June 12th Meeting Summary
On Monday we had a very robust meeting with one of our largest in-person and online attendances in the last two years. Here are the highlights.
We had a significant conversation and took major actions on Monday night to (finally) get Verona into full compliance on state-mandated affordable housing rules and regulations. We passed an ordinance re-writing our administrative code on affordable housing and development fees to ensure full compliance with NJ laws and regulations. We adopted the "Third Round Housing Element and Fair Share Plan" and the "spending component" that goes along with it. You can read the plan and the spending element here: https://www.veronanj.org/affordablehousing. We also adopted an "affirmative marketing plan" for our affordable housing and our affordable housing programs that complies with NJ regulations. Now that we took these actions, our legal representatives will go back to the court on our behalf. After that final appearance we should be in full 100% legal compliance with affordable housing, a process that took nearly 8 years.
Big picture - getting into legal compliance is more than just words on a paper. Verona will be implementing some great programs to assist low income residents - both for home owners and residents. These include affordably asstance to certain buyers and renters through closing cost assistance, rental assistance, and security deposit assistance. We will also rolling out a program to rehabilitate 2 substandard rental housing units and participating in the County of Essex Home Improvement Program which will help certain low income homeowners make necessary repairs in their homes. These programs will be marketed and promoted to residents. In addition, as the public knows, we will be building 95 units of affordable housing next to the Community Center (construction to start next year) and we anticipate an additional 15 units of affordable housing to be built in the Spectrum 360 project (on Sunset).
The Spending Plan is also important to explain. Verona receives development fees from certain residential and non-residential projects that go into our affordable housing trust fund. It is those fees that will fund the programs to rehabilitate substandard units and provide security deposit and down payment assistance. In September of 2022 we had $235K in that fund. Once the Spectrum 360 project is approved, we will receive $3.25 million into the fund. That along with other revenues will bring us to $3.6 million.
From there, there are rules on how much we can spend on certain elements of our affordable housing plan. We can also use a portion of the fund to "create" units - and we may spend up to $500K additional for our affordable housing project, $2.85 million to to help to offset the debt we took out to pay for the land acquisition for that project (which was around $7 million). We will spend $200K on affordability assistance and another $40K to rehabilitate the 2 units. While we are typically allowed up to 20% of the affordable housing trust fund to offset administrative costs, through some nuances in the law we are not allowed to allocate any of the trust fund to those fees. I raised my concern at the meeting that we have spent over $500K in legal fees to get to settle this third round of affordable housing, and where would those fees get paid out of - and was told we needed to have some follow up conversations on how this will get resolved.
More to come on affordable housing, but needless to say I am glad we got to this step.
We also spent a significant amount of discussion on an item that was left off of the agenda - the $70K bond hearing to pay for engineering costs for a new tennis and pickleball courts. This conversation you can pick up around 50 minutes into the meeting here. It started with an update from our Township Manager on Everett Field - and how we would be need to look at the scope of the project and gear up our 501(c)3 to help to offset some of the costs (which were not specified), delaying the bid on that project until some point in 2024.
Then I raised the issue with why the ordinance on tennis/pickleball court design was pulled from the agenda. It had been proposed by the Administration that we move the tennis/pickleball court from its current location to the side lot of the Community pool, which would actually increase pool parking by 47 spaces. The Administration then talked about some alternatives to that idea, including working with the County to get some land on Hilltop near "Prisoner's Pond" to build courts there.
What followed was a full conversation from the Council that I encourage you to watch. It appears that investing in these recreation facilities will get pushed back as we have lots of pressing priorities. Councilwoman Holland had some excellent points, given her role as liaison to the Recreation Advisory Committee. It highlights the need for the Council to debate and prioritize our spending priorities. My overarching comment is that that I think over the last decade, the Township (both Administration and Town Council) allowed the recreation facility infrastructure to go past it's life span, resulting in play grounds that had to be de-commissioned due to safety concerns, our only tennis/pickleball court having such serious cracks in the surface that we needed to blacktop over it as a safety measure, and a baseball field that is difficult to play on and run-down in appearance. There was no analysis done on our recreation infrastructure and a plan in place on when to upgrade and expand those facilities, and other projects got funded instead. Kicking recreation projects down the road only resulted in higher costs to replace them, and now we have several that need to be done at the same time, and very soon we will need additional investment to re-turf Centennial Field.
