayor Jim Plosia who passed away last week. He sat in this chair for 26 years and on this council for 6 years. He was truly dedicated to the people of East Rutherford and personally helped so many. I was honored to have served on this council under his leadership for 11 years and considered him a good friend. I first met him over 50 years ago on the Grove Street basketball court. He will be missed and on behalf of this governing body, our employees and the people we serve, we extend our sincere condolences to the Plosia family.
Looking back at 2015 we did made great strides in our efforts to finalize an agreement with Triple Five; the developers of the American Dream project.
Although we are close, there are still some outstanding issues. If it seems as if I have been talking about this project on New Year’s Day for the last twelve to thirteen years, going back to the Xanadu project; it is because I have. There has been much frustration but I do believe something should be happening soon; however, negotiating with Triple Five has been very difficult and I cannot make any promises about when this agreement might be finalized or when we might start receiving the tens of millions of dollars that have been agreed to. Just to emphasize the frustration, I had not heard from them in months until just last week when I finally, after months of silence, I had an opportunity to meet with Tony Armlin, who leads the Triple 5 Group. The discussions were productive; I did receive an update on their progress plus a tour of the facility. I can say that after hearing about how they have progressed and seeing firsthand how much construction has taken place, it appears that the bond issues should be taking place soon but as I said, I would be reluctant to make any predictions. One thing I am sure of is that our professionals have been doing an outstanding job fighting for the people of East Rutherford; protecting the taxpayers. I have no doubt about their efforts going forward.
Financially we are in better shape than we have been in a while. We did see some financial benefits from new ratables in 2015 plus our tax collection rate was up over 98.5% and should be the same in 2016; however, we still need to be conservative in our spending and in our hiring practices plus our debt is higher than I believe it should be. We need to control costs and spend only when it is absolutely necessary. Having said that, in 2015, we, just 2 weeks ago, received an upgraded rating from Moody's. Their report was positive based on our "conservative" approach to the financial practices we have initiated. Hopefully that continues in 2016. I have to thank our CFO Anthony Bianchi for the fine job that he is doing.
Residential property taxes continue to be, except for Teterboro, the second lowest in Bergen County and well below the state average. Our municipal tax levy has not increased in 2 years but maintaining stable taxes has become more difficult with pension, employee and insurance costs escalating. For example, our pension costs have increased $100,000 for 2016. Plus we have the added burden of having to deal with court ordered tax appeal settlements.
Right now we have an ongoing appeal in the federal courts filed by the Federal Reserve Bank which is becoming quite costly but conversely, in an unusual situation, we have filed a tax appeal against the owners of the office building next to the Hilton on Route 3. The basis for our claim is that the office building's assessment which was ordered by the court, is too low based on what it was recently sold for. We will continue to fight for what we believe are fair assessments.
As important as the American Dream project is and the effect it will have on East Rutherford, it is not the only issue that will have a major effect on us. Density housing can affect us as much as, if not more, than American Dream.
We have been saddled with numerous applications for this type of housing. In some areas it may make sense but, for sure, in many areas it makes no sense whatsoever, especially in the Meadowlands District where we have no control over and certain areas of Carlton Hill. We have objected strongly in writing and in person to the NJSEA, expressing our opposition to this type of development. I can assure the people of East Rutherford that I will continue to express my opposition to these developments whether in the Meadowlands or in other areas of town where density housing is not appropriate and take the fight as far as we legally can to try to stop them; however, we must continue to keep in mind and understand that we are still under a court order that allows planning and zoning decisions to be overturned by the court appointed master. It doesn't matter whether the action taken was by one of our local boards or the NJSEA. We need to walk a fine line because of the court order and because of regulations set up by the Council on Affordable Housing known to all of us as COAH. It should also be pointed out that these developments do bring in substantial tax dollars. Although we were against it, the Monarch development located just off of Route 3, approved by the Meadowlands Commission, now part of the NJ Sports and Exposition Authority, brought in close to a million dollars in 2015 and the recently approved Sterling development is projected to bring in approximately $700,000 dollars. The question is, of course, even though monies from these projects are substantial do they offset any services that are required?
What makes this so much more difficult is that because of inaction by the state legislators, the governor's office and COAH, the affordable housing issue is, once again, back in the courts. Our municipal attorney, Richard Allen, has been doing an excellent job defending us and our position but it has become an impossible situation that has left not just us but all the municipalities in the State of New Jersey in a terrible position in trying to move forward with development and, worse yet, it is has been very costly to the taxpayers. Home rule is being attacked from all sides and it is distressing and frustrating when these bodies do nothing to correct the situation. What makes it so frustrating? Well, start with the fact that it has been forty years since the first Supreme Court ruling on affordable housing, known as the "Mount Laurel Decision" was decided and we are still arguing about what the solution to this issue should be; it has been almost 10 years that we have been under a court order and you have the Fair Housing Council challenging every reasonable solution. This is not government's finest hour. In the meantime, we are trying to establish a feasible development plan with one hand tied behind our back. There is no reason to expect any conclusion to the affordable housing issue any time soon but I am still hoping to work with the Council to put in place some type of plan.
