Last night we had a Council meeting. Here is a recap of what we discussed.
We started the meeting with an extensive discussion on the current state of the police station. I highly recommend that residents watch this conversation.
I want to start off by saying that when I got elected four years ago, I knew I would be faced with long standing issues that previous Town Councils could not solve or were not willing to take on. At the top of that list was the issue of the inadequate size and condition of three of our four first responder buildings - Police Station, Rescue Squad and Firehouse #2. Renovating or relocating those buildings is not going to be easy but it is 100% necessary for the safety of our community and our employees and volunteers.
Last night we started this complex conversation on the police station building. Chief Kiernan gave a presentation on the long history of the inadequate status of the building, which was documented as far back as 1978 as being an issue. He showed pictures room by room on the current state of the police building. He detailed in depth the overcrowding, water damage, and storage issues. When I first took office I toured the police building and find their conditions unacceptable. When residents listen to the presentation and see the pictures there is no doubt that this needs to be addressed.
Renovation of the existing site has been determined by our Administration as being too costly and still not meeting the future needs of the department. Therefore, our staff, at the direction of Council, has been exploring moving the station. We are starting that analysis looking at property that the Township or County owns so that we don't need to incur the costs of buying commercial property. Several sites are being considered at the same time, with benefits and drawbacks being considered for each one. There is a general desire to try to keep the police station in Town Center or centrally located if we can. We have not made a list of these locations public as they are considered negotiations with other entities and all negotiations on any matter are typically done in closed session until a deal is reached.
One of the sites that is being considered happens to be Board of Education property, and is specifically a space of land in the back of HBW between Gould Street and the track. The Township does have a "back of the envelope" idea that a new police station can fit there. Several weeks ago, our Administration approached the Superintendent with the request if we could use this land for the station with the promise that we would relocate the existing basketball court and shotput area to the other side of the track and build bathroom facilities for the track (something that is not currently available). What was immediately counter-proposed is that, due to their space issues, the district would consider providing the land if we built new Board of Education offices for them in the same site. The District needs extra space at the high school and would love to move their offices out of that location.
The Council was willing to go forward with this idea, so after the BOE reorganized this proposal was presented to their facilities committee and was discussed at the Board of Education last meeting on January 24th (about 1 hr 45 min into the meeting). Our Township Manager Joe D'Arco is going to go to the next BOE meeting on February 14th to discuss the idea further and answer their questions.
Right now it is only an idea and no money has been spent on drafting up a design of the building. Our Administration did show a concept of a potential footprint for the building and where the facilities would move to (which the Administration will be posting online), but please note that was a rough concept and not actually drafted by an architect.
As a parent of a current HBW middle schooler and a VHS student on the track team, I know that this proposed idea generates a lot of questions on the safety of children who would walk past the building, how recess time would change for the middle school students, and disruptions during construction. Residents from the neighborhood also raised concerns to me already regarding loss of open space, flooding, parking congestion, traffic and general quality of life issues with moving the police station down the block. The BOE members at their meeting raised concerns whether or not allowing this building would curtail their options should they need to expand HBW in the future.
These are all very valid questions. The challenge for the Council with trying to solve the issues with the police station will be the benefits and drawbacks to every potential site that we may consider. This may not be the best site for a new police station but we are evaluating it. Every site considered for not only this building but the other two buildings will have both positive and negative aspects, and we will do our best with what are very challenging problems that do need to be addressed.
It will be critical for residents to let us know their feedback as this issue gets discussed further. Personally I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts. You can send us your questions or comments to us here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.
Moving on, I am very disappointed with the final direction the majority of the Council took regarding our tree removal ordinance. The Council voted to amend our existing ordinance on the removal of trees to make several changes, including but not limited to hiring a Township Forester to conduct an evaluation of every tree permit to determine if the tree is alive or dead. Under the previous ordinance, residents had to get a letter from a licensed tree expert with a certification that the tree was dead if they wanted to remove a tree without the requirement to replant or pay $400 into the tree replacement fund. These letters cost them around $50 to $100 to obtain. Under the new ordinance, that evaluation will be done by an expert the Township will hire.
I supported this change as our Zoning Official was spending an inordinate amount of time evaluating tree permits - 193 from 2022 alone - and it is clear we needed to hire someone to conduct these evaluations. In addition the residents found getting the letters cumbersome and costly. However, what happened last night is that three members of Council refused to go forward with the Administration's proposal to require a $25 per permit for each dead tree permit that the Township will now be evaluating. That fee was necessary to offset the costs of the Forester, as the overwhelming majority of tree permits are for dead trees (401 vs 18 in 2022 alone).
The permit fees associated with this ordinance are not adequate to cover the costs to provide this amount of heavy-handed oversight of regulating the removal of trees and will cost Verona taxpayers money that we don't have. We have already been given a warning by the Administration that we are over the 2% cap on raising taxes, and we will need to consider raising fees across a variety of areas just to pass our budget. Our costs have been cut down substantially in most areas and we are chronically understaffed, and we have no significant revenue growth on the horizon. This is why I am astonished by this move by the majority of the Council to add to our budget woes by hiring a Forester without a clear plan to pay for one.
By a 3-2 vote (Councilwoman Holland and I voted no), an ordinance was introduced to modify the tree ordinance fees from what was passed last night by a 4-1 vote (I voted no). This entire conversation started about 1 hr 20 min into the meeting. Feel free to send your comments on this matter to the entire Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.
Last night we also had a lengthy discussion on pool fees (starting 2 hrs into the meeting). The pool is a utility - meaning that it is not subsided by taxpayers and needs to be 100% paid for by the membership. The Administration is proposing that we strengthen the finances of the pool through a combination of raising fees and scaling back some things we give away for free that we could be charging for. The finances need to be improved as wage costs have risen, past debt needs to be paid off, repairs need to be made to the facility (slide repairs, pool resurfacing), upgrades are being made (kiddie pool area renovation), and the COVID accounting emergency needs to be addressed.
What was proposed by the Administration was raising pool fees by $25 across all membership levels, and raising the fees for several other items including guest fees, gazebo rental, non-profit pool parties, and swim team. All of these changes are to raise about $60K more in revenue for the pool utility. Some members objected to raising the fees by a flat amount across all membership levels, so the Administration will consider an alternative model.
In the discussion last night we also touched on whether or not we should offer day passes to Verona residents, still offer the free Tuesday nights to Verona residents who are non-members, and whether or not we should continue to offer the three free guest passes that are provided with each pool membership and free pool memberships for first responders. We may consider a variety of changes.
I also raised some of the feedback that we heard from residents with young children that the hours of the baby pool are not meeting their needs and they would like to see an earlier opening (10 am) so that they can use the pool more. In addition, we also got robust feedback from other members that would like to see the pool open later in the evening. Some members of the Council objected to that idea of changing the hours. As a parent who has been a member of the pool since 2011, I will continue to advocate for families and all pool members to do what I can to improve the pool experience while keeping an eye on the financial strength of this utility.
Briefly, we introduced two additional ordinances last night: our 2023 salary ordinance for exempt employees and an ordinance giving the Township Manager the power to suspend parking meter collection. Both ordinances will be on second reading at the next meeting, and any comments should be sent to the Council.
We passed resolutions appointing vendors for tree trimming, snow plowing, risk management, wireless communication consulting, and services related to our water treatment plant.
Any comments to the Council on any items disused should use the link found here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.