CALDWELL, NJ — In response to public inquiries about the schedule of repairs to roadways, culverts and sewer lines in Caldwell, Business Administrator Thomas Banker explained this week that the schedule is based on a priority list that was created as a result of a survey conducted to address road repairs throughout the borough.
Noting that resurfacing three streets per year is a good practice to follow, Banker noted that Wakefield Place, Ward Place and Gould Place are currently the highest priorities.
He added that the funding from the Transportation Trust Fund, which he said was “the single largest source for road repair,” ran out of money six years ago.
“Municipal departments cut back dramatically on road repair, creating the perfect storm,” he said.
According to the 2018 Administrator Report on Financial Review presented to the council on June 5, 2018, the borough received 10 New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) grants from 2009 to 2018, totaling $2,895,000. The borough also received four Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) awards amounting to $470,344 and totaling $3,365,344 during the same time period.
The administrator report explains that 24 streets were upgraded between 2010 and 2013 for a total of 8.3 miles. From 2014 to 2018, an additional 11 streets were upgraded for a total of 3.4 miles.
The next grouping of streets scheduled for repair includes Central Avenue, Frances Place, Overlook Road and Kirkwood Place. Subject to an approval from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) due to a “failed culvert,” Westover Avenue will be the first priority, according to Banker.
Resident Anthony Morato, a resident of Westover Avenue who is a contractor familiar with the repairs of culverts, noted that the one on Westover “has been broken for 10 years.”
“The DPW (Department of Public Works) doesn’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “If you can’t repair it, get some people who can. There has been one lane blocked off for years.”
Residents also complained of raw sewage continually backing up into their homes and the effects of the damage to their properties and impact to their quality of life.
Banker confirmed that the sewer system is above capacity, adding that the borough is being proactive in addressing capacity issues with the other communities utilizing the sewer plant due to pending new housing requirements.
“We are actively talking with all towns; each town has a responsibility,” said Mayor John Kelley, noting that Essex Fells, Fairfield, North Caldwell, West Caldwell, Roseland, Caldwell share the plant’s usage.
Banker added that more than 50 percent of infiltration is “illegally connected sump pumps, roof drains and down spouts.”
“We can’t help people who don’t help themselves by overloading the treatment plant,” said Banker. “The system is designed to handle 4.5 million gallons a day, and we are really utilizing 4.7 million gallons a day. However, when there is wet weather usage has exceeded 15 million gallons a day—three times the limit.”
Banker also introduced a new ordinance on first reading that would extract the sewer charges from the current property tax bills and in order to provide a separate bill for sewer usage. He noted that the plan is now to require tax-exempt properties to pay their full share of sewer usage.
According to Banker, several factors that led to this proposal.
First, the municipality is at the end of a five-year contract with Essex Fells for water. Banker noted that the contract requires a 4-percent increase annually and the he believes other suppliers will be able to offer a more favorable rate.
Secondly, Banker said the previous administration (in 2017-2018) authorized capital projects with “notes” only, meaning that the borough was paying only interest rather than both interest and principal.
Banker explained that he recently found a favorable rate of 1.6 percent, whereby the borough can now pay toward the principal as well as the interest due to the community’s Aa rating.
As per the 2018 Administrator’s Report, there were 87 properties that were tax exempt. By now billing sewer charges to those-exempt properties, Banker said the residential homeowner would see an annual decrease of approximately $114.
Currently, if a tax-exempt user exceeds 100,000 gallons per quarter, Banker said the user is charged a “modest excess sewer charge, which does not cover their costs.”
According to IRS topic 503, the sewer bill is no longer attached to the property tax bill, the charge for the new sewer billing will no longer be tax-deductible, as it does not come under the umbrella of property taxes. Banker did not address the effect that the separate sewer billing would have on senior citizens who have qualified financially to have their property taxes frozen.
Questioning the process of the proposed bonding of $1.25 million discussed during the Aug. 6 council meeting, Resident Sue Ann Penna said this is “an exorbitant amount of debt for the taxpayers to incur.”
“Because of that, voters should have the absolute right to decide if they want to be straddled with this massive debt burden,” said Penna. “If you are going to put the responsibility of paying back the debt, along with having to pay the interest on the debt, you owe it to the taxpayers to allow them to have a say in this. There should be no borrowing without voter approval.”
She added that the “NJ State Constitution, Article 8, Section 2, Paragraph 3 specifically states that ‘NJ shall not borrow money without voter approval,’” and that this should be “no different for the taxpayers of Caldwell, who will be on the hook to repay it.”
“Every town has the right to put the question of borrowing on the ballot, if they choose,” she said. “If you really want to be an advocate for the taxpayer, you will push for a resolution that states that the Borough of Caldwell cannot borrow money without voter approval.”
Banker responded that municipalities are “under no obligation to do this.”
“It is a state requirement only, however, municipalities can do this voluntarily.”
In his comments on the issue, Councilman Pasquale Capozzoli stated that he “agrees that there should be a resolution to put this on the ballot.”
In other news, at the request of Councilwoman Christine Schmidt, members of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) gave a presentation at the start of the meeting about an upcoming walk to be held in Verona Park on Oct. 20.
Rosemary Gabbe, a board member of AFSP, and West Caldwell resident Mary Davidson informed the public about the event’s efforts to raise funds and promote awareness on behalf of the West Essex Out of the Darkness Walk.
Gabbe noted that suicide was the second leading cause of death for 15-to-24 year olds in 2017. All funds raised through the event will be used to support research, advocacy, outreach and support for suicide prevention.
Individuals and teams can register at afsp.org/westessex.
During Tuesday’s consent agenda, Banker introduced a resolution that would consider making the entire borough an “area in need of rehabilitation.”
According to Banker, this would provide an opportunity to establish a five-year tax abatement for residential owners, thereby “encouraging existing property owners to upgrade their property” without a penalty of an immediate tax increase for improving their properties. Commercial property owners would see a graduated tax increase over the five-year period, he said.
Councilman Jonathan Lace updated the public about the borough’s new website. After considering five different proposals, the borough selected a firm to create a new and improved website that should be “live in about a month,” Lace said.
According to Lace, photos highlighting the community’s downtown, parks, historical sites and schools will be featured on the site in addition to multiple new links from drop-down menus in order to give viewers access to community information.
Council President Francis Rodgers also reported on Tuesday that the Caldwell Historical Preservation Commission intends to conduct a site survey for the first time since 1986.
The next Caldwell Borough Council meeting will be held on Sept. 17.