CALDWELL, NJ — The countywide discussion as to whether the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange should be expanded to include an amphitheater with a proposed price tag of $8 million reached the Borough of Caldwell this month through a publicized exchange between a council member and the county executive.

As Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and members of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders move forward with their due diligence to determine whether the project is feasible, Caldwell Councilman Jonathan Lace recently posted a letter to the county executive stating his apprehensions about the project moving forward. Both DiVincenzo and Caldwell Mayor John Kelley have since responded to these concerns.

In his letter, Lace requested that that the county place the proposed amphitheater development on hold until “our S.A.L.T. deduction can be restored and until the state aid can be secured.”

Sign Up for West Essex Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

“Gov. Murphy has suspended the $4 million in state aid that was to be used to offset the projected cost in response to the fiscal year 2019-2020 state budget,” Lace wrote. “Taxpayers in New Jersey have been particularly impacted by the loss of the S.A.L.T. deduction on their federal tax returns. For many residents in Caldwell, this change has increased their taxable income, raising their tax rates significantly. 

“In our FY 2019-2020 budget, the Borough of Caldwell raised taxes by 4.8 percent out of necessity to improve our infrastructure, provide adequate staffing and maintain a responsible savings. These were necessities. No resident that has spoken to me about the proposed amphitheater believes it to be a necessity, and many are distressed over what they consider to be superfluous taxes to improve and already amazing Turtleback zoo experience for Essex County residents.

“At a time when federal government has limited our ability to deduct our state and local taxes, and when the latter have been raised out of necessity, I do not believe that the time is right to proceed on the construction of a new amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo—however worthwhile such an endeavor certainly is for educational purposes.”

In response to Lace’s letter, which was posted on his Facebook page on Aug. 7, DiVincenzo wrote back stating that he was “dismayed at the tone of [Lace’s] letter when [he wrote] about the proposed Turtle Back Zoo amphitheater” and suggested that “the expenditure for an educational enhancement is an unnecessary burden on the taxpayers of Caldwell.” 

“Let’s get the facts straight: over the last eight years, the average county tax increase has been 1.5 percent, which is well below the 2-percent property imposed by the state; and our 2019 budget was introduced with just a 0.5-percent increase,” DiVincenzo wrote. “I am proud of our financial record—especially the fact that we inherited a government that was one step above junk bonds and transformed it into a AAA-rated county. That’s the highest rating, and it’s the first time it was achieved by Essex.

“If Caldwell has a difficult time balancing its budget and is proposing a 4.8-percent tax increase, take responsibility for the decisions you make. Don’t cloak your shortcomings by casting dispersions at Essex County.

“It is more productive for our constituents if we work as a team; I am available to share with you the process and strategies we followed to place Essex County on solid financial ground.”

DiVincenzo added that it is his job as county executive to advocate for the county and to “find grants and other alternatives to lessen the burden on our taxpayers.”

“I have a successful track record in doing that,” he said. “If we did not ask the state for funding, some other county or municipality would have the benefit of the money instead of Essex.”

He also expressed concern that Lace posted the letter on Facebook rather than contacting him directly in order to have a meaningful discussion.   

“I have always made myself and my directors available to each of our municipalities,” said DiVincenzo. “Instead, you posted a letter to your Facebook page, which I do not follow, did not tag me in your post and did fax or email the letter, which we did not receive until Monday, Aug. 12. It was evident you wanted to grandstand to the public and provide them with access to the letter even before it was received by my office.

“My slogan has always been ‘Putting Essex County First.’ It is something in which I take great pride and will continue to do.”

In response to the recent exchange, Caldwell Mayor John Kelley shared the following statement:

“I would like to first thank our County Executive Joe DiVincenzo for his measured, professional and accurate response which I totally support. Let me repeat: I totally support his response. I was dismayed when I first heard of this post by Councilman Lace.

“Joe DiVincenzo is absolutely the best county executive that Essex County has ever had. The list of this leader's accomplishments is lengthy, but in regards to the Turtle Back Zoo, he is the reason we have a flagship zoo which is supported by everyone in Essex County. 

“Joe D. saved this facility from closure while the Freeholder President. As the County Executive, he has made a commitment to update the zoo, and he has lived up to that promise. It has become a destination for young and old, and the educational opportunities are what this new Amphitheater will afford us. The current one was not designed for education, and the new amphitheater will provide for an interactive educational experience for nearly 2,000 students a day. 

“The key here related to this enhancement to Turtle Back Zoo is that the funding is not from property taxes as indicated in the response from County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

“As each council member represents our community, I am compelled as mayor of Caldwell to apologize to our County Executive Joe DiVincenzo for the post by Councilman Lace.

“Joe D. has directly improved our local Caldwell community in many many ways; but one that has been a very real gift is with his successful partnership with the Grover Cleveland Park Conservancy since 2003. For the last 16 years, with the support of New Jersey Green Acre grants and limited county budget, Grover Cleveland Park has seen the following:

  • Installation of new playground equipment and safety surfaces (2003)
  • Replacement of Runnymede Road Bridge (2004)
  • Renovation of Children's House and tennis courts (2004)
  • Skate house modernized, pond upgraded, baseball field renovated (2006)
  • Modernization of Pine Brook (2011)
  • Installation of ADA parking lot, picnic tables and new landscaping (2013)
  • Second redo of playground (2018)

“The residents of Caldwell do not second guess the leadership of our county executive, Joe DiVincenzo. We thank him when we see him and have supported him overwhelmingly at the ballot box each election.”

Lace was on vacation when reached for comment, but said that any public statement that he makes next week in response to DiVincenzo’s letter will be posted on his Facebook page.