EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - East Brunswick's business corridor was re-routed this past week when it took a sharp turn off Route 18 and passed through the town council's budget meeting. Mayor Brad Cohen presented his initial municipal budget for discussion and a vibrant discussion ensued with council members often dividing along party lines and residents pleading for support for new and old businesses in East Brunswick's main retail districts.
Cohen began his presentation with an affirmation of the township's AA1+ rating for investments and delivering a budget proposal that 2.61% lower than what would have been allowed. He stressed the need for local infrastructure support and expressed hope for a revitalization of the Route 18 businesses, though he noted the need for a "measured approach" to planning and to make East Brunswick "exciting and affordable" for current and future residents.
Follow-up budget meetings will take place on March 6 and March 20 to address most specifics in the budget as presented.
Mayor Cohen won a major victory for his new administration by the council's support for the creation of the position of an Economic Development Officer for East Brunswick who would, as the newly-elected Cohen, Michael Spadafino, and Stanley Sterley promised in their campaign, ease the process for businesses to open, grow, remain stable, or stay in East Brunswick.
However, Mayor Cohen was not so fortunate with his proposal for a Grant Writer position for the township which began a heated debate involving both the council members and the representatives of the community.
Councilman James Wendell said he "did not feel comfortable" discussing the position so quickly without a fleshed-out plan to implementation, while Councilman Michael Spadafino stressed the "urgency" of getting the whole redevelopment process up and running.
Throughout the meeting Council President Michael Hughes stressed his desire to either have a community member do the job "pro bono;" to pay an individual an elevated salary to do the best job possible; or to hire an outside consultant to do the job. He also suggested several times that other departments - public works, roads, etc. - could benefit from a new employee and that the Grant Writer position was "not a priority."
Cohen countered by saying that, as evidenced by his numerous meetings with township departments during his administration's transition last month, no department had expressed to him and his team the need for any additional employees and had not requested any in their budgets. He noted that a Grant Writer would work across departments in an effort to relieve department members of the burden of applying for grants, often a long and tedious process, and would be able to focus on their own work.
Councilman Sterley Stanley added that Woodbridge received $7 million dollars in grants last year, while East Brunswick earned $447,000, adding that any money paid to a Grant Writer would soon be repaid by the receipt of the grants themselves.
There was a back-and-forth between Cohen and Hughes about e-mails contain preparatory information, statistics, and data which Cohen had copiously prepared before the meeting and sent to the Council members which some Council members said they had not received. Although Cohen then distributed additional copies of the information at the meeting, he was told by President Hughes and Councilwoman Camille Clark that they did not have enough information on which to make a decision.
Councilman Wendell expressed his support for paying outside consultants in specific areas (engineering, public safety, etc.) to do the work.
Mayor Cohen then listed 8 points of rebuttal to Hughes and urged "data-driven" consideration of the position, providing his research-based response to the points make by some members of the council.
Hughes then jokingly referred to the Mayor's information as "Fake news. Sad." This remarked engendered a loud "boo" from the audience at the meeting. Later during the public session, a resident asked Hughes not to "bring that stuff into this courtroom." Some references were made to the low level of discourse in current national politics with three residents asking for East Brunswick to "cross the aisle and work together."
The council took a vote and separated the position of Economic Development Officer, which had the full support of the group, from the Grant Writer position which only had partial support. A second vote eliminated the Grant Writer position, despite expressions from several community members in support of the position. A resident noted that the Grant Writer would "save the professional time of people in various departments." Another said that he was "ashamed" of Route 18 and there was a "desperate" need for improvement because "nothing stops in this town and people just pass through." "Give the mayor the resources he needs," urged another resident, noting that the recent election was a vote for change and development in town. "Surely there must be a talented person in this town," added another.
Nonetheless, in a second vote, the Grant Writer position was not approved by the town council.
Other items in the budget, including improvements to Crystal Springs, the approval of Department Heads, the purchase of six new police vehicles ($339,000,) road repair and detour approval were approved by the council. President Hughes also announced the receipt of $994,000 worth of surplus military equipment to augment public safety and the East Brunswick Police Department.
Editor's Note: Amy Zimmerman Levine, who is an employee of TAPinto East Brunswick, spoke during the public portion of this meeting, as did Sam Berzok, son of the editor of TAPinto East Brunswick.