MADISON, NJ – Discussions are underway to build 40 affordable housing units and a new Civic Center at 28 Walnut Street. The council adopted a resolution at its Monday, June 8, meeting to designate RPM Development Group of Montclair to oversee the project.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done,” Representative Joseph Portelli said. The firm has received seven Governor’s awards and has been in business for 25 years. They specialize in development, construction, leasing and property management. “We’ve never been in litigation,” he said, referring to an earlier presentation at the meeting regarding a Supreme Court case.  The LEED builders provide quality homes for residents and see their developments as community assets, he said. Portelli displayed a variety of architectural styles the firm had designed, primarily in Franklin Township.

Mayor Robert Conley said an informal presentation would be open to the public at 6 p.m. Monday, June 15, in borough hall. He asked that Porcelli have renderings available for the planned improvements at 28 Walnut Street.

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One resident said the community should be better informed about the process and should be engaged earlier in discussions. Another person asked about the thought process that the council went through.  “Why now, at the 11th hour?” he said. One person expressed concerns about property values.

Portelli said a study done in Princeton in connection with Mount Laurel housing found that there had been no impact on property values.

“I understand your frustration about the timing,” Conley said, adding it’s a struggle to find available locations in the borough. “We just hired five policemen.  They would be eligible for affordable housing and they’re working in the town.”

Councilwoman Astri Baillie, who heads community affairs, said the Planning Board subcommittee was constrained in finding a site. “It’s near the center of town and we’re trying to develop clusters near public transportation.  Once the process begins, everyone will be notified and there will be many opportunities for public discussion.”  

In addition to a new Civic Center, a pocket park would be developed for the neighborhood.

The budget guidelines generated considerable discussion. “We wanted this to be resident driven,” Councilman Ben Wolkowitz said. As a result, no council member would chair a committee and only one council member would be represented on any of the Strategic Planning committees. “After our Dec. 9 presentation, we decided to step back and not memorialize this. We were in the midst of the budget process, but it did inform the process,” he said.  He stressed the fluidity of the guidelines and the need for flexibility over time.  

The presentation by Art Powell covered several areas. Surplus should be no more than what was earned the prior year. Excess surplus would be used for long term projects, not short term needs.  The committee looked at a 20-25% range, based on best practices.  “We’re very conservative in how we handle appropriations,’ Wolkowitz said.

Councilman Robert Landrigan said, “The borough got in trouble for spending the surplus a few years ago.” Utility transfers, capital funding and debt service generated further discussion.   Property taxes are 47% of total revenue and should be maintained the present level with “a balanced approach,” the committee suggested.

“We are enjoying a massive surplus,” Councilman Robert Catalanello said of the electric utility, “but we can’t count on that.” He said he would rather see the balance shift to property taxes. Wolkowitz said the point of the guidelines was to promote conversation and that any of the suggestions were just a threshold. Action would be at the discretion of the council.

The committee recommended that the current budget be considered in relation to the guidelines and five-year trends and to look at the ‘budget in brief’ for the next three years.

“I absolutely support these guidelines,” resident Martin Barbato said and urged council to adopt them. He suggested that the committee take a portfolio approach rather than considering utilities and other sources individually.