SOMERVILLE, NJ - Newly-appointed Republican Mayor Ellen Brain opened Monday night’s Borough Council meeting by laying out an ambitious agenda, focused on fixing chronic parking problems, improving traffic safety, securing property to build an emergency services complex and to finalize negotiations with Robert Wood Johnson/Barnabas Medical Center to ensure it pays its fair share of taxes to the borough.
“I am the first female mayor in the history of this Borough, and this is indicative of the changing times we are in,” Brain said. “And, I will work tirelessly to maintain your trust, so that we can do, together, what is both best, and what is right, for all the citizens of the Borough.
“There is a lot of work to be done, and I am eager to maintain the momentum that Somerville has had over these past years,” she added.
Brain, who was appointed to the temporary position last month by the six Democratic members of the Borough Council, turned to two other Republican mayoral candidates not selected by the council to help forward her agenda.
Borough resident Hank Werner, a Bernards Township police officer, was appointed to oversee a review of traffic speed and traffic safety issues.
“We are, after all, a walking community with a vibrant downtown,” she said.
Former Republican council member Jason Kraska, who lost his bid for reelection in November, was also a candidate for the appointed mayor’s position. Brain asked Kraska to develop the Peters Brook Green Way into a destination for Somerville.
“My vision is to increase the value of that space to both residents and visitors in the area of beauty and functionality,” Brain said.
Brain also spoke of transparency.
“During my interview, when asked what my priorities were, one of the first items I listed was transparency,” she said. “There is so much going on in Somerville that I believe it si important to make sure, that as major decisions are made, details should be carefully vetted so that Somerville’s needs are our top priority.
“We must establish direction and goals, and we must do that publicly,” she added, “and we must have timelines established for solutions.”
Brain hopes to find solutions for the parking issues that continue to plague the Borough; downtown merchants blame a decrease in customers on an increase in parking meter rates and extended hours instituted last year.
“I am forming an ad-hoc committee to resolve the parking issues downtown,” Brain said. “The committee will be comprised of stakeholders from all aspects of downtown and the community and will address the parking issues downtown. I expect the committee to be formed by the end of February, and am tasking them with solutions by April 1.”
RWJUH/Barnabas Medical Center is only one of multiple properties in Somerville that are exempt from taxes because of its non-profit status. There are several Somerset County government properties that are also tax-exempt, as well as houses of worship and non-profit organizations, none of which pay taxes, which contributes to Somerville having the highest property tax rate in Somerset County.
“I expect to meet with the medical center this month to begin those discussions and my goal is to bring this to a resolution by summer.
Brain has also put acquisition of property on Gaston Avenue on the fast track; the site of the former Gaston Avenue Bakery and two other vacant buildings on the property has been identified by the borough as a site for a badly-needed emergency services complex.
“I will work with the council to make this the top priority this quarter,” she said.
Brain was appointed to fill the unexpired term of former Mayor Brian Gallagher, who resigned Jan. 5 to be sworn in as a Somerset County Freeholder. Brain will serve as temporary mayor until the November election; she has indicated she may run to fill out the remainder of that term; if elected, she would fill out the remainder of Gallagher's term, which would expire at the end of 2019.