It is great to witness Township residents returning to some normalcy. We were able to send off our Governor Livingston High School seniors with a beautiful graduation ceremony and organized youth sports have returned! As a parent of a senior and a baseball/softball mom, I certainly feel July has been a tremendous step forward in our recovery from the devastation the Covid-19 pandemic has had on our community.
Municipal Complex: I am pleased to announce that the Township is moving forward with Phase 2 of the Municipal Complex project. After extensive negotiations and conversations with the Principals of the companies involved including myself, John Epifano - owner of EPIC (developer), Ted Domuracki- principal MAST Construction (construction manager) and Anthony Iovino - principal Arcari & Iovino (architect), we were able to amend the 2017 Redevelopment Agreement that will create more accountability as the substantial completion date for the building is slated for October 23, 2020.
Unsuitable soils, weather conditions and design changes all contributed to a delay of the project. As a result, the Township introduced an ordinance that authorizes (not spends/borrows) up to $3.5 million to finish the building that will house new recreation, senior spaces, a state-of-the-art library, state-compliant police department and offices plus meeting space for community groups. The bond ordinance will not increase taxes per se, as that debt was incurred in 2018 and 2019. Interest rates are significantly lower due to Covid-19 (***please see below for further explanation***) and redevelopment project PILOT monies pledged to offset the cost are moving along, relying on the assumption that 4 to 7 redevelopment projects are built.
This final push for completion may have some wondering—what is the big dirt pile on Park Avenue near the police station?
This is a clever idea, as a result of the Principals meetings, to dry out soils excavated from the new construction area and to reuse them for backfill, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. As chief executives of our respective organizations in an alliance to deliver a community gem to the residents, we remain resolute in our commitment to weekly meetings and constant communication. (Click here for an in-depth explainer of the project and the path forward, issued in July 2020)
Click here to watch TAPinto Berkeley Heights’ weekly "Catchup With Mayor Devanney," in which she talks about progress being made on the municipal complex
Covid-19: Concurrently, I remain steadfast in managing the Covid-19 crisis for our Town. As of the time of publishing, the Township has only 6 long-term care cases, and 4 community cases. (July 29 update: 0 active cases in BH.) For those traveling out of New Jersey to a “hot spot” state, please consider being tested for Covid-19 upon return to Berkeley Heights, in addition to voluntary quarantining for 14 days. Masks, social distancing, proper sanitizing and respect for each other is greatly needed as we are working diligently to prevent or mitigate another spike. This also applies when traveling to the Jersey shore. Please adhere to all Covid-19 health protocols. Our Office of Emergency Management and staff are working hard to provide support to our local businesses. We recently helped many businesses navigate through a grant application of up to $20,000 through federal CARES funds administered by Union County to offset 3 months of rent and utilities. Be assured, I will remain unwavering and vigilant in my duty to ensure the health and safety of our wonderful residents against this horrific virus. And we stand prepared for a second wave if (likely when) it arrives.
Economy: The Township is truly unique in New Jersey in that we will emerge from this pandemic with a strong local economy.*** Our recent bond sale yielded a .382% (less than 1) interest rate on the first sale, with a $389,015 premium, and .446% on the second with a $3,780 premium. Premium money will go directly to the reserve for payment of debt service on the municipal complex.*** In addition, a gourmet coffee shop and likely a specialty bakery will open their store fronts in downtown Berkeley Heights, and the Connell Company stands prepared to invest approximately $400 million dollars in the development of its park into a live, work, play area for decades and generations to come.
But we must not rest on our laurels.
Bond Rating: We have a plan to build our reserves, which is our pathway to a AAA bond rating. Our recent bond rating analysis lauded our efforts but shortcut the upgrade due to the unstable national and state Covid economy. Building reserves in a pandemic may be unprecedented, but I am committed to pushing Berkeley Heights forward into 2021 and beyond -- stronger than ever. In our recent budgeting, we conservatively estimated the revenue for construction and sewer connection fees. The excess will be deposited into our reserves. As one of my first initiatives of my administration, we updated our sewer connection fee ordinance earlier this year, which will generate $3.1 million from 4 of our 7 primary redevelopment projects - and more revenue from the other remaining 3 projects. I anticipate we will begin to see this revenue in late 2021. I am also committed to working to increase fees for construction and engineering, as well as revising tax maps fees. All these fees will help to build our surplus and bond rating.
Redevelopment Projects: The Township’s affordable housing (as per the 2017 settlement agreement) redevelopment projects are taking on new life. The old Berkeley Florist site on the west end of Springfield Avenue improved its design and increased green space. Stratton House - the old Kings property - will add the vacant parcel adjacent to Delicious Heights, creating 20 new commuter parking spots in its deck for Township residents. The former Mondelli property is moving forward with the Council approving a park maintenance agreement. Additionally, the town received approval from New Jersey Transit (NJT) to expand the green space to the NJT right-of-way near the train tracks on Plainfield Avenue. For our financial health, to manage our long-term debt responsibly and to grow our downtown area, the Township is laboring - arduously - to move these projects across the goal line.
Committees: Our community volunteers have not slowed down since Covid, we just “zoomed” a lot! It was critical to keep our Senior Advisory Board (SAB) meeting and passionately discussing the five prongs of its mission: 1) social 2) recreation 3) education 4) communication 5) health for our older population. Per the directive of this robust senior group, I record a weekly call for BH seniors with local government updates who are simply not comfortable leaving home during this health crisis. If you would like to be added to the list, please call 908-464-2700 and use the extension for the Clerk’s office. Or, you can e-mail BHPD Sergeant Bill Ives at email@example.com.
We also launched the Truth & Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) committee, and they are off to a great start by installing its new officers, crafting a formal mission and developing short- and long-term goals to ensure that Berkeley Heights is an inclusive and welcoming town. The Economic Development Committee (EDC) is picking up where they left off, launching a survey for business owners to provide input into our Master Plan. The EDC seeks to create a thriving downtown area while working in concert with larger projects like Connell that will provide an entertainment zone with uses such as duck pin bowling and a brewery. The Mayor’s Youth Council just kicked off this week, under the guidance of student Ritika Sinha-Chaudhuri, and are organizing our student population to become involved community advocates in our local government! The DBC, Communications, Veteran’s, Historic Preservation and Grants committee, Recycling Taskforce and the Environmental Commission under the leadership of our Township Council members have continued their hard work also as well as our Rec Commission.
#BHStrong: Our town is a bustle. I look forward to a Council presentation on the West Side drainage study (Emerson, Orchard, Mercier, etc.) performed by Neglia Engineering, which will examine how to improve water runoff in roughly one-third of the Township. The light on Snyder Avenue is on its way but fell victim to Covid and slower delivery and manufacturing times; anticipated deliver date is now end of August. Finally, THANK YOU to my staff. No one could imagine entering 2020 with the enormity of the tasks and challenges your local government had to meet amidst a global health pandemic. Each department from the Clerk’s office to DPW, sewer, finance, construction, police, engineering, library and recreation ensured that you received the services you deserve without jeopardizing their health or yours. At the helm, making it all possible, is our Township Administrator, Liza Viana. Kudos to our own local Wonder Woman for keeping it all moving smoothly!
I truly look forward to providing these monthly updates as some normalcy has set in. As always, I am here to help. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can assist you or Township Administrator Liza Viana at email@example.com.
Enjoy these warm days of summer and please stay safe!