We can continue to voice our objections to these types of housing developments but that does nothing to legally stop them, we need to do more. Although difficult to stop entirely because of the court order and the affordable housing issues I do believe we can have more control if we would take seriously the idea of initiating redevelopment plans in the areas that we have designated as "in need of redevelopment." We have been presented with plans prepared by a professional planner but we have not addressed them. What has been presented to us are not etched in stone and can be changed so if the council disagrees with a professional planner and wants to change it they can but we need to act. We need to stop the politics and start addressing this issue in a professional and realistic manner that benefits the people of East Rutherford.
In 2015 our ongoing road program continued with a number of streets in the process of being resurfaced and in some areas problematic sewer lines and sidewalks replaced. This program will continue in 2016. Also and at last, Stanley Street was completed as was the upgrades at the Hackensack Street entrance to Riggin Field.
The summer concert series were once again a great success especially on our "National Night Out" which was the same night as one of the concerts. Thank you to our Police Department and Neighborhood Watch for an outstanding job. This past September, on 2 consecutive late summer Thursday evenings, Councilman Brizzi arranged to have concerts at our 911 Park on Park Avenue. That, along with our summer concerts series and with the weather cooperating, our residents were treated to some great entertainment. Both the summer concert series and the September concerts were both well attended. Thanks to Councilman Brizzi for all his efforts in arranging these concerts and for the donations received that offset much of the costs. The concerts, along with the Columbus Week-End festivities, organized by the Civic Pride Committee, bring a positive image to our community. Thanks to all who were involved for their hard work in organizing these events.
We continue to pursue, with Rutherford, acquiring the former railroad line bordering the two municipalities. We have been trying to obtain permission from North Fork Southern to allow our environmental engineer’s access to the property so they can give us an estimated cost for an environmental cleanup of the property which needs to be done before it can be purchased. We need this environmental study done before we can move forward. Councilman Lahullier put much effort into this in 2015 and is hopeful for some positive results in 2016.
During the past year we have entered into 2 shared service agreements; the establishment of a shared building department with Carlstadt and Rutherford and a shared service agreement with Rutherford for the purchase of gasoline.
Also in 2015 we purchased a new senior bus and have upgraded our website. Thank you to Councilman Homaychak for overseeing the website upgrade.
We continue to upgrade our equipment in all our departments which allows us to better serve and protect our community; in many cases using grant money or forfeiture money to offset the expense for taxpayers.
As always I have nothing but praise for all our departments. I cannot say enough about Danielle Lorenc and the work that she does. She and her staff continue to run the town efficiently on a day to day basis.
The Department of Public Works with less people, under the direction of Paul DeRosa, continues to provide our residents with the quality services that our residents deserve.
Chief Larry Minda, as he always has, is doing an outstanding job overseeing our police department which, once again, has performed in a manner that we can all be proud of.
Thank you to Chief Justin Lahullier for his four years of service as a chief; especially in 2015 as Chief of the East Rutherford Fire department. Congratulations to 2016 Chief Michael Felten; 1st Assistant Michael Falco; 2nd Assistant Junior Joseph and 3rd Assistant David Alberta. I look forward to working with them in 2016. They are overseeing an outstanding department. We owe a debt of gratitude to all the members of the East Rutherford Fire Department, EMS and their families for the service they provide to the people of East Rutherford.
Because of the hard work of so many volunteers; the coaches and people that run them, our recreation programs continue to thrive as does our library, initiating new programs along with handling an increase in activity. I commend the staff for their efforts.
The court and building department were very busy in 2015 and I do expect that to continue in 2016 plus I do believe we should see some cost savings and an increase in efficiency in our building department as a result of the shared service agreement we entered into with Rutherford and Carlstadt.
We have so many wonderful volunteers and board members who dedicate their valuable time for the sole purpose of making East Rutherford a better place to live. Thank you to each and every one of them and thank you to our veterans, especially for their service defending this great nation of ours but also for their continuing service to our community. Our Veterans of Foreign War now have a new home with the completion of the renovations to the former court offices. A dedication was held in 2015.
Please remember in your thoughts and prayers all of those many friends who were, in some way, a part of East Rutherford, some older and some way too young, including former Mayor Jim Plosia and former volunteer firemen, Ed Neubauer and Ronnie Coldon who have passed on.
It has been and continues to be an honor for me to serve on this governing body and I, once again, thank the people of East Rutherford for the opportunity to have served them for so many years. I look forward to serving them for four more years.
To all of you; my family especially my wife Janice, my friends, thank you and to all our residents and all those who are associated with our great community, I thank you and may you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.
Happy New Year and God Bless You.