CALDWELL, NJ — After six months serving as Mayor of Caldwell, John Kelley has reflected on some recent accomplishments as well as what the future holds for Caldwell under Kelley’s leadership.
As a certified public accountant with public and industry experience, Kelley said his accounting background has been useful in dealing with many of the financial transactions that take place in the borough—“such as contracts, purchase orders, ledger account review and, most importantly, in gaining a more thorough understanding of the complexities of the budget process within municipal government,” he said.
Due to a change in his professional life, Kelley did not seek re-election after serving a term on the council in 2011, but noted that his previous experience on the council has been useful “in both the campaign and now as mayor.”
Kelley and his wife have been active in the community for the last 20 years since moving to Caldwell from Houston, TX, where Kelley’s 94-year-old mother still resides. They are current members of the Caldwell Community Center, where they both enjoy the high-intensity cycling classes.
The mayor noted that his wife and two adult children, Johnny and Meredith, have been both excited and extremely supportive of Kelley’s desire to serve his community.
“I was asked by friends and neighbors [to run for mayor], and it was a bi-partisan request,” said Kelley. “Many believed there needed to be a change and so did I. The decision was a difficult one because of the demands on my time and sacrifices I knew would be required, but [my wife] Susan was supportive and has remained so.”
Kelley said that many people he met during [his team’s] canvassing of the seven districts expressed frustration and that he knew those people would have high expectations of him as mayor.
Recapping the time spent in office so far, Kelley said he is “satisfied with the progress made thus far, but [has] a better appreciation of the rather long list of tasks ahead.”
Although Caldwell is a small community, we have some of the same challenges that much larger municipalities are faced with such as the management of our police, public works and borough employees,” he said. “Having a community center and a Wastewater Treatment plant just adds to the responsibility of governing.”
Following the 2018 election, Kelley said one of his first priorities was to “identify candidates for replacing the borough attorney and administrator positions, which are critical for having an effective administration.”
“Having worked now with [current borough attorney] Vince Nuzzi for six months and having spent a great deal of time learning from our new administrator Tom Banker, I am very confident that those two decisions were perfect,” said Kelley. “Vince brings a level of expertise and composure for which the governing body, employees and residents have expressed their sincere gratitude. Vince has a vast wealth of knowledge and yet he recognizes and knows when to bring in an expert for a legal area that is not his specialty.
“Tom also brings an incredible amount of experience and brings innovative approaches to some of the problems that Caldwell has struggled with in the past. I cannot emphasize enough how fortunate we are to have both individuals.”
One thing Kelley is looking to improve in the second half of the year is the length of the bi-monthly council meetings.
“In an effort to be receptive and open to all our residents who come forward, I’ve been remiss about imposing time limits,” he said. “This is something I definitely need to improve.”
Among the successes of 2019 thus far, Kelley said the most obvious has been the beautification of Bloomfield Avenue.
“Where previous volunteer efforts have foundered, we have reached a shared-services agreement with Verona for watering and feeding the flower baskets at a low cost, which will keep the baskets flowering all the way into the early autumn,” he said.
Kelley was also pleased with the relationships being developed with the administration at Caldwell University, where the borough recently established an internship program that the mayor said has “created a long-sought-after connection with the student body.”
Thanks to Nuzzi and another legal expert, Kelley also said the borough is making strides toward meeting requirements for the Affordable Housing issue to bring Caldwell into conformity with the law and to prevent the borough from being “prey to builder’s remedy lawsuits.”
Additionally, Kelley said he governing body has been “actively seeking solutions to problems at our Wastewater plant.”
“In so doing, we will have a better understanding of our stormwater issues,” he said, adding that the borough recently received a $20,000 grant for stormwater programs thanks to the hard work of the Caldwell Environmental Commission.
Now that the Caldwell Community Center membership is on the rise and the library has fully recovered from last year’s destructive storm, several other projects are currently underway. According to Kelley, these include a PSE&G energy audit that will “save taxpayer dollars by increasing the energy efficiency of our municipal complex” and a detailed parking survey that includes “actively seeking solutions for our parking garage.”
Starting this past week, the borough has incorporated into the parking study the analysis of parking needs and demands around the Smull lot for the purpose of determining the merit of constructing a multi-level parking garage.
Looking ahead, Kelley presented the following list of six major goals that the governing body and has established by leveraging the expertise of the borough administrator:
(1) Formal sewer contracts with the communities with whom Caldwell shares the Wastewater plant;
(2) Combining the Caldwell and West Caldwell police departments as shared services;
(3) Rehabilitation, redevelopment and resolution of affordable housing;
(4) Establishing the Caldwell Community Center as an income-producing utility so that taxpayers will no longer be funding it;
(5) Downtown revitalization and parking; and
(6) Moving Borough Hall to the current location of the Post Office and the facility at 14 Park Avenue.
