State of the Township Address
January 2, 2024
By Mayor Angie Devanney
It’s truly hard to believe that it is now 2024. The year went by so quickly and I am happy to report with so many wonderful projects happening around town.
I am excited for our future, Berkeley Heights. I am truly grateful to be your Mayor and to serve this community. A leader cannot be successful unless she is surrounded by colleagues who make her job personally rewarding and a staff that feels more like family. To the Council people and Town Hall family—you have my genuine gratitude.
The governing body and governing bodies that came before us have worked hard to create the future that is now before us. Several years ago, I called it a renaissance. Today, I am honored to call it our reality. In part, I can attribute this to the level of outside funding we have been able to lobby for and receive. These efforts have been like no other time in Berkeley Heights' fiscal history.
In June, the Township Administrator, Liza Viana, Councilwoman Kingsley, and I took that journey to Washington DC to emphasize our community's needs and the sewer plant's failing infrastructure. My recent phone call with Congressman Kean indicated that 2 million dollars will be set aside for our Town in the federal budget and now we await passage of the full budget. With the assistance of State Senate President Scutari, we have realized over $1 million in state funding to help address the infrastructure needs of the sewer plant.
In 2023, we drilled down on the following projects that also received a significant amount of grant funds to help stabilize taxes:
- The Sherman Avenue Revitalization Project - which includes realigning the roadway for vehicles, adding a bike path along one side of the road, and improving sidewalks along the other, making it a more pedestrian-friendly route to the train station from - and around - our downtown area.
- Peppertown Park Improvement Project - part of the Sherman Avenue Revitalization effort - this project includes drainage improvements and grading to the park, as well as tree plantings, a new path, bocce ball courts and other improvements.
- Safe Streets to Transit Sherman Avenue Grant - the $1.275 million awarded for this project is going into the Sherman Avenue Revitalization Project, which will improve the thoroughfare to our train station.
- Safe Streets to Transit Springfield Ave Sidewalk Project - This project will replace the worst portions of the sidewalk running through our Downtown on Springfield Avenue and add much-needed lighting.
- Safe Routes to School Snyder Ave Sidewalk Project - the Township received a significant grant to add sidewalks on Snyder Avenue from Locust Avenue to Hughes Elementary School, on the Rescue Squad side of Snyder. This project also includes improvements to the path from Old Cannon Road to Hughes.
- Passaic River Flooding - we received $400,000 from the state Department of Transportation to help fund a project to reduce flooding in the Riverbend/Chaucer area.
- I am most pleased to report that we have also gained the attention of the Army Corp of Engineers and the NJ DEP to help put together a regional flood mitigation plan with surrounding towns and counties.
We have worked arduously to ensure our sewer plant complies with DEP regulations. The plant is undergoing an unprecedented transformation because of the leadership of Alan Kennedy, Berkeley Heights Wastewater Treatment Plant Director, and our wastewater professionals from PS&S. Our sewer plant has successfully met New Jersey's permit requirements. The dedicated team has worked tirelessly to improve operational performance and complete major projects. We are also hopeful that the township will receive approvals from the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank (iBank) on three large projects: the sand filter replacement, raw influent pump valve replacement, and a new enclosed digestor gas flare. Once funding is approved, those projects will move forward.
Now let’s discuss the future. We have two major task forces and a project that I feel confident will get off the ground this year.
- First, the Veteran’s Affairs Committee. I thank the veterans and volunteers who met with Council President John Foster and me to flesh out the type of programming and events needed by those who have served our community and our country. I look forward to continuing the work started within the formerly known as the Veteran’s Memorial Park Renewal committee. We are hopeful you will bring your passion to the Veteran’s Affairs committee.
- Secondly, Lower Columbia Park. I look forward to working with the members of the Board of Education and the Recreation Commission to make significant progress on this project. No doubt there will be some challenges, but with the talent and passion that exist among our three groups and love of service, I believe that success will prevail. In particular, I would like to thank Deb Varnerin for her hard work on Lower Columbia over all these years.
Now a topic that has impacted both my personal and professional life:
If my children were here tonight, I would tell them, “Ok, insert your eye roll here” because I am about to talk about one of the most transformative topics that more leaders in all industries should focus on: the science of happiness.
Under a year ago, I embarked on the most popular class at Yale University, “The Science of Happiness” with Dr. Laurie Santos. Luckily for me, they offer it for free online as a non-matriculated student as thousands sign up and are wait-listed for the in-person course. It changed my approach to life, my anxiety, and my ability to see that I never coped with many of the side effects of Covid myself: lack of social connection, practicing gratitude and mindfulness-- just being in the moment—any moment.
Only May 11, 2023 was the Covid pandemic declared over. Post-pandemic, many continue to struggle with physical and mental health issues. The mental health crisis was prominent well before the first case of COVID-19 was detected here in Berkeley Heights in March 2020, particularly among our adolescents, and post-pandemic research shows rates of people struggling have climbed even higher.
At the beginning of this speech, I talked about all the work that will carry forward into 2024. As we shepherd our agenda from the last 5 years and remain steadfast in our commitment, I will make mental and physical health a priority in my administration.
Thanks to the hard work of Councilwoman Poage, we were designated a “Healthy Town Up and Coming” through the promise of the creation of a Mayor’s Wellness Committee. Sadly, we did not execute and launch that committee in 2023. It is easy to allow aging infrastructure, redevelopment, and other seemingly pressing government matters to take precedence over what is truly important - the health of our residents. So, the Mayor’s Wellness Committee will not take a backseat in 2024.
This Spring, I will begin a Master’s Degree program in the Study of Happiness at Centenary University with former Harvard professor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. I believe one of the responsibilities of a community leader is to create a culture where residents feel safe, and welcome, and have opportunities to be involved. As your mayor, I would like to lead a community that understands the benefits of social and emotional well-being and recognizes that mental health is everybody’s business.
We will work to offer free programming to our residents, both young and mature alike such as World Tai Chai Day on April 27th. I am calling on our own local master, Charlie Pratt, a staple here at Council meetings for many decades, to lead a class. I will personally work with the Recreation Commission to offer more yoga and initiate meditation classes. I am excited about the possibilities of working with local businesses, Felicity, on goat yoga, a “Walk with the Mayor” for seniors and a Turkey Trot proposed by residents Amy Wagner and Cherron Roundtree. Board of Education President Angela Penna and I have already spoken about opportunities for the town and BOE to collaborate in these areas that will help improve the health of our Berkeley Heights children. Opportunity also exists to increase programs for residents to immerse into nature; learning about our local forests and spending time in them, improving physical health and mental wellbeing, in the process.
So, with a renewed sense of dedication to the people of Berkeley Heights, I submit to the residents that the State of the Township is strong and full of hope and promise. I look forward to embarking on the next part of our journey together as we continue to improve our infrastructure, protect and carve out green space, and take a proactive charge to defend the township in the next round of state-mandated affordable housing obligations.
Most importantly, I look forward to being of service to our residents - providing more for our veterans and taking a leadership role in the mental and physical health of our whole community. I invite you to join me on this journey. Together we can continue to cultivate a vibrant, caring, healthy Berkeley Heights.
God bless you ALL. I wish you health and happiness in 2024. Thank you.