The following remarks and State of the Township address were made by Dean Dafis upon his swearing-in as Mayor of Maplewood on January 1 at the 2022 Reorganization Meeting. The meeting was held remotely via Zoom.
THANK YOU! I’m deeply honored and humbled by your confidence and faith in me, my dear colleagues. I’m also very honored to join the exemplary list of former Mayors in Maplewood, I stand on their shoulders. I’m indebted to the Maplewood Dems, Chairman [Ian] Grodman, Chairwoman [Garnet] Hill, and all our District Leaders without whom I would not be here today. Indeed, we have work to do in terms of being more outward facing, transparent, and collaborative, but we have a strong political committee, nonetheless.
I’m ready to lead us with knowledge, strength, sincerity, integrity, humility, and compassion on the prescient issues that affect our daily lives and in politics. I resolve to bring us closer together for the greater good while allowing for necessary discord – we will not / cannot always agree, disagreement, even discomfort is essential in the quest for truth or justice or for necessary growth, for better this or that. You see, we cannot talk our way out of inequity, inequality, unfairness, or disservice. In our constant betterment or evolution, to enhance our community, our services, to build better systems, we must activate and agitate – shake the tree – BUT to do so in a way that isn’t dehumanizing or disrespectful, but rather empowering. WITH CARE not SCARE. You know I am tenacious; I dive all in / roll up my sleeves and muster through no matter the noise or the roadblocks. You also know that I’ve made mistakes in untampered passion and had to go back and make amends, do right – I’m accessible and accountable. That is leadership!
To serve and to lead is the greatest privilege, I’m stepping in with open eyes, mind and heart, and I welcome ALL to the table with me. This is a collaboration with my colleagues and with the community – TOGETHER we will lead. I have ideas of my own but I wanna hear yours too – I have things to say and decisions I wanna make – but I want to listen to you and support yours.
And now, for a few special notes of gratitude on this momentous occasion.
First and foremost, George Forbes, my partner in life for the last decade, my advisor, my fiancée, my critic, my love, the person who sustains and comforts me, who makes me laugh hard, none of what I do – from my demanding job for the state to all-consuming local public service – none of it is possible without him.
He’s my rock and I can’t wait to make our partnership official by marrying him this upcoming summer.
Mayor Frank – Frank (my brother from another mother) you are one awesome guy, beloved all over by so many, that infectious smile and big heart, thank you for your courage and unwavering commitment in leadership in the face of our greatest adversity, a global pandemic, and at least two historic storm events, and other ups and downs the two of us have shared these past few years in service together. Maplewood is better because of you. I cherish what we’ve done together, but more importantly, I cherish our friendship.
Mayor De Luca – NJ Public Service Hall of Famer Vic De Luca, my mentor, the person who interviewed me at my kitchen table back in early 2016 as I served him quiche – as any proper gay man does for Sunday brunch – peppering me with questions about my background and intentions. I’ve watched you Vic and learned from you, I’ve campaigned with you, and I look forward to our partnership in leadership. Underneath your at-times-stoic exterior is a very big bleeding heart.
Today is a triumph for my parents (and all self-made immigrant parents) who sacrificed everything for their first-generation kids in America. I owe EVERYTHING to mom and dad. I would not be the strong, resilient, or empathic person I am today without them. They inspired me watching them endure great prejudice and indignities, struggle to keep us fed, yet resiliently evolve to small business owners and proud parents to two men with master’s degrees and economic mobility. Today is a win for the blue collar, the working class, immigrants in America!
Today is also a triumph for the LGBTQ community, past and present advocates whose efforts have paved the way for our enhanced equality and our increased representation at all levels in society and government. It’s a triumph for our LGBTQ youth who get to see themselves in leadership, this affirms them and I’m so proud of that. Representation matters, it saves lives!
Today is a triumph for our community, who witnesses the peaceful and legitimate transfer of leadership by their elected representatives who work tirelessly in the service of their best interests.
I’m excited to work alongside our newest committee member, Jamaine Cripe who brings to the table a wealth of experience in working with youth in recreational and mentoring programming, and a passion for increasing greater youth access and equity. And I look forward to continuing to support my colleague Nancy Adams’ leadership in sustainability and environmental justice. CONGRATS to both of them!
