Government

Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca's Gives State of the Township Address

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca delivered the State of the Township address on Monday, January 1, at the Reorganization Meeting of the Maplewood Township Committee.

The address is as follows:

Happy 2018 to all!

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Let me officially welcome Dean to the Township Committee. You will find it both an honor and privilege to serve and a gratifying, and sometimes trying, experience. Nancy, Greg, Frank and I are excited about your joining us and enriching our work with your skills and knowledge.

Thank you India Larrier for your six years of hard work on the Township Committee. Today you join a distinguished list of former Committee members, whose efforts have improved Maplewood.

Let me take a minute to ask former Township Committee members and all former and current elected officials to stand to be thanked for your service.

And while we’re at it, would all Township department directors and employees stand so we can show our appreciation for all you do.

Thank you to my colleagues for your support of me as Mayor for 2018. I know we will continue to work collegially and cooperatively to accomplish much while keeping the interests of Maplewood as our guiding principle.

So what is the State of Maplewood as we enter 2018? We are in excellent shape. The Maplewood brand remains strong and our reputation is very positive.

Our town is inviting and welcoming, diverse and inclusive, and a place of choice for those looking to buy a home, open up a business or patronize our restaurants and shops. We remain a safe and vibrant community in which to live and raise a family.

Over the years Maplewood has been recognized as one of the best places to live in America, one of the 12 most LGBT friendly towns in New Jersey, and having the best downtown in the state. Our restaurants win top honors and our shops and services attract patrons far and wide.

And just a couple of months ago, Inside-Jersey Magazine, named Maplewood as one of the state’s Best Destination Towns for Dining.  “Is this New Jersey's most progressive town,” the magazine asked. In addition to our restaurants, it cited our commitment to environmental sustainability, our art and music like Maplewoodstock, the short train ride to the City and the “forward nature” vibe in our community. Let me tell you that being known as a “foodie town” is a very good thing and the recent openings of Cornbread and The Cassidy, and soon Altopiano, will only add to Maplewood’s food option mix.

Last May, the Star-Ledger ranked Maplewood as number two on its “19 hottest real estate markets in New Jersey.” And here’s why. The sale prices in 2017 were 9 percent higher than 2016. Homes sold in just over a month on the market and sellers got about 3 percent over their asking prices. The rental market was just as strong. The new apartments, which are 1 and 2 bedroom units, are filling up with young professionals, newly singles and empty nesters.  

Now we don’t fully know what impact the Republican Tax Bill will have on Maplewood’s property values. Since the bill is designed to help big business and the wealthy, it is hard to see how the tax changes will help middle class families over the long term. Some projections call for Essex County housing prices to drop by 10.5 percent. Others in the real estate community are saying Essex County rail towns will remain desirable and may blunt any tax impact from the new law. We will be watching the market over the next six months and will reach out to local realtors to devise strategies to maintain the robust buying interest in Maplewood.

And speaking of Washington, we had hoped for Presidential leadership that would bring us together but we saw no evidence of that. In fact, there was a doubling down on the scapegoating of the immigrant community. In response, the Township Committee adopted Resolution #3 “Expressing Maplewood’s Commitment to Equal, Respectful and Dignified Treatment of All People, Regardless of Immigration Status, and To Remain a Welcoming Community.” The Welcoming Resolution, made better through the input from many of you in this room, guides the Township’s staff and Police Department in dealing respectfully with the public and interacting with state and federal agencies on immigration matters. I’m happy to say the Maplewood resolution has served as a model for other municipal governments around the state.

Last February this room was packed for the town hall we hosted with Congressman Donald Payne. This was the Congressman’s first town hall in his district and he spent over two hours answering questions. I’m hoping we can get him back here again for a repeat performance.

As local elected officials, we take seriously our role as an advocate for the community. We urged Congress and the President not to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which luckily survived in the U.S. Senate by one vote. We supported the Paris Climate Accord and opposed the United State’s withdrawal. When the President withdrew, we signed onto “We Are Still In,” the largest cross-section of local leaders in support of climate action in the United States. We asked the Department of Homeland Security to retain Haiti’s Temporary Protected Status, a concern of many of our local residents. The Department ended the protected status and by mid-2019 tens of thousands of Haitians now living in the U.S will have to leave. And in support of the rights of the LBGTQ community, we signed onto an Amicus Brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court with a ruling expected in the next few months.

