January 1, 2010
Somerville State of The Borough Address
Mayor Brian G. Gallagher
Good Afternoon and a Healthy and Happy New Year to all of Somerville’s citizens.
Somerville is a strong and proud community. Through the generations we have seen both prosperous and difficult times. The difficult times are what tests the mettle of any community, and the strength and will of our citizenry to do what is right and what is needed in those difficult times, this is born out in our history.
Our Borough is faced with the highest tax rate in the county, and together with all municipalities in New Jersey we are facing a shrinking aid dollar and growing unfunded mandates from every level of government. The cost of doing business in this state, both public and private, has become unbearable. Every resident of Somerville is affected by this economic crisis…it is reflected in our paychecks, it is reflected in our monthly expenses and it is reflected in every tax bill.
While governing on the local level is for the most part immediate, responsive, efficient, economical and personal….the way government should be run….we find ourselves in a situation where the business of government must change dramatically at every level in order to be more affordable…and Somerville must change with it. We must, all of us, look at all areas of government and identify how we can deliver services better at a lower cost.
We must all do more with less, and make some very tough choices about the delivery of services in the coming year. With the challenges we face this will require intelligent, thoughtful, fiscally sound and effective review of our Borough services, our policies and our long range planning. We cannot tolerate or accept politically motivated, emotional agenda’s and visceral reactions that polarize decision making. We are all in this together. How do we accomplish this? Very carefully.
In our efforts to reduce costs, we must be very mindful of what the Borough, over the past 100 years has created…a quality of life that has drawn many of us to Somerville to raise our families. Our public understands the balance of cost versus value in spending our lives in this great Borough…we must ensure any changes we make enhance the quality of life that has been created here, not hurt it.
To stabilize our Borough and to flourish once the economy begins to take hold once more, I have developed 5 Goals for a more efficient and effective government to work towards this year...every department, every employee, every council person, and every citizen should be aware of and work towards these goals. The old adage of ‘we have always done it that way’ does not work anymore and we must encourage and embrace new ideas.
Goal #1. Smaller, Leaner More Efficient Government at Every Level.
Business as usual is out the window. In the last 5 years your Somerville government has gotten smaller with no discernable difference in service. 5 years ago the Borough had 87 Full time and 26 part time employees….by April of 2010 the Borough will have reduced its staff to 79 full time( an 11% decrease) and 18 part time(a 31% decrease) in employees.
6 months ago I began looking at how we deliver services within the Borough…does it make sense to continue to operate Borough Hall in the same fashion, or should we look at each department and find areas or functions that can be delivered more cost effectively with better services in a different manner.
We looked at the Health Office first..and in our overall review and assessment, it became very apparent that we were duplicating services that the county could easily provide.
At the end of this 1st Quarter, our Health Office responsibilities will be transferred to the county, providing at least the same level of service and saving the taxpayer over $70,000 per year to start.
Next is Public Works. We are currently evaluating a report commissioned by Raritan and Somerville jointly to see if each department could benefit from the other by sharing people, resources and equipment.
Council will review in the 1st quarter of 2010 and implement where we deem appropriate in conjuncton with the Raritan Borough Mayor and Council.
Next we will be evaluating our in house dispatch service. With new FCC regulations on the horizon and potential significant equipment upgrades across most every Borough department, we must look at our communications efforts as a whole inclusive of police dispatch and identify where we can benefit from county services , and where it makes better sense to control locally.
Somerville will have a local library as long as I am Mayor. However, we must evaluate the idea of joining the Somerset County Library System to manage the day to day affairs. The thought of even evaluating whether this is a feasible idea is one that will bring about accusations and rumors…my intent here is very simple and very clear…can the county deliver this service to the Borough equally or better for the same or less cost? If so then we have a choice to make. Those that say the county could close the Somerville Library are not correct and are just instilling fear…any agreement would be open ended to allow either party to walk away after an agreed upon term. To this end I am creating a Library Review Committee comprised of Library Board members, council, borough employees and public at large to review this concept. The committee will be comprised of all facets of the community and political persuasions, and they will all be asked to check their emotions at the door and to evaluate objectively and report back to council their findings and their recommendation.
