By Mayor Angie Devanney
It is my privilege to present the 2020 State of the Township address. I want to take a moment to recognize this historic moment. For the first time in history, Berkeley Heights has a majority of women elected on its governing body.
It’s hard to believe that one year ago, I was sworn in as Berkeley Heights first elected female Mayor. It came after a year of hard work of listening to residents - going door to door, engaging with residents about their concerns and hearing their vision of what they wanted Berkeley Heights to be. I knew the upcoming year was not going to be easy; we needed some fundamental changes in how government operated, communicated and delivered services. Residents were ready for positive change and a local government that truly listened to them, operated in a more transparent manner and treated everyone respectfully - while putting the overall needs of the Township and its residents above any political agenda.
I was acutely aware of the many challenges we faced, but we quickly learned that what we knew was just the tip of the iceberg. For example:
- Managing the construction of a new $32 million municipal complex on the heels of the discovery of nearly $1 million in unsuitable soil.
- Ensuring that six planned redevelopment projects imposed upon the Township by court-mandated housing needs would remain on track, since their revenue is necessary to pay for our capital needs and commitments - including our municipal complex debt.
- Managing a workforce that was under intense pressure to deliver more with a budget under constant scrutiny.
- And, deciding how to deal with a recycling crisis which more than doubled our costs due to overseas markets beyond our control.
And these are just some of the issues in the public eye that posed challenges.
What I was not aware of was how much administrative control and oversight was missing in how we spent tax dollars. At this point, I knew we had made the right choice in appointing Liza Viana as our Business Administrator. It was going to take a team of hard-working individuals ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work on years of challenges. Liza was the right choice to help assemble that team, which would include the entire Council, department heads and the necessary professionals, and make the positive changes desperately needed.
Responsibly managing our tax dollars by taking significant steps in both the short- and long-term to get our fiscal house in order was - and is - our top priority. We fixed open-ended professional services contracts with no spending cap, annual agreements that had not been renewed, and various payments for services not authorized by the governing body. Today, I am proud to say that with the help of our new CFO, Eugenia Poulos, these additional measures have been implemented to put us on a better financial and managerial path forward including:
- We refinanced the township’s debt and had a bond sale, which resulted in roughly $3.8 million in savings and has enabled us to make a substantial financial commitment to our aging infrastructure.
- We have committed a minimum of $750,000 every year in capital to pave roads for the next 20 years - that does not include any grant money or additional funding we may allocate in any given year, as needs arise.
- We have finally undertaken a $100,000 drainage study of the most severe part of town, which will give us the blueprint to address repairs to our stormwater system that has been neglected since it was built.
- We are accurately tracking all grant and other monies coming in and out of the Township’s coffers, in a way that is easily audited.
- We are ensuring that all professionals provide estimates for work to be done for specific projects, with Council now authorizing that work ahead of the job.
- We have biweekly meetings with our department heads.
- We now have a formal shared service agreement with Union County on our salt dome, which will bring in over one million dollars in revenue over the next 20 years.
As I took office last January, we quickly learned that our Department of Public Works was facing an unexpected crisis and the morale of its workforce was at an all-time low. By working diligently and with the department, not against it, we quickly and fairly dealt with potentially crippling issues while putting in place a structure that made our employees accountable and appreciated. I thank the Council for supporting us during this time. This department and its employees are now flourishing. The days of storm debris going uncollected for months or dangerous tree limbs left dangling over playgrounds where our children play have been replaced by an efficient, effective DPW that prioritizes its work to address emergent issues.
Thanks to our DPW shared services agreement with Union County, we have truly been able to do more with less, while empowering our employees to strive to be the best they can with future opportunities for promotion.
- Our experienced leaders at our DPW are successfully managing the day-to-day operations at significant cost-savings to the township without having a full-time Director.
- Because of the specific person in charge of this department - a man the employees know, respect, and who empowers them to lead - this department is operating better than ever.
- We are able to utilize County equipment and resources to tackle projects like paving the driveway to lower Columbia and Park Avenue, and the constantly overflowing storm basin situation on Hillcrest, to name a few.
- Employees have access to additional skills training from the County.
- More efficient spring chipping program, quicker leaf collection, access to County bucket truck for more tree trimming, transport our own garbage rather than hiring an outside vendor, county pick up of leaves on county roadways saving manpower.