I’d like to see through social justice & mutual aid programs I’ve championed, and bridge gaps in township services. I will use my voice and visibility to expand our community’s representation at the county, state and federal levels ensuring that we are heard and receive our fair share in critical infrastructure investments, and I aim to strengthen our regional partnerships to effectuate necessary change or solve problems that are broader than our borders or our budget.
I resolve to make all of us proud by pushing us forward and leaving no one behind.
STATE OF THE TOWNSHIP REMARKS
Well, ready or not, 2022 is upon us – Happy New Year! Whatever the new year has in store of us, I’m proud to report that the township is prepared and in solid standing, as we head into the unknown. Yes, we may be battered by the pandemic, we may feel exhausted or tired, but make no mistake, Maplewood remains strong, vibrant, attractive. In fact, we’re not merely surviving, we are THRIVING!
According to the recent census, our population increased by nearly 8% from 23,867 to 25,684 and we became significantly more diverse, most notably in Native American, Asian, and Hispanic or Latino/Latinx representation. A record 484 properties were sold in the last year alone, nearly 400 of which were residential homes – we are HOT! Forty one (41) – yes 41 – new businesses opened including new businesses on Irvington Ave (a pizzeria & dollar store among them), on Valley St (the new deli, a school to serve children who are autistic and who have other special needs), new fitness, wellness, and clothing retail in the Village, a shifting around of existing well established restaurants, CBD retail businesses, a cannabis medical dispensary, Greenway Market – we have a grocery store again in the Village – our Springfield Avenue business corridor remains as busy and successful as ever, and we welcome the highly anticipated pub on the Avenue.
We’re increasing housing through completed units and others in development (all with mandatory affordability set asides) – 20 new units on Valley St, 10 in the Village, four town homes on Boyden, forthcoming units on Irvington and Springfield avenues, redevelopment projects underway, and homeownership opportunities for low-income first-time buyers. Private homeowner residential construction remains robust as people continue working from home. Our extensive school facility construction project is underway.
We’ve planted close to 300 street trees throughout the township, refurbished park benches, groomed our ball fields, collected over 12,500 cubic yards of leaves, brought back our jitney service, maintained our sewer & septic lines, improved 2.59 miles of roadway (including paving, curbs, sidewalks, striping & drainage improvements, filling in pot holes), embarked on multiple traffic calming projects in trouble areas throughout town, and continued improving our public buildings and facilities including a massive overhaul of our pool facility, asbestos abatement and post-Ida extensive clean-up of the Memorial Library which entailed removing SIX feet of water and damaged property from the lower level.
Speaking of the library, through all the past year’s challenges, Maplewood Library impressively circulated over 200,000 items to patrons, offered over 200 programs to the public which over 13,000 people attended, introduced our new mobile library on electric bike – the Book Bike – and continued providing its signature curbside, home-delivery, in-building and online services to patrons. We’re excited to begin construction of our 21st century library this year which is truly a remarkable generational investment in a community where over 90 percent of the population is a library patron.
We were very successful in obtaining competitive grants for major municipal projects, including sizable Department of Transportation grants to cover both initial phases of the Irvington Avenue Streetscape Improvements and a highly coveted $125,000 a year over five years NJ state Neighborhood Preservation Program grant for streetscape improvements and placemaking along the Springfield Avenue commercial corridor – Maplewood is on the map! Overall, we secured over $1.6 million in grants in 2021 to repave streets, strengthen our public health capacity, outfit our officers with body cameras, and to begin addressing our aging sewer system.
Our recreation and community services department didn’t miss a beat generating fun, arts, and culture all year long for all ages while combating isolation with well attended summer camps, sports activities, reading clubs, adult classes in fitness, painting, sculpture, mahjong, and a few field trips, a kaleidoscope of awareness raising monthly celebrations for Black History, Women’s History, Pride, Juneteenth, Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage, Hola Fest, National Hispanic Heritage, and outdoor music events, poetry, art showings, concerts, outdoor film series, our first tennis equipment donation drive, our proud Community Fridge, and holiday festivities all last month.