In addition, The Somerville Parking Department will be in place by the end of the 1st Quarter of 2010. It is being formed now utilizing existing employees and restructuring responsibilities and will not require any new hires. This department will consolidate the various functions spread over many different departments into one. Parking will finally be treated and managed as a business component of the Borough.
As the year progresses, other departments will face this same scrutiny. Business as usual is over.
Goal # 2. Prioritize Departmental Expenditures
Rather than treating each Borough department equally among the others, council must prioritize our departments and inherently prioritize the funding for those departments.
We have functions within Borough government that are of critical importance to life safety, security and the long term well being of the Borough. In robust times it is easier to fund as needed, in tight times we must focus funding on the longer term needs of the Borough, and invest in those areas that will show a greater return.
Goal # 3. Departments and employees must live within the means the Borough has.
We need to encourage creativity in our employees and instill a greater sense of trust between employee, management and council. We are in tough times, and we are trying to maintain a high level of service and staffing for the entire Borough. For the first time ever, the Borough is contemplating layoffs to help stabilize the tax burden on our residents
this is not something any of us want to do, but given the economics it is something we must do. We are currently negotiating contracts with all of our unions and all must realize that the normal of even 2 years ago is gone and that the goal of most employers is to try and maintain jobs so we can maintain our level of service until the economy rebounds. We do not value our employees any less in a down economy, in fact we value them more. But we cannot give what we do not have.
Goal #4. Embrace Technology
Information and communication to our residents is critical for good government, and we want our citizens to be informed and involved in our community in every way. VilleTV, Somerville e-Connect, and now Our redesigned web site which launches today is intended to make it a bit easier for residents and visitors to find information they need, to learn about Borough departments and how your government works for you, and to communicate important happenings and keep you updated on significant events that affect the Borough. We are migrating as much information as we can to the new web site to enable our residents to do more without having to come to Borough Hall. We will begin accepting credit card payments for a number of borough functions, electronic notification for pet owners, pay stations in Parking Lot 1 & 2 will be installed with credit card function, and staff approvals for certain licenses to help speed the process. Our access to technology empowers our residents with the knowledge that their local government is open, accessible and transparent.
Goal #5. Reposition Our Redevelopment Efforts To Take First Advantage Of Recovery
The economy has ground both small and large redevelopment in this state to a halt. We were faced with a choice this past year…sit back and lick our wounds, or work with what we have and position ourselves to be ready to take advantage of the first signs of recovery. We chose the latter and have taken significant steps to ensure our redevelopment efforts are primed for a recovery and we have already begun to see results.
In our downtown, we are seeing smaller, local developers investing in our Main Street. Tom Genova renovated the old McArthur’s store and apartments, and it is now fully occupied. The Storms family has approval to go up 3 stories on a row of single level stores on the North side of Main Street, Jim Lopa is proposing a project that will revitalize Davenport Street and the redevelopment committee is working with other potential Somerville investors to bring them to other locations downtown.
On our landfill, the old model of a large master developer taking on the entire site is not feasible right now. We took the bold step of breaking the development of the site into more manageable components that can be developed independently but still retain the overall vision.
We have worked with NJTransit to release an Expression of Interest to the redevelopment community to begin the Station Area development process. At the same time the Borough has entered into an agreement with the Somerset County Business Partnership to develop a site plan and solicit interest in an Emerging Technologies center in the Gateway Area along Rt 206. The Borough has taken on the task of final overall environmental assessment and clean up of the Green Seam through the use of grant money not taxpayer dollars. The landfill area has also seen in the last few months the beginning of a $16 million renovation of the train station, The award of over $2.2 million in grant funds to aid in our environmental efforts and most notable it was just designated a brownfields redevelopment area by the state of New Jersey bringing significant attention to Somerville both from private developers and the halls of Trenton in addition to enabling the borough to obtain up to $5 million in grant funding per year.
The East Main Street Redevelopment Area is poised…we have seen success through the efforts of Anthony DeSapio to revitalize this area…in addition the old Messenger Gazette building was just purchased by the Storms family, and the old Agra Palace storefront is about to revive itself with a new catering hall opening soon.
