In her State of the Town message last week, the mayor touted Westfield’s many qualities and shared her roadmap for how our town can continue to thrive in the future while overcoming challenges endemic to many New Jersey communities: downtown development; budget management; and infrastructure maintenance and improvement.
These challenges are not new and were, in fact, the focus of her campaign back in 2017. Now, two years into her administration, it’s reasonable for residents to begin to evaluate the mayor’s strategy in addressing these long-term challenges and to expect some progress. The State of the Town message provided a glowing report card, but the reality is that aside from additional, redundant studies, little progress has been made on the issues that matter most to Westfield residents.
Most would agree that revitalizing the downtown is a top concern, and, in fairness to the mayor, it is not something that can be resolved quickly. We are in the midst of an economic realignment that challenges the business model of brick and mortar retail stores in an increasingly online marketplace. But after two years, it’s fair to ask, when is it time to move past studies and reliance on a revised Master Plan, and when is it time to implement new policy and see results?
The State of the Town speech mentions that 23 new businesses have opened over the past two years. While that statistic is true, it doesn’t paint the full picture of what has been a decidedly disappointing effort so far by the mayor to turn around the downtown. Yes, new stores have opened, but many were planned and approved under the previous administration. In addition, the vacancy rate worse than it was in December 2017 prior to the mayor taking office. Recent vacancies include such high-profile retailers such as Teresa’s, Lucky Brand Jeans, Vine Ripe, Victoria’s Secret and, of course, the Rialto.
In April 2017, a downtown task force report was developed that contained dozens of recommendations for how to revitalize the downtown. Unfortunately, the mayor decided to ignore these recommendations in favor of yet more studies contained in the revised Master Plan. Westfield residents deserve an honest assessment of progress made in the downtown. It’s fine to highlight the positives, but the truth is that the downtown business environment has not materially improved, we have over 20 vacant stores at the time of this writing, and it’s time to move past the planning phase and implement the kind of initiatives that will turn our vacancy rate around.
The mayor also touted a budget that included a zero percent municipal tax increase, a healthy $9.5 million surplus and record 20-mile road re-pavement plan. Of course, every taxpayer is going to be happy to see their municipal tax rate hold steady (which does not include the county and school tax), as long as they understand that it wasn’t achieved by any budget belt-tightening. In fact, the budget has increased 10% in the last two years. And this increased spending wasn’t attained by any substantial increase in tax ratables. It was achieved by a steady degradation of the municipal budget surplus over two years from approximately $14.5 million to the current $9.5 million.
Over time, a lower surplus can impact our credit rating, increase bond costs and limit our ability to respond to economic downturns or local challenges like Hurricane Irene or Superstorm Sandy. While FEMA did reimburse many Irene or Sandy-related costs, those weather events did lead the town to invest in improved police vehicles, such as SUVs, which were better equipped to navigate through storm-damaged areas. The town also installed generators on public buildings to build power redundancy in case of outages. A healthy surplus gives the town the flexibility to make those investments when needed. When combining a smaller surplus with a budget that is actually growing year to year, we’re in danger of putting our town budget in unnecessary risk should the trend continue.
It is certainly the mayor’s prerogative to follow her own fiscal philosophy. We just believe it’s important that taxpayers understand the potential consequences of the town’s budgetary policy and ask the mayor to be more transparent about the decisions she makes and the accomplishes she highlights. For example, she noted in her speech that 20 miles of roads were repaved this year, which every resident would agree is a welcome achievement. However, she failed to credit Elizabethtown Gas for repaving half of those roads through their gas line replacement program.
With regard to town parks and playing fields, the mayor seems to be following the same strategy she is pursuing in the downtown: disregard thoroughly considered, well-vetted plans to improve parks and fields and commence a new round of studies that serve only to delay much-needed improvements. The previous administration developed a Tamaques Park improvement plan that included a multi-use, lighted turf field along with an additional 100 parking spaces. Unfortunately, she chose to discard it in February 2018, and there has not been a single improvement on any field or on any court in the past two years.
Meanwhile, in 2016 and 2017, the town was able to refurbish the tennis courts in Tamaques, the softball field in Memorial Park and the playground in Mindowaskin Park. It’s well past time that in 2020 the mayor puts plans into action so that our children and families have the fields they deserve.
We all have a stake in Westfield’s success, and we all share the mayor’s vision of Westfield being a destination town with a vibrant downtown, great schools and beautiful open spaces. But the State of the Town speech was long on platitudes, short on transparency and even shorter on results. The 2017 election campaign is well behind us, and the next one is a long two years away. It’s time to turn election promises into results, to turn style into substance, and to turn plans into action.
Westfield Town Republican Committee