For me, this highlights the need for us to take a serious look at increasing the revenue we bring into the Township from non-property tax means. That includes looking at our fees and what we charge for and what we don't charge for, and we should adopt best practices from other municipalities. It also means quickly and efficiently adopting our zoning changes from the Master Plan, which may help to spur re-development, which will help to expand our tax base. Finally we need to then need to develop a thoughtful strategy on how we can bring in more revenue through strategic projects that can add value.
In the short term though - residents should engage with the Council on how we set our priorities. If these projects are important to you, you will need to come to meetings and write to the Council to let your support be known.
The third significant conversation came around our re-organization process and selection of Mayor. I don't normally address issues raised in public comment, but a significant number of residents came out to ask questions about how the next Mayor will be selected and pointed out some facts from the recent election. We ended up having two public comment sessions, one that started at 1 hr 35 minutes into the meeting and 2 hrs and 20 minutes into the meeting. We also had a new business agenda item that discussed our reorganization meeting and our process to select mayor. Our process is that the five members of the Town Council select the next mayor at the Reorganization Meeting, which will be on July 1st at 12 noon. This is in compliance with the state statute for our form of government. I want to thank the residents that did come to express their views and opinions, and I look forward to future conversations both with my colleagues and with the public on the mayor selection process.
On Monday night we also passed a very significant resolution to have a voter referendum in November on our Open Space Trust Fund. We will be proposing to the voters that we increase the Verona Open Space Trust Fund tax from 2 cents per 100 of assessed value to 3 cents per $100 dollars of assess value, an increase of $43.30 for the average assessed house. This increase would allow the Open Space Trust Fund to fully pay down the debt associated with purchasing $12 million of land to preserve 25 acres of open space and prevent development. If this is not passed by the voters, we will still need to pay down the debt, but some of that debt will be paid out of our general fund. More to come on this as we get closer to the November election.
We accomplished at lot of other business on Monday. We bonded for $600K for a new ambulance and police SUV's. We passed an invasive species and plants ordinance. We amended the fees to park in our EV charging spaces. We introduced an ordinance to create a Deputy Township Manager position, to be set at a salary of $135K, and to move Building and Grounds under DPW. We also introduced an ordinance of $60K for standard tree replacement and sidewalk repair and another ordinance for $15K to buy technology to comply with electronic plan submissions for building permits. Any introduced ordinances will have a public hearing at our next meeting on June 26th, and you can send a comment to the entire Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.
We passed several resolutions, including accepting the Clean Communities Grant ($30,784) and Opioid Settlement Grant ($2,280). We passed several resolutions for contracts, including for recreation uniforms (Academy Apparel), drainage and sewer services (American Sewer Service), the purchase of a new DPW vehicle (Cars on 15), replacement and repair of the Waste Water Treatment Plan grit removal process (JDV Equipment and Sherwood-Logan & Associates), and fireworks (Starfire Corporation).
We also discussed in new business amending our parking code to prohibit parking within 4 feet of any driveway. This came to us from residents. The police department has had significant resident complaints of people parking so close to their driveways that they have trouble safely backing out. This occurs especially around the schools, and I have spoken to many residents about this. We also discussed how this will be enforced by police and whether or not the curbs will be marked. This conversation happened around 2 hrs and 50 minutes into the meeting. We did not introduce this ordinance, to allow time for the public to voice any concerns with this change. If you have an opinion on this matter or a question, I encourage you to send it to the Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/council.
Whew! It was a lot of meeting on Monday. To watch the video, go to https://youtube.com/@Township-Of-Verona. As always I encourage you to send any questions or comments to the Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.