MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council met – again, virtually, due to COVID-19 – on August 4 for a conference meeting with a light agenda that revolved more around public comment than on any item up for a vote.  Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager and Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo were absent.  Once again, the program to close Church Street on weekends took center stage.

Numerous business owners in town called to express either support or displeasure with the township’s program to close Church Street to automobiles on weekends through the end of September.  

Franco Poporino, the owner of the Fresco da Franco restaurant on Church Street, called in first to express his thoughts on the matter, saying that he was concerned about how the program has been administered – specifically, citing the weekend of July 25-26, when Church Street was left open to cars so the Montclair Center Business Improvement District could have time to assess the efficacy of the program.  Poporino said it was important to keep Church Street accessible to pedestrians and to have outdoor dining on weekends in order to keep restaurants like his going as long as Governor Phil Murphy deems it inappropriate to open restaurants to indoor dining.  Poporino also cited the limited time before colder weather to make outdoor dining feasible, citing Tropical Storm Isaias as an example of how unforeseen circumstances can make outdoor dining impossible even in the non-winter months.    

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Other Church Street merchants disagreed with Poporino’s assessment.  Pam LaMaglia, owner of American Sampler on Church Street, called in to say that the weekend street closings denied motorists coming into Montclair Center the opportunity to park on the street itself.  She said that the closure policy limited parking in a downtown area already hard-pressed for ample parking, and she added that not everyone likes to park in the back lots.  LaMaglia said that closing the street all day on weekends was having a negative impact on her business and suggested limiting the closures to after 6:00 P.M., when most restaurants do their biggest business.

But other Church Street business owners such as Roger Mazzio of Benvenuti Montclair backed Poporino, with Mazzio calling the street closures “a huge positive” and praising it for allowing people a greater opportunity to congregate publicly.  Mazzio further added that it was no large sacrifice to have Church Street closed on weekends for only eight weeks in summer out of the whole year.

Mayor Sean Spiller said that he remains in contact with business leaders and the Montclair Center Business Improvement District to try to help the merchants with their issues, and he cited the help the township has given in the form of grants totaling $150,000 designed to aid struggling merchants and how the township has tried to get the money directly to them.  Later, Township Manager Tim Stafford reported that restaurants can now apply for permits for an expanded sidewalk café or to expand an existing sidewalk café into the full sidewalk as long as there is an appropriate pedestrian path in the parking lane in the adjacent street.   

As for the street closures, Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings offered his positive assessment of the policy, noting that he had stayed at Church Street for hours on a recent Saturday and having dined there as well.  He said he was surprised by how many restaurants had not extended into the streets, but he said the overall setup was enjoyable.   He acknowledged the naysayers on the topic, adding, “It’s a little bit of moving target, but I just hope we can kind of find a way to satisfy everybody, even though we know everybody won’t be happy, but I think it’s something we really need to stay on top of.”            

Meanwhile, Toni Martin of the Tenants’ Organization of Montclair called to ask for an update on the landlords’ fight to block Montclair’s recently passed rent control ordinance. Township Attorney Ira Karasick stepped in, reporting on the status conference on the case that took place on July 23.  He said that the judge is going to rule on documents filed by the township and supplemental documents filed by the landlords.  Karasick also noted that the landlords actually wanted the township to allow them to make available on the township’s Web site online petitions to have the rent control ordinance voted on by referendum, but he was cool to the idea of putting such petitions on the site.  Rumors that such petitions have already been submitted to the township have circulated, but Karasick said that no such petitions were submitted. The hearing on the ordinance is slated for August 28.

 “If the judge does not rule in our favor, we’ll be ready to go,” Karasick said.

As for new ordinances and resolutions, the council passed two of the former (both on second reading) and three of the latter, all by a 5-0 vote.  The ordinances were an allocation of $4.8 million in bonds and notes to fund capital school improvements and an extension of the rent freeze.  The resolutions passed included one making the rent freeze extension effective immediately, another authorizing Montclair’s participation in the Essex County Urban County Community Development Program through 2023, and a third resolution ratifying the award of a professional services contract to Aveanna Healthcare.  Manager Stafford explained that the Aveanna contract was for the firm to conduct screenings and temperature scans at the municipal building and at township facilities such as pools to contain the spread of COVID-19, which Manager Stafford said had resulted in 463 cases and 51 deaths in Montclair.

The meeting took place under extraordinary circumstances – not just due to COVID-19 but in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias, which had just pulled out of the region before the online council meeting started.  Whether or not a cable outage, a power outage, or a combination of both prevented Councilors Schlager and Russo from taking part in the meeting cannot be confirmed, but Deputy Mayor / First Ward Councilor William Hurlock was affected by the storm; an outage at his house forced him to attend from his Montclair Center law office.  Manager Stafford reported that the township began preparations for the storm the previous Friday and took part in conference calls with state offices and PSE&G, with township employees already involved in cleanup at the time of the council meeting.

Manager Stafford also gave a bleak assessment of township revenue and how they have been adversely affected by COVID-19.  Parking revenues, he said, were down 54 percent, from $3.362 million from January to July 2019 to $1.852 million for January to July 2020, and most of that revenue had been collected in the first quarter before the onset of the pandemic.   Building department revenue was down 65 percent from the first seven months of 2019, from $1.027 million to a paltry $356,000. Other collections are also down – including the hotel tax, down 93 percent from last year, when the MC Hotel first opened.

However, Manager Stafford also said that the township is still in good shape and is still able to provide quality services thanks to the excellent financials of the past eight years, and he said the township will continue to maintain stringent financial controls to blunt the impact of the pandemic on revenue.