Without the continued heroic, tireless, and smart leadership of our Health Department none of this would have been possible. In consultation with county health & state officials, and medical experts across the region, they kept us as safe as they could, they kept us going, and they took care of us when we were ill. They’ve been on the frontlines of covid surveillance, contact tracing, case investigation, variant transmission, community outreach and education for nearly TWO years now nonstop. With public and private partnerships, they’ve coordinated several vaccine and testing sites, vaccinating students and their families on site at school, vaccinating the homebound in our community, and getting us to over 80% of the entire eligible population fully vaccinated – that’s how you reach herd immunity! And while doing all that, they hosted community forums, health screenings, flu clinics, and taken a prominent role in being a reliable and invaluable resource to vulnerable populations in our community in their being able to access food, shelter, housing & utility assistance, health insurance coverage, mental health and social services – optimal health is not just about the absence of disease, but is determined by quality of life, dignified access to the basic necessities. We provided our third year in a row summer meals program in partnership with Irvington Township and local community groups and the school district, and cultivated a strong relationship with the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris to address homelessness and to launch a pilot program very near and dear to my heart – our crisis intervention program that will divert certain calls from the police to social workers experienced in crisis, mental health support, substance abuse or overdose, suicide or suicidal ideation, homelessness, domestic abuse, and other issues where traditional policing is ineffective.
We continue enjoying living in a very safe community, overall crime stats down again, three years in a row, though continuing to experience steady rates in simple and aggravated assault (due to domestic violence mostly), and theft (shoplifting, motor vehicle theft). We’re heartened that one of our community’s most publicized and strongly felt homicides was thoroughly investigated and is soon to be prosecuted after a timely arrest was made.
Our first responders and fire fighters didn’t miss a beat either all year despite putting themselves in harm’s way in 72 fire events and over 1100 EMT calls, including two cardiac arrest saves, a choking save, and 26 water saves from life threatening stormwater flooding during Hurricane Ida in that 24-hour period. Our men have been honored for their valor in these events by the township, the NJFMBA, and Saint Barnabas – we’re so proud of them! We’re excited about having appointed a new Chief, Joseph Alvarez and Deputy Chief Michael DeMartini and look forward to their leading our department forward while keeping all of us safe.
It was a challenging year for the Finance Department to support all of our departments – providing superior services for our residents with anticipated revenues that were below our projections because of the pandemic was an uphill battle all year long. Add to that, nearly a million dollars in unexpected costs caused by Hurricane Ida stretched us very thin. Still, for a 3rd year in a row, we reduced the number of audit findings, received a solid “A” on the State’s Best Practices Inventory report card (which ensures 100% of our state aid), and improved our S&P credit rating in both bond and note ratings, and we continue building on our rainy-day fund. Our bonding was strategic and smart – over the life of these bonds we expect to pay much less interest and save our taxpayers money. Because of our higher credit rating, we were able to borrow $8.9 million to fund our various capital projects at an interest rate of 0.15%. We received our first half of American Rescue Plan funding and used that $1.3 million to address lost revenue due to the pandemic lockdown in 2020 and anticipate the second half of this funding ($2.6 million) in June 2022 which should help us avert raising taxes to pay for our pandemic related expenses all year long. There’s no question that, we will have difficult choices to make in the new year, but in finance it’s about the long-term gains that we are making that will set us up well into 2023 and beyond.
They who have made all of these accomplishments possible are our exemplary department heads and their dedicated staff – the best municipal team in NJ! It is people like:
- Public Works & Engineering Department leads, Paul Kittner, Cesare Riccardi, Husam Zedian and all of our DPW employees – during the next storm when we all get into bed relaxed and with peace of mind, they will be snow plowing and clearing roadways in treacherous weather overnight
- Health Officer Candice Davenport, Nurse Anna Markarova and their entire team
- Community Services Director, Melissa Mancuso and her team Nick, Jamie, Denise, Ed.
