As Tuesday’s election rapidly approaches, I encourage all residents to conduct their own independent assessment of the candidates’ experience and to get familiar with the issues facing our Township. I am disheartened by a lot of the misinformation floating around via mailers and otherwise, and I wanted to provide a summary of a few key issues with links to documents for those who are interested in reading them.
Facts matter, and by the only objective measure that truly counts “tax rate,” we are second lowest in the County. Current shared service initiatives with other Boards and Municipalities (including IT, Municipal Court and equipment purchases/maintenance), coupled with creative approaches to increase revenue yields savings. The fact remains that even with the municipal complex underway our debt ratio remains well within acceptable limits, and by virtue of innovative thinking like the $10.5 million sale of Hamilton discussed above, that transaction will reduce the amount we need to borrow. As the Democratic Team is in favor of the municipal building, wants to take on even more debt to accelerate the roadway capital improvement plan already underway (which could impair our ability to get annual road improvement grants by doing all work at once), and by borrowing even more for our treatment plant, it looks like we will be headed for a large tax increase, let alone a decrease—Having worked previously for the Mayor and Council as the Administrator, Ms. Devanney and her running mates should be able to identify specific areas in the budget where her team will cut services to reduce taxes—The prospect of an as-of-yet to be defined grant won’t bridge the gap.
Both the CFO and budget are readily accessible to all residents (link provided here)—I know that I spoke with the CFO and reviewed the budget when I ran for office. “Cut Taxes” without a plan to preserve services is a slogan, not an action plan. The Democratic candidates have failed to offer anything other than broad generalizations as to lowering our taxes and their platform says otherwise.
2. Affordable Housing:
Much has been written about the affordable housing mess and its impact on BH. The fact is, the Mayor and Council achieved the most favorable settlement in Union County with the number of units demanded by builders and a plaintiff public interest group being reduced from 860+ to only 389 units; additionally, by successfully using credits from prior rounds, only around 200 affordable units need to be built.
The mailers being sent by the Democratic team as to this issue are incredibly deceptive. They imply that the current Administration desired this level of development, that 1,000 housing units will be built by 2020 and that Community Impact Fees could have been collected from developers. All of these statements are either categorically false and/or would actually serve to increase development density.
This Mayor and Council didn’t create the problem—They solved it by developing a strategy early on by completely revamping Township development standards and forcing developers to comply with them, hiring the top planning experts and affordable housing and redevelopment special counsel, and by getting maximum credit for our prior Regional Contribution Agreement (RCA) payments made to Newark for projects there. Towns used to be able to make RCA payments to other Towns to satisfy their affordable housing obligations. In what can only be described as incredible irony, the Devanney’s uncle, former Senator Ray Lesniak, actually sponsored the legislation that eliminated Towns’ ability to use RCA payments to fund construction projects elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Legislature’s refusal to address the problem and our inability to use RCAs this time around forced the Mayor and Council to have to approve projects here.
Many of the projects that were approved as part of our Affordable Housing Plan before the Court and Special Master have not even gotten their development-related permits and approvals yet, let alone initiated construction. It is therefore impossible for all of these projects to be built by 2020—So the Democratic team is either fearmongering or doesn’t understand the development process in NJ. Neither alternative is acceptable given that they are asking us to trust their judgment if handed the reins to run our Town.
Given the market saturation resulting from all of the projects in the region, it is likely that the projects will happen over time if at all. In the interim, perhaps our State officials will actually work together and finally fix the affordable housing problem. In the meantime, we are as well-positioned as we can be to mitigate the adverse impact caused by the affordable housing mandate.
Finally, in negotiating settlements with each developer the Mayor and Council pushed to minimize density as opposed to layering on developer fees which would have been rejected by the Court or resulted in even more units to account for the added cost. As developers now attempt to renegotiate the deals we fought so hard to obtain (it’s what developers do), we need Mayor Woodruff and Councilman D’Aquila/Councilwoman Greco to play hardball and make sure the developers do not deviate from the bargained-for settlement that we achieved, not a lobbyist that is in the business of representing developers on projects like the ones we are seeking to constrain.
3. Warren Development Near Emerson Lane:
The Township of Warren has just announced that two major development projects, both of which will adversely impact BH, have been included in their Affordable Housing plan: one at the location of the Berkeley Aquatics owned site on Emerson Lane, the other across the street on Hillcrest adjacent to Route 78.
Recall that the Mayor and Council stopped the BAC development on Emerson Lane dead in its tracks by refusing to allow the project to hook-up to our sewer system. Indeed, Mayor Woodruff and Councilman Bavoso (then a concerned resident living next to the project), were the two BH representatives speaking against the project at the live debate on the BAC issue. The result was that the project was soundly defeated by ballot referendum.
It is now being suggested by the Democratic team that the Mayor and Council will “not have our backs” as we deal with this latest development project. Hook up to our sewer system is again a central component of the Township’s negotiating leverage—Despite allegations by the Democratic candidates, the Township has not and has never agreed to allow the Warren affordable housing projects to use our sewer system. We don’t need ready, fire, aim approaches including the empty promise that they will stop the project entirely or that they absolutely won’t allow the hook-up prior to even researching the issue. Rather, we need to continue to gather facts and figure out the best plan for attack—Indeed, such a process is already underway with the Township and counsel having held two strategy meetings to obtain resident input on the subject and meetings with Warren will follow.
If the developer is able to construct the project via the construction of a pump station into Warren’s system or otherwise treat wastewater on-site, the project would be able to go forward without input from BH since the location and zoning is controlled by Warren. If, on the other hand, by allowing the hook-up we can negotiate site plan improvements such as lower density and/or prevent driveway access onto Emerson Lane and divert it onto Hillcrest, it may be in our interest to do so. Of course, the governing body may ultimately conclude that the best plan of attack is to refuse to allow the sewer hook-up. The “bottom line” is that all options should be left open to maximize our negotiating leverage and it is irresponsible to telegraph our potential decision-making in public or to make uniformed pronouncements prior to the development of a full set of facts.
Stated simply, past performance is indicative of future results and actions speak louder than words. The Mayor and our Council fought for our residents and stopped the BAC development by denying the tie-in to our sewer system. My family lives on Emerson Lane and there is no one that I would trust more or would rather have fighting for us again than Mayor Woodruff, Councilman D’Aquila and Councilwoman Greco. I can guarantee you that if there is a way to stop the project entirely they will find it, or if as the project develops it cannot legally be stopped, they will do all that is possible to negotiate the most favorable outcome for BH and, in particular, my fellow residents in the Emerson Lane area.
Real problems require seasoned legal and business executives with life experience and the requisite decision-making capabilities to develop credible solutions. Making unconditional guarantees prior to understanding all of the facts and issues for the sake of political expedience is no way to govern. These actions exemplify why there is only one slate of candidates that will continue to have our backs and continue to deliver excellent results for our Township.
Please join me in voting "Column B" in the General Election for Mayor Robert Woodruff, Councilwoman Michelle Greco, and Councilman Michael D'Aquila, on November 6th from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
(25 Year Berkeley Heights Resident and Former BH Council President)