A letter from Caldwell Councilman Jonathan Lace asking the Essex County to hold off on plans to build a proposed $8 million amphitheater at Turtle Back Zoo has elicited a response from Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo.
The allocation of $600,000 in Open Space funds for design services for the amphitheater project has elicited negative response from a large number of residents in West Orange, Millburn, Maplewood and South Orange — with Maplewood Township Committee recently passing a resolution asking the County to suspend plans for the amphitheater until the County completes the zoo master plan later this year. Opponents of the project have cited the cost as well as the incursion into the South Mountain Reservation; residents have also complained that the process has lacked transparency.
Proponents of the project who spoke at the Maplewood Township Committee meeting earlier this month cited the educational advantages of the project as well as the fact that the zoo and surrounding Essex County Recreational Facility has become a beloved regional attraction.
In his letter, posted to his official Councilman Facebook page on August 7, Lace first thanked the Executive for funding a “much-needed” crosswalk on Central Avenue, but then wrote that he also wanted to “express my concern over the proposed $8,000,000 Amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo.”
“Governor Murphy has suspended the $4,000,000 in state aid that was to be used to offset the projected cost in response to the FY 2019-2020 state budget. Taxpayers in New Jersey have been particularly impacted by the loss of the S.A.L.T. deduction on their federal tax returns. For many residents in Caldwell, this change has increased their taxable income, raising their taxes significantly.”
Lace wrote that Caldwell had recently raised municipal taxes 4.8% “out of necessity to improve our infrastructure, provide adequate staffing, and maintain a responsible savings.” He also said that “many” Caldwell residents were “distressed over what they consider to be superfluous taxes to improve an already amazing Turtleback [sic] Zoo experience for Essex County residents.”
Lace asked that the amphitheater be put on hold until S.A.L.T. deductions were restored and state aid secured.
In his response, DiVincenzo outlined his accomplishments as County Executive, raising the County’s bond rating to AAA and making many improvements to the County’s parks and the zoo, the “vast majority” of which, the Executive said, had been done through “grants, contributions and donations.”
DiVincenzo criticized Lace for his “tone,” and wrote, “If Caldwell is having a difficult time balancing its budget and is proposing a 4.8 percent tax increase, take responsibility for the decisions you make. Don’t cloak your shortcomings by casting dispersions at Essex County.”
“Let me finish by saying this: If you really wanted to have a meaningful discussion, why not contact me directly? I have always made myself and my directors available to each of our municipalities. Instead you posted a letter to your Facebook page, which I do not follow, did not tag me in your post and did not fax or email the letter which we did not receive until Monday, August 12. It was evident you wanted to grandstand to the public and provide them with access to the letter even before it was received at my office.”
See both letters below.