The Kirby Avenue Redevelopment Area has seen the public define the overall vision of how we want this area developed. However with the downturn in the economy and no response to the RFP put out last year it is now time to reconvene the citizen’s group and review the redevelopment plan to ensure it works in the world as we know it today, to hold fast on the plans we know will still work, but not be afraid to amend those areas that do not.
For years we have grappled with The West Main Street Redevelopment Area, first with litigation with Pathmark and then with the nation’s economic collapse. Not much has been discussed publicly about this site over the last 6 months because the redevelopment committee has been hard at work negotiating with the developer and a potential food store tenant with the objective of bringing a reputable, brand name food store to downtown Somerville.
One we can all be proud of, and more importantly one that will fit the current and future needs of Somerville and one we will all shop at.
I am happy to announce to our residents that a Letter of Intent has been signed between JSM at Somerville and Saker Shop Rites, the largest Shop Rite owner in the State, to bring a World Class Shop Rite Food Store to downtown Somerville.
This Letter of Intent is a precursor to a lease being negotiated, finalized and executed between the two parties. There is much work yet to be done between JSM, Shop Rite, and the Borough. Concurrent with this letter of intent, the Borough will aid both JSM and Shop Rite in their lease negotiations where they deem it necessary, and we will work with the developer to finalize the Redevelopment Plan and Agreement as it proceeds quickly towards site plan review by the Planning Board.
In the past few months, we have worked closely with the Governor’s Chief of Economic Growth Jerry Zaro, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and we are close to being the first municipality in the State to take advantage of NJ’s brand new Economic Recovery Growth Grant program…among other advantages, this program enables the Borough to use Sales Tax revenue generated on this site which would normally go to Trenton, as a way to help fund financing gaps and get economic recovery moving.
Quite simply put, sales tax revenue stays in Somerville instead of going to Trenton.
While we all have much work ahead of us to solidify this deal, we know that there is real interest in a food store coming to Somerville. I encourage all to have level heads and flexibility to make this happen. The Borough will help them in these final negotiations.
We need the attention of Trenton to help make this happen quickly and we have it right now. Real economic growth doesn’t take place in the halls of Trenton or in bailouts of big business, it takes place on Main Street...and Main Street Somerville will lead that charge here in New Jersey.
While it is easy to focus on the larger issues, some other major events are worth mentioning as well:
-The Centennial of the Borough is mid stride and will culminate in June with the time capsule being buried. The Fire Department will also then begin celebrating their 175th Anniversary of service to the Borough.
-The speed radar signs are installed on Grove Street and should be operational shortly, this completes the implementation of the priority recommendations of the Regional Center Traffic Calming Study..the only municipality to do so.
-We have just submitted our Transit Village designation application to the State
-Our Wayfinding Signage program is well underway giving not only direction, but visual identity to our downtown and our Borough
-The DMC has undertaken rehabilitation of Lots 1 & 2 with a no interest loan from the State to upgrade landscaping, lighting and to replace the meters with pay on foot stations
-We were recently awarded a $2 million grant for a Pedestrian overpass across 202/206 to Clarks woods extending the Peters Brook Greenway to the north and opening much needed access to an additional field for our kids to play on. We will begin construction on the southern portion of the Greenway in 2010 connecting Lepp Park with Chambres Field and ultimately the Raritan River Greenway.
-We received a Challenge Grant to study and revise our Residential zoning ordinance to make it easier for our residents to improve their homes.
The single most important aspect of Somerville is the quality of life we all enjoy, this is the reason why people choose to live here, raise their families, some for many generations and one which we all must strive to maintain through thick and thin.
This is what makes this Borough strong…we have an identity like no other and you need to be a part of it to really understand. We have a volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad that is second to none, and when the chips are down these are the men and women you want bursting through your front door. Our police department is young, eager, intelligent and flourishing under Chief Manning. Our volunteer committees, commissions and boards make this Borough what it is…they are dedicated people who want to make a difference in where they live.
For 100 years our Borough has had the same guiding principles. What we do as a Mayor and Council, what we do as citizens, and what we do as a community is to provide for a safe, secure, diverse, affordable and wonderful home for our children, our families, our friends and our neighbors in this place we call home.
God Bless Somerville and all of her citizens!