CALDWELL, NJ — While utilizing the Zoom platform last week to conduct regular business and provide updates on how the coronavirus is affecting the community, the Caldwell Borough Council also welcomed Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey to discuss Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent executive order for banks and landlords agree to waive mortgages and rent payments for up to 90 days. 

As of 9 a.m. on Monday, the Borough of Caldwell reported 60 cases of COVID-19 within the municipality. Prior to discussing official business, Mayor John Kelley called for a moment of silence for those who are battling or have lost their lives to COVID-19 and urged Caldwell residents to “pause and reflect on what they are going through.”

In response to a resident’s inquiry about whether the municipality would consider postponing the deadlines for upcoming property tax payments, Mayor John Kelley responded that the inability of residents to pay their taxes would result in the borough’s inability to cover its own expenses.

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“Then the question arises: would the municipality be able to borrow money, or would the potential that we would have to raise taxes to take care of the deficit that we would incur this year?” said Kelley.

When the mayor asked McKeon to comment on the subject, McKeon said he has “empathy for all and consternation beyond health that goes to concerns about bills,” but that “municipal budgets/services will collapse if taxes go unpaid.”

“As of now, second-quarter property taxes are due by May 10,” he said. “With most towns at 75 percent being paid through mortgage escrows already collected (banks giving mortgage holiday still paying quarter from escrow), this should not be an undue burden to most.

“The state does not have the money to supplement towns, which, as you know, are primarily funded through property taxes. The state, which must balance its budget, is in a world of hurt, as primarily our revenue is income and sales tax, and we do not tax food. We have no printing press like the feds.

“The state is going to be at the mercy of federal aid. Some will filter to towns and boards of education but nowhere close to allowing a property tax holiday.  That said waiving penalties and 18-percent interest to a more reasonable sum is in the works which I strongly support.”

Business Administrator Thomas Banker added that the borough needs to adopt a balanced municipal budget and cannot spend money that it does not collect. 

“If any municipality were to have significant short falls, we literally would be in a position where we would have to ask special permission to borrow money from the state,” said Banker. “Then, next year, we would have to pay back everything, which would mean disruption of municipal services and potentially large tax increases. We are not built like the federal government to borrow to tide us over. We are on a cash basis and any forgiveness in collections will translate into a short fall on the spending side.”

McKeon also reminded residents at the most extreme risk that the governor “has signed legislation to suspend any of the foreclosures, whether it is a tenant or an occupant of a home that you own.”

“There is at least a 90 days forbearance on even people who had not paid their obligations before this disaster,” said McKeon.

With regard to the 2020 municipal budget, Banker stated that introducing the budget remains a priority, but that it “continues to be a challenge” due to the “ever-changing landscape at the state level.” He said that adjustments will continue to be made to the budget to reflect the layoffs.

During the meeting, Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Guiliano; Police Chief James Bongiorno; Director of Health, Welfare and Senior Services Maria Burak; and Caldwell Community Center (CCC) Director Rosemarie Sutherlin provided updates on the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bongiorno reported that vehicular traffic has decreased significantly over the last week, indicating that more people are heeding the call to shelter in place as much as possible.

However, he also presented new safety concerns about the increase of pedestrians, stating that there have been many instances of people walking into oncoming traffic in order to avoid coming into contact with other pedestrians.

The police chief also reiterated that in addition to extending the emergency precautions for an additional 30 days, the governor has also ordered that all state and county parks be closed to the public until further notice. Noting that there have been sightings of parents lifting their children over locked gates to enter playground facilities, Bongiorno cautioned that this is not permissible and will not be tolerated.

He also noted that there has been an “uptick in domestic violence and mental health issues” and stressed that residents should contact the police department for assistance whenever help is needed.

Bongiorno extended gratitude toward the members of the police department, stating that Caldwell officers “haven’t missed a beat.” Although there has been a significant decrease in calls over the last few weeks, the chief stated that officers are taking precautions with personal protection equipment (PPE) and are prepared to respond to any emergencies that arise.

Guiliano added that although it has been “stressful,” all of Caldwell’s first responders “appreciate the support from the council and the citizens.”

He thanked the community for the steady flow of donations, stating that the community it “holding [its] own” with protective equipment and has been in constant contact with the state and county emergency management offices.

He also thanked Mike Fitzpatrick from the Bloomfield Health Department, the inspectors and the nurses.

Burak reminded residents that the borough is consistently updating its website with information related to COVID-19, that the senior bus is running on Wednesdays beginning at 6:30 a.m. and that the food pantry is open to those in need.

As the council moved onto consent agenda items, Councilman Jeffrey Gates requested that the council pull one resolution—an $8,850 inter-local agreement between the borough and the township of Verona from May 22 until Oct. 4 for plant watering—to be discussed separately.

As the borough furloughed many employees due to the pandemic, Gates expressed concern that the borough should consider either saving or reallocating those funds toward supporting the West Essex First Aid Squad (WEFAS).

Council President Christine Schmidt remarked that Caldwell’s downtown “will need more support than before,” and that this would be “a good investment.”

“You need to spend money to make money,” said Schmidt, added that she viewed the flower program as “necessary.”

Banker stated that the proposed municipal budget will include an increased contribution to the WEFAS and that there will also be enhanced capabilities within the department of public works, which will then take over that task in 2021.

Noting that this resolution was part of a two-part decision, Kelley explained that the borough has already purchased the flowers and they now need to be watered.

The council ultimately approved the inter-local agreement.

During committee reports, Schmidt announced that the borough’s social media presence has been “very active,” with more than 2,855 views on Facebook within the last seven days. 

She also warned residents that although space is limited, the borough is still accepting registrations for summer camp.

Additionally, the recently approved architectural plans for the Caldwell Community Center (CCC) have been put on hold.

Councilwoman Frances DePalma-Iozzi reported that the Caldwell’s Women’s Club has donated $1,000 to the Foodbank and $500 to the WEFAS. The Caldwell Environmental Commission will also be reaching the WEFAS and Foodbank to offer support as well, she said.

Councilman Jonathan Lace thanked all residents who have recently volunteered to feed the WEFAS and support local restaurants by signing up to deliver/provide meals. He also expressed gratitude toward the mayors of neighboring towns for their support in promoting this initiative.

The next council meeting will be April 21.