“To do everything we want to do; we cannot do it alone,” said Kelley. “The flower baskets on the avenue are the perfect example of working with our neighboring communities to accomplish our goals while keeping costs down.
“Shared services are not just a ‘nice idea,’ but it is an initiative coming from Trenton, asking towns across the state to limit costs through shared services. We are already working closely with our neighbors with our recreation department and the Wastewater plant, so it makes sense to look at other options, such as our police department.”
Kelley said that one of the goals is to merge the Caldwell and West Caldwell police departments by January of 2020 and that any positions would be reduced through attrition, as several members of the force are already close to retirement.
“This action can significantly reduce the current cost to taxpayers of our police department to the tune of about $1 million,” said Kelley.
Addressing the upcoming municipal budget, the mayor said he is also moving forward with an innovation as it affects the sewer usage and fees
“The budget is forthcoming,” he said. “Thanks to the innovative solutions presented by Tom Banker, we are on the path to significant savings. This year, we will have to increase taxes to do the work we have to do. It looks like we will be on par with West Caldwell’s increase. Unfortunately, we have assumed a number of large expenses due to deferred maintenance.”
Kelley said one innovation he is hoping to implement this year is a sewer fee as the borough moves toward “creating a self-sustaining sewer utility that will be supported by user rates rather than taxpayer dollars.”
“This is significant because historically (and currently), properties that are tax-exempt have not been paying for their use of the sewer system because that revenue was taken from the general property tax (from which they are exempt), which has been picked up by property taxpayers,” said Kelley. “In Caldwell, that's one-third of the entire 1.15 square miles of our borough. Making sure those properties also paid for their use of the sewer plant would help lower taxes for everyone. Implementation is planned for the fourth quarter of 2019.”
According to Kelley, many residents have attended council meetings to address the effects of the water systems and the impact to their properties. Kelley and his administration are on course for addressing these deficiencies.
“As you can see, we have been replacing our old water mains throughout the borough,” he said. “This should assure adequate water pressure, which is especially critical in case of fire.
“We have two interconnected issues: stormwater and the wastewater plant. Stormwater is an issue that [according to current climate models] is only going to increase due to increased amounts of rain.”
Kelley noted that the municipalities of Caldwell, West Caldwell, Roseland, Fairfield, North Caldwell and Essex Fells all use the Caldwell Sewer Plant for sewage collection and processing. Last year, he said, the borough received a notice from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that the plant was at 95-percent capacity and needed immediate remediation to prevent a moratorium.
According to Kelley, the sewer contractor from Mott McDonald informed the borough that the sewer system has several problems—including cracked pipes that allow rainwater to come into the sewer line; sediment buildup that narrows the flow capacity; residents illegally hooking up sump pumps to the sewer line, which exacerbates the flow into the sewer plant; and more. According to Kelley, any time the West Essex area gets a significant rain, “some of that water goes into the sewer system, causing back-flows in some homes.”
“Caldwell is in the process of getting new sewer contracts signed with each of our participating towns because for years those towns have essentially all been operating on the honor system,” he said. “With affordable housing mandates that require new construction of units, the near future flow into the sewer plant will only increase. That's why earlier this year, Caldwell authorized an Inflow and Infiltration study (INI) of the entire system…
“Once the new sewer contacts are in hand, the participating towns can then begin the process of getting the necessary upgrades based on a more accurate analysis of the total use/bill for each town.”
Kelley also noted that the borough council recently voted to authorize a contract with Topology to work toward an area-wide rehabilitation designation.
Another area of concern for the borough’s infrastructure, he said, is the rehabilitation of the parking deck.
“We have explored a number of different approaches to the parking deck,” said Kelley. “In trying to find a balance between cost and durability, we will be replacing the entire surface with poured concrete. Pending council approval, we are planning on starting this immediately after summer camp ends at the Community Center.
“Grants are few and far between. We are working to include lighting on the lower level in the PSE&G energy saver audit and program which will bring 70 percent in savings for any fixtures they install.”
Addressing the issue of mandated affordable housing, the borough is continuing efforts to find an equitable solution that is fair to the community.
“Given the amount of multi-family homes and apartment buildings in Caldwell, the 250 number is not one we are likely to see,” said Kelley. “The borough has hired a COAH attorney who is well versed in the process. The attorney, Michael Edwards, is working together with Phil Abramson of Topology in order to approve existing plans so that we can close out our existing COAH requirements. If they are approved by council this June, we can go before the court for our Fairness Hearing, which will finally put us in compliance.”
Moving forward, Kelley hopes to gain support of all Caldwell constituents after winning the recent election by only a small number of votes.
“I think that this is already happening,” he said. “Residents are seeing that we are working hard…The message that I need to get across here is that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ We have a lot to do and the ambitious and innovative changes we are working on will not happen overnight.”