At the state level, we continued our advocacy for more equitable state funding of our schools, for a two percent cap on police and fire arbitration awards, and for greater public investment in the creation of more affordable homes. Regarding affordable housing, Maplewood is the first municipality in Essex County to receive court approval of an agreement delineating the Township’s affordable housing obligations through 2025. During the court hearing, Maplewood was cited for its record of compliance with New Jersey’s affordable housing requirements.

But without question, the most difficult state agency we had to deal with last year was New Jersey Transit. Prior to the "Summer of Hell," Mayors and other elected officials along the Morris and Essex Rail Line experienced the "Spring of Disrespect." It was only by chance in late May that we found out through a governor's press conference that all M&E trains will be diverted to Hoboken. So roughly six weeks before the July track work was to start, local officials were in the dark. NJ Transit ignored and disrespected us throughout the entire planning process. A meeting with NJ Transit officials was finally held on June 7th; the first time we were given an opportunity to comment on the diversion plan, just 33 days before its start.

Our commuters made it through the summer, some better than others. The early trains and six buses to the city were a tremendous help. Commuters showed they can be resilient and handle change once we provided them with accurate information on travel options.

Train service is vital to our town. People will not relocate here if train service is not reliable. Governor Murphy must fundamentally change the culture at NJ Transit so there is more cooperation with the communities it serves and the commuters it transports. NJ Transit must once again be made one of the best transit agencies in the country. The Township Committee stands ready to work with the Governor and NJ Transit to do just that.

By far, the greatest challenge we faced last year was with our police department. The incident on July 5, 2016 is indefensible and a stain on our community. The horror of that night was made even worse by the delay by the Essex County Prosecutor’s investigation. For nearly a year, the Township Committee’s hands were tied by the internal affairs investigation process.

Last June we engaged Hillard Heintze to conduct an independent assessment of the incident. Then on August 1st we placed the chief and captain on administrative leave. Both are no longer working for the Maplewood Police Department.

The Township Committee is committed to working with the community to rebuild trust in and confidence with the police. We and Acting Police Chief DeVaul are working with a dedicated group of residents to establish the charter and operating procedures for a Civilian Police Board. We see the creation of this Board as a critical step as we move forward.

The Acting Police Chief has begun implementing trainings recommended by Hillard Heintze including community policy, procedural justice, crowd management, de-escalation, peer intervention and internal leadership development.

The Township Committee also is in agreement that state laws need to be changed to provide for independent prosecutors in matters where police chiefs, captains and other top level officers are to be investigated. There is too cozy of a relationship between the county prosecutors and the top echelon of local police departments. And we need to review the so-called “police chief bill of rights” to allow for a greater balance of rights and responsibilities between police chiefs and governing bodies.

Well for the second summer in a row, our community was much quieter with the absence of commercial leaf blowers. I want to thank Committeewoman Nancy Adams for her leadership on this issue and her work with state and national organizations to promote quieter and healthier lawn maintenance policies and practices by municipalities.

We started the new year with something old, the opening of a 120 year time capsule from the former Hilton United Methodist Church. Hundreds of people crowded the Hilton Branch of the Maplewood Library to witness this historic event with old newspapers, documents, letters and coins from the late 1890’s. It was incredible.

Also incredible was February’s devastating construction fire at the Avalon Bay apartment building on Boyden and Springfield Avenues. More than 150 fire personnel fought the blaze in sub-freezing weather. It was a very sad time but I am happy to report that the complex has been rebuilt and dozens of tenants are now living there. The fire did result in changes to Maplewood’s fire codes in that we no longer allow for open flame, internal heaters at construction sites.

In 2017 the other new apartment complexes around town opened including Maplewood Crossing II, 255 Tuscan, and the Clarus. A multi-million dollar expansion at Winchester Gardens to add a rehabilitation facility and additional housing is nearly completed. Union Tool on Rutgers Street expanded its factory and office areas. And the Township worked with the Audi dealership on Millburn Avenue on a million dollar plus plan to expand its building rather than relocate to the highway. Audi recently co-sponsored a job readiness fair with the Maplewood Library and is contributing an electric vehicle charging station to the Township that will be installed in the Woodland parking lot. On the small business front we continue to have strong interest in opening up shops, services and food establishments. We cut ribbons at almost a dozen places around town.

