This is my 9th semi-annual summary of Common Council’s activities. Typically, I plunge into my perspective on what we have accomplished and where we are headed. However, the last few months have been anything but typical. I know of many people who have suffered terrible personal loss. They still grieve and we grieve with them. We have all been on an emotional rollercoaster. But, as a community, our response has been remarkably generous.
We owe a huge thanks to the medical professionals, essential workers, and volunteers who responded to the pandemic. Existing non-profits along with newly created organizations/groups stepped up to provide assistance to fellow residents, front line workers, and local businesses. But the work of these organizations continues even with the drop in COVID cases. For example, pre-COVID, GRACE helped 100 families with food assistance; now it serves 500 families. Moreover, the possible resurgence of cases means that the situation remains very fluid.
We also have to recognize the hard work of City staff. No one has had a playbook on how to handle this situation. City staff continues to come up with new ways to make sure residents get the services they expect and need, and yet remain in compliance with State orders and Federal guidance. As an example, we were one of the few towns in the area that continued to process permits and issue certificates of occupancy in mid-Spring, which helped realtors as well as builders.
In addition to the pandemic, Summit residents have organized, participated in, and bore witness to marches, an interfaith service, and a funeral procession that reaffirmed that Black Lives Matter and underscored the need to combat systemic and institutional racism. The young people who organized two marches acted upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonishment that the “greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.” If people remain engaged, change will come.
Under our new police chief, Andrew Bartolotti, the Summit Police Department is undertaking a comprehensive review of its practices and procedures. I am proud that the Chief and the Department took the initiative, and, as I told the Chief, updates of the review will need to be provided to the public. The issues, however, are broader than simply policing. As society re-examines its history and its current policies, we too need to do so on a local level.
But, in order to make these changes we need to have all voices are at the table. Here in Summit, many of the policies that are adopted or the issues that are focused upon are based on the activities of volunteer city committees. Therefore, I encourage folks to apply to join those boards and committees through the City’s website.
Now, turning to Council’s business. Although uncertainty continues to loom, we are focused on what we can control and influence. Initially, the municipal budget called for a 0.75% increase, with the smallest capital budget in years. After the pandemic, the City worked to reduce that increase to 0.14% by achieving cost savings on wages and using contributions from reserves and state aid. It appears that expenditures are currently below budget and hopefully the City will be reimbursed for COVID-related expenses through state and federal programs. Most importantly, the budget still contains enough flexibility that if we have unexpected shocks in the next six months, we should be able to handle them.
The other issue that has taken significant time and effort is determining how City Hall can help businesses reopen. As background, folks should know that the Mayor, the City Administrator, and many of us on Council have been involved for months in discussions with dozens of businesses throughout town and with Summit Downtown Inc. regarding what we can do to support the business community. It is a careful balancing act. I have seen posts on social media describing conversations with a single business owner and proposing ideas based on that single conversation. While I recognize that everyone wants to help, folks have to also recognize that there are many diverse opinions, even within the business community, as well as other issues that need to be considered, such as public safety. All of us want our local businesses to succeed.
Even before the State allowed businesses to reopen, Council approved a variety of measures, including: retailers and restaurateurs using a portion of public sidewalks; restaurateurs using parking spaces for parklets; fitness businesses using portions of public parks; and restaurateurs using their own parking lots as dining areas. We approved the closure of the Bank Street parking lot, and, at least for now, using a portion of it for outdoor seating. Additionally, we recently approved the closure of portions of Maple Street during the summer months so that restaurants in that area can put out tables in the street. These restaurants will still need to get approval from the State if they want to sell alcohol in these new seating areas and will need to make applications to the City. Moreover, the State DOT will need to approve the closure of the street for more than 48 hours. We hope that these measures will achieve their intended effect. However, we need to remain flexible and may need to revise, amend or retract some initiatives depending on what works.
As to Broad Street West redevelopment, as you will recall, last year, we designated a joint venture of L&M and Toll Brothers as our redeveloper. We had a conversation with the redevelopers a few weeks ago and additional calls are planned for this month and next. The topline is that the redeveloper remains committed to the project. I think the focus will be first on the “fire station lot” and then on the “post office lot.” In my opinion, as we conceptualize what should be located at these parcels, we cannot think only in terms of the impact of COVID. Moreover, as I have always said, redevelopment needs to create tangible benefits for current residents aside from an increase in tax ratables. We may decide that entertainment options or additional retail space does not work, but there may be other amenities that make more sense. We will have to see what the developers offer. But, as I have also said, Summit is not a community that desperately needs redevelopment for its financial coffers, and so, I am willing to wait to get it right.
Finally, we will have some festivities for the 4th of July, including the bike parade. But, the 4th is not only a time for outdoor fun, but also a time to remember. To remember the flawed men who created an incredible piece of parchment called the Declaration of Independence. And, to remember those who bled for this country, even when they themselves were not treated as equal citizens. It is a time to remember that the first person to die in the cause of American freedom was a man of African descent, Crispus Attucks, in 1770 at the Boston Massacre.
Be safe and have a great summer!
David Naidu - Summit Common Council Member, Ward 1