Today, I am happy to report that Berkeley Heights is on a solid foundation to move forward. By instituting administrative fiscal management, we now have a system of detailed, proper and by-the-book record keeping. Pushing off principal debt payments for tomorrow’s generations has been replaced by a solid plan to pay down our capital debt. Neglect of our deteriorating infrastructure has been replaced by a plan which dedicates monies to these efforts every year for the next 20 years. Missed grant opportunities to improve our community have been replaced by more administrative oversight and a Grants Committee looking to ensure all opportunities are explored.
We are doing more in all of our departments that is saving us money:
- Our sewer department is televising and cleaning the pipes that have been neglected for decades.
- We eliminated the garbage hauling shared service with the BOE, which was costing us too much time and not earning us enough money.
- Instead of outsourcing stormwater basin repair and replacement, our DPW is doing it internally.
- In 2019, our sewer crew rebuilt a wall around the waste water plant at $45,000 less than the outside contractor quote.
- The skilled hires we are making in our sewer, engineering, and construction offices are handling a multitude of tasks to support various departments as needed. This allows us to get more work done with fewer employees.
- Last month, Council approved moving our emergency dispatch services to Union County, saving the township hundreds of thousands of dollars in personnel costs each year, as well as offering state-of-the-art technology the township could never afford on its own, to ensure quick response times.
Additionally, a government that expected people to come to them for information has been replaced by one that works hand-in-hand with our award-winning Communications Committee to open up government and communicate to residents through many different methods. We are increasing our committees and volunteers, to get more residents engaged in coming up with solutions to our town’s challenges. Our hard-working, small team of township employees are respected, valued, and appreciated beyond words. Lastly, our residents are respected for expressing their views and opinions.
But our long- and short-term recreational needs remain unresolved. I believe each of us on this dais has run with the promise of improving or increasing our playing fields and passive recreational areas for all to enjoy, particularly as our community grows. Last January, I called for all recreational groups to come together to develop a comprehensive plan. Recent developments and conversations revolving around years of unused grant dollars have reinforced why this plan remains a priority. The time has come. We must make an investment in the recreational needs of Berkeley Heights. Today, I am calling on Council to approve the development of a comprehensive recreational Master Plan in coordination with the town’s overall Master Plan, which is underway. I will also ask all partners to make a financial investment to make this plan a reality. These partners include the Township, the Recreation Commission, the PAL, Berkeley Heights Youth Soccer Club, and others.
Once we have a roadmap firmly in hand -- to help kickstart our commitment and improve recreational opportunities, I proposed that the township embark in a 2% /30 year Green Acres loan that will help to pay for DEP permitting and engineering to kick start the drainage improvements to jump start the Peppertown Park project. While we are always mindful of the bottom line and being responsible with taxpayer’s funds, the Township also must make a commitment to passive and active recreation as our community will witness hundreds of new residents over the next several years.
As you can see, we have come a long way in a year. At times, this year seems to have been 5. But, our work is just beginning. While we on the dais don't always agree, we have created a culture of respect for each other’s opinions. Thank you, Pete, Jeanne, Alvaro, Susan, Manny and Stephen, for having the courage to put the needs of Berkeley Heights above any political agenda when it truly mattered. I look forward to continuing this practice with Gentiana. Thank you to all of our wonderful volunteers who help make this Town an amazing community.
2020 will be full of new challenges that will need innovative, collaborative solutions. Together, I have confidence we will continue to make a difference and make Berkeley Heights a place we are proud to call home.
Mayor Devanney and the Council also welcomed new Council member Gentiana Brahimaj, who was sworn in at the beginning of the reorganization meeting, and congratulated Council member Manny Couto for winning a second three-year term. Previous Council President Alvaro Medeiros was voted in again to serve as president, while Councilwoman Susan Poage is vice president.
The Council also approved the appointment of various professionals who serve Berkeley Heights, including: the township attorney; public agency compliance officer; fund commissioner; municipal prosecutor; public defender; chief of the Berkeley Heights Volunteer Fire Department; township auditor; bond counsel; redevelopment counsel; tax attorney; affordable housing attorney; labor attorney; insurance broker; township planner; the firm to provide engineering services related to waste water treatment; a firm to provide real estate appraisal and consulting services and more.