Two years ago I spoke about the need for drivers to slow down. Sadly this is a growing problem across the state and nation. The NJ State Police reported that 650 people died in crashes in 2017, five percent more than the year before. And about one-third of the deaths were pedestrians. In Maplewood we’ve employed multiple strategies to make our roads safer. We’ve installed new crosswalks and signage, added crossing guards, stepped up enforcement and created more stop streets. But there’s a lot more to do. I am happy to report that Essex County will be installing a traffic light at the corner of Pierson and Valley and will be making other improvements along Valley. The Township will be finishing a safe-streets-to-school project at Clinton School that includes about 30 intersections. The police have instituted new traffic patterns at Tuscan School and the Middle School to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety. And the Township is working with the NJ Department of Transportation and the NV5 consulting firm to develop plans to slow traffic on Prospect Street and Burnett Avenue and recommend improvements to Valley, Ridgewood and Wyoming. In 2018 safety on the roads will continue to be a Township Committee priority.

There’s so much more we’ve accomplished in 2017.

  • Launched a new Township website

  • Relocated and expanded the Farmers’ Market

  • Planed 260 trees in our streets and parks

  • Covered more of the Township with our jitney service, the 20th Anniversary of the Jitney

  • Recycled nearly 24,000 tons of materials, a record high collection rate for Maplewood

  • Refurbished the paddle tennis courts and rebuilt the bocce court in Walter Park

  • Installed new windows and doors at the Hilton Branch of the Library

  • Held the Maplewood Arts Summit to assist local artists and musicians

  • Co-sponsored the first Dwali Festival in Maplewood.

The Fire Department responded to more than 3,500 emergencies and requests for assistance, including more than 1,500 Emergency Medical Service responses. The Health Department inspected over 100 food businesses. The Recreation Department expanded services for children and seniors and held the first ever Dog Day of Summer at the Maplewood Pool. The Building Department processed 2,400 building permits and brought in over $1.4 million in fees, both records for the Township. The Finance Department refinanced notes and bonds to save $500,000 in interest payments.  

And in 2018 we have big projects coming up. We will:

  • move forward with our plans to share fire services with South Orange

  • start the ball rolling on creating a Maplewood Library for the 21st Century

  • establish a community aggregation plan to purchase greener and cheaper electric for our residents

  • work with the Hopkins Group to construct a 182 unit affordable assisted living facility for the elderly, including half the housing units going to Medicaid eligible individuals

  • join with Essex County to upgrade the Irvington Avenue shopping district

  • continue our development efforts on Springfield Avenue with new development at the former Jewelry Mart and the continued recruitment of mom and pop shops and national firms

  • engage in a community visioning effort for Maplewood Village with assistance from the State of New Jersey

  • expand the programs of SOMA-Two towns for all ages with South Orange, particularly in the areas of housing and transportation

  • undertake park improvement projects with the Memorial Park Conservancy

  • support the Springfield Avenue Partnership’s Public Art Initiative

All the work I’ve talked about needs a strong administrative team. We have a great one with leadership from Township Administrator Joseph Manning. I also want to thank Assistant Administrator Sonia Viveiros, Township Clerk Elizabeth Fritzen, and Township Attorney Roger Desiderio. They are our go to people and make the Township Committee’s work all the more productive.

And perhaps Joseph Manning is the biggest change we will see this year. Joe is leaving his Administrator position on June 1st. It is almost impossible to measure how much Joe has done for Maplewood over the past dozen years but please know that so much of what we were able to accomplish was because of his steady hand at the wheel. Joe you will be missed but remember you can always catch the live streaming of our Township Committee meetings.

So that’s it folks. We had a very productive and challenging 2017 and no doubt 2018 will have just as much, if not more, coming our way. Volunteerism has been a hallmark of life in Maplewood and we encourage you to get involved. There now are over 20 openings on Township boards and committees that will allow you to make a difference in our community.

I am excited about the future of Maplewood and I hope you are too.

Thank you very much.

Photos courtesy of Carl Patterson of CP Photo Op Photography.

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