CALDWELL, NJ - The sixth annual 'Meet the Mayors' breakfast provided business leaders, mayors and state political leaders an opportunity to engage in dialogue on important issues facing shared concerns among municipalities in Essex County.
Topics ranging from the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), which is now managed by the courts, to the transportation trust fund and pension reform were discussed, among other topics.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. opened the conference with introductory remarks. He spoke about the fiscal health of the County, noting its AA2+ bond rating with anticipation of a AA1 rating by the end of the year.
Thanking Governor Chris Christie for his support, Senate President Steve Sweeney for his leadership and NJ Commissioner of Community Affairs Charles Richman’s guidance, he attributed Essex County’s success in large part to the support he’s received from his State colleagues.
Mayor Ted Bourke of Millburn shared the concerns of other Essex County mayors at the conference on several issues and acknowledged the responsibilities that all townships must shoulder for its residents. Though he was relieved that Millburn/Short Hills wasn’t unique in managing certain issues, he was pleased that the township seemed to be more “out in front” on some topics, like shared services and budgetary issues.
The mayor was hoping to garner more insight with regard to affordable housing legislation, stating that additional guidance is required to establish proper planning. Commissioner Chuck Richman of the NJ Department of Community Affairs shared his sentiments.
“It’s a challenge. We would hope that the courts, because we no longer have the authority to deal with it, have a rational basis for what they propose for a town,” said Richman.
The 22 Essex County mayors convened at Crane’s Mill, a retirement community in Caldwell, NJ, to discuss common concerns facing municipalities. There were four panelists that offered their thoughts on current political affairs among the mayors; NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assemblyman David Rible of New Jersey’s 30th Legislative District, Commissioner Charles Richman of the NJ Department of Community Affairs and Michael Darcy, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. Mayor of West Caldwell and current President of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, Joe Tempesta Jr., moderated the Q and A session.
Senator Sweeney addressed the mayors’ concerns about the transportation trust fund and its effect on communities. Sweeney believes a $2 million plan is necessary to continue the $250,000 (on average) sum that the transportation trust fund provides to all Essex County municipalities each year for roads and bridges. Sweeney also emphasized that the action the state takes must be large enough to deal with the priorities of all New Jersey regions.
“I really feel that a bipartisan assembly can actually deal with this [issue], but it needs to be for a longer period of time,” said Sweeney.
The progress that the state has made on regionalization of emergency and other shared services was also discussed at length. Deputy Mayor of Montclair, Bob Russo, commented that the Montclair-Glen Ridge fire service has served as the model for shared services in the state and he hopes that it [shared services] can go beyond where it is today.
Sweeney saw shared services as an opportunity to reduce costs for every community. Commissioner Richman supported shared services for additional reasons. He stated that services can and should be regionalized to provide support neighboring municipalities regardless of borders.
“I am haunted by the Seton Hall fire  where three students passed away and others (12) were hurt. There is a firehouse in Newark closer to Seton Hall then there was in West Orange. If we had a broader dispatch system, I don’t know if those kids could have been saved, but I know firefighters could have been there sooner,” said Richman.
Tempesta added that sometimes sharing services in certain areas could be challenging because of major philosophical differences.
“For example, in zoning, Mayor Dassing (Caldwell) has seven to eight story buildings, we have nothing in West Caldwell over two stories,” said Tempesta. “I think that is why you do not see as much sharing [in some cases] between towns”.
Every town has its own character, which is defined by its residents. Though shared services in cases of emergency services may be viable, in other areas of governance it would be more difficult.
Mayor John Duthie of Roseland expressed his concerns regarding affordable housing requirements. Commissioner Richman explained the advantages of Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs) and how it can assist neighboring municipalities meet state legislated requirements.
An RCA is a mutualistic relationship between two communities. For example, when a community needs to meet a required fair share amount of affordable housing and does not have enough vacant land to build it, that community can rehabilitate housing in a neighboring community and use it for their affordable housing credits. In other words, municipalities can share its obligations and not necessarily shoulder its responsibilities solely within its borders.
Courts are beginning to look at not just an individual town's fair share of affordable housing but expanding its requirements to a regional scope.
Mayor Lester Taylor of East Orange told panelists that there is a concern in his town about water quality due to distribution from outdated pipes that have survived beyond its recommended length of time. Senator Sweeney answered by saying that none of the citizens, despite wanting cleaner water, would support higher water rates to replace the distribution infrastructure and recommended alternative solutions such as the use of local filters. However, if the situation became threatening, there would have to be more strategic solutions.
Following the Q and A session, Sweeney said, “The next step is actually to follow through with the things we talked about. We are working on a lot of those issues, and nothing comes really quickly when you are dealing with government, but we are making progress”.