- Finance Director, Joe Kolodziej
- Township Clerk, the tenacious Liz Fritzen who is our resident facing customer service powerhouse processing voluminous applications, licenses, permits all while running our public meetings and elections
- Township Administration Director & Assistant Director Jerry Giaimis and Bailey Barnett who oversee every operation at every level, keeping it all together and constantly troubleshooting
- Library Director superstar Sarah Lester and her exemplary team, Joanne, Irene and others
- Community Development Director (and our local Prosecutor) the incomparable Annette DePalma
- Our courts administrator & director Ryan Bancroft
- Our social services, social workers, and senior/older adult coordinators, Beverly Ashmon, Carmen Morales, Tracy Carol, Carol Berman, and Michelle Wesley
- Our public safety leads, Maplewood PD Chief and Deputy Chief Jimmy DeVaul and Al Sally; Maplewood FD Chief Joseph Alvarez & Deputy Chief Michael DeMartini
- Our township counsel, the one and only Roger Desiderio
We and all Maplewood residents owe THEM much gratitude for their service!
We also owe deep thanks to our hundreds of community volunteers who serve on our boards and committees, who push us to do better and help us launch new necessary programs and services – thank YOU!
Our brand is civic engagement, and 2021 was no different as SOMA Justice, SOMA Shares, SOMA Action, and other community advocates agitated and activated us into action on important and often contentious local concerns bridging gaps in mutual aid, opening our hearts to transformative justice and support, and our minds to climate change right here at home. I look forward to our continued collaboration with them.
Our environmental advocates and experts in the community in partnership with sustainability champion colleague Nancy Adams pursued and advanced critical initiatives for the health and welfare of our planet. Such as, engaging with South Orange in a Zero Waste program, piloting residential composting which we hope to expand, strengthening our tree ordinance (we’re losing our canopy in a town named after a tree!), working with state agencies and seeking grant opportunities to increase EV charging stations in town, including converting our municipal fleet, looking into engaging in Community Solar Programs, and convening a task force to improve our fields for sustainable recreation and athletics.
We adopted our adult-use cannabis ordinance which is sensible and equitable and look forward to establishing our local application and review process in the coming weeks, as well as continuing to work with community advocates and experts in framing actual, measurable, enforceable, and socially conscious community benefit agreements for all cannabis businesses approved to operate in town.
We’re in the process of reviewing the proposals we’ve received from our Master Plan RFP that went out last month and will be convening public engagement sessions and subject matter expert consultations shortly to begin the arduous, complex, and multi-layered task of adopting a new Master Plan that will incorporate our changing needs and be smart, socially and environmentally just – this should take us well into next year.
We DO have a lot of strengths to celebrate, but many weaknesses and unresolved issues to address, too including our unplayable fields, stormwater management and flooding – we need massive infrastructure improvements in this regard as recent powerful storms have underscored and even led to death, losing our/my beloved neighbor during Hurricane Ida – our aging sewers which are overburdened with development (economic and housing), parking enforcement (we leave so much money on the table when compared to other towns in parking revenue and it’s costing us not just in revenue but also in greater economic opportunity for our businesses and in quality of life for our residents), unresolved neighborhood quality of life concerns which become significant public safety threats (as we have witnessed at least thrice this past year alone in different areas), affordability – we must reduce our tax burden by sharing more services with our sister towns, home rule is NOT sustainable, and it certainly ain’t cheap! – I’m looking forward to our seeing through the merger of our fire department with South Orange’s this year which will significantly reduce the tax burden while improving public safety for both towns – building enhanced community support systems in mutual aid and vulnerable population support, and truly honoring our stigma-free and diversity brand by incorporating the emerging heritages into our programs, services, and outreach. Of course, we need to weather the ongoing covid storm, but we’re better positioned with expanded vaccines and testing to blaze forward.
We need to talk more, we need everyone at the table, and we need to talk outside of our echo chamber or our border, because the issues I’ve presented are regional, their solutions lie in regional strategic partnerships and relationships and relentless hustling for funding. By joining the 11th congressional district in the recent redistricting, our representation on all of these issues is going to increase – I’ve already reached out to highly regarded Congresswoman Sherrill to sit down and talk. I’ve done the same with my fellow Mayors in the region and with our county and state reps, too – our networks are our lifelines!
It’s an ambitious agenda, but I embark on this new journey with all of you with tremendous HOPE and boundless positive energy to get things done. Let’s get after it!