Candidate Profile for South Orange Village President: Sheena Collum

by The Village Green
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Sheena Collum

On Tuesday, May 12, South Orange voters will head to the polls to cast their ballots for three seats on the Board of Trustees as well as for Village President.

Recently we asked the two candidates who are running for Village President to answer a series of questions

Candidate Sheena Collum responds here:

Tell us about yourself: Where are you from? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you do for a living? What has been your civic involvement thus far in South Orange?

I arrived in South Orange from Starkville, Mississippi when I was 17 years old to attend Seton Hall University on scholarship for the nationally ranked Brownson Speech and Debate Team.

I fell head over heels in love with the community and started attending Board of Trustees meetings regularly and offered up my time as a volunteer and have been going strong for 14 years. I live in the Upper Wyoming neighborhood where I’ve served on the neighborhood board helping to coordinate different events and activities to bring our association closer together.

Professionally, I am the Executive Director of the American Planning Association – New Jersey Chapter, working every day on a wide range of public policy issues that impact municipalities such as comprehensive planning, smart growth, parking and transportation, sustainability, economic development, redevelopment, historic preservation, business recruitment, hazard mitigation, public health, shared services and housing.

I also bring the skill set of being a trained lobbyist and I’m currently the administrator for a federal grant our organization received to do a public health project in Trenton. I also run the State’s largest land use conference bringing together 800 experts ranging from planners to land use attorneys to share best practices and planning trends on what towns throughout the state are doing to meet the challenges of growth and change. Our organization also runs a statewide “Great Places in New Jersey” awards program to recognize downtowns, streets, public spaces and neighborhoods that represent the gold standard in comprehensive planning. We also provide technical assistance to community based organizations and towns by sending out a team of professionals through our Community Planning Assistance Program.

My civic involvement as mentioned above goes all the way back to my days as a student:

Highlights Include:

Founder, Seton Hall Village Liaisons Committee – During my time at Seton Hall, I served as the Student Body President and founded the Village Liaisons Committee to better connect the University with the South Orange community. I worked on creating the SHU-Fly shuttle, which helps bring students around town without them having to bring their vehicles. I also helped initiate the “Pirates Gold Card” so students can spend more money locally with participating shops and restaurants. I also built partnerships between the SHU Environmental Studies Dept. and volunteers on the River Greenway Committee and connected groups like the SHU athletics department with a SOMA girls softball program. I had an aggressive “town & gown” platform and I still do today.

Founder/Chair – Citizens Public Safety Committee – I brought a resolution to the Board of Trustees in 2010 to form an advisory committee that would strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community. This was at a time where the Neighborhood Watch Program was just getting started as well. As Chair, I hosted several neighborhood meetings between law enforcement and the community to address many questions, concerns and challenges. I also brought “National Night Out” to South Orange which I organize every year (and still do today). In 2012, I organized a charity golf tournament to benefit the South Orange Rescue Squad (nearly $30,000). It was at that time I also became more involved with our Community Emergency Response Team and went through the training to become certified and I helped recruit more volunteers to join our efforts. During Hurricane Sandy, I was helping to operate our emergency shelters at the library and the Baird and in the aftermath of the storm, I organized a village-wide cleanup to assist our Dept. of Public Works.

Volunteer, Public Information and Marketing Committee – I worked with other residents to figure out ways to leverage our Village kiosks and Gaslight newsletter to get information out to the public and leverage the website as a place to provide timely information.

Volunteer, Main Street South Orange – I helped raise over $10,000 to support the Downtown After Sundown concert series and assisted in annual appeal letters to increase donations to support the organization as a whole. I also volunteered at all the major events such a “Celebrate South Orange” serving food or running activities.

Appointed Resident Member, Charter Review Committee – The South Orange Charter provides that every 12 years, the Charter be reviewed. The Committee held 21 public meetings and issued a 60-page report to the governing body in July 2011.

As a member of the Board of Trustees for two years, I’ve been involved with the following:

Chair, Public Safety Committee

I’ve worked closely with Trustee Howard Levison on IT improvements for the police department including computer-aided dispatch and records management.  I also led the effort for public safety radio communication upgrades, created a Village-wide pedestrian safety campaign to address traffic calming, partnered with the Community Relations Bureau to launch “Coffee with a Cop” and Positive Behavior Citations to youth, and have facilitated numerous community meetings to address crime and quality of life issues both in neighborhoods and in the downtown. When significant gas lamp outages were rampant across the Village, I helped organize 50 volunteers to document 400 outages in 2 hours that were immediately reported and corrected by PSE&G. Crime in South Orange is down 24% from 2013 to 2014, which I attribute to an incredibly effective police department, active neighborhood watch program and significant board support.

Trustee Liaison, Seton Village Committee

I worked to Launch the “Re-Imagine Irvington Avenue” Initiative.  In 2013, we partnered with Seton Hall’s Market Research Center to gain insight into the community’s vision for improvements on the Irvington Avenue Corridor, informed by a survey of 700 stakeholders. A resolution creating a neighborhood-centric resident and business owner initiative was established and now boasts a successful resume including: new events (food truck festival, holiday celebrations, cleanups), marketing and branding (“Seton Village”), and beautification (new lighting on trees, plantings and hanging baskets, repaving roads & restriping crosswalks).  The corridor will also be the beneficiary of a significant federal grant awarded to Essex County ($850,000) on behalf of Maplewood, Newark and South Orange for pedestrian and streetscape improvements.

Trustee Liaison, Senior Citizens Advisory Committee

I worked to reestablish the Senior Citizens Advisory Committee which is now one of the largest advisory committees in the Village. Our group hosted an inaugural senior citizens town hall forum to obtain senior citizen feedback and input on important community issues. We also worked with the parking authority to launch a new senior bus route and are currently working on discount cards for seniors.  The committee is evaluating long-term “aging in place” best practices and policies that will retain and attract seniors to South Orange.

Trustee Liaison, Business Code Review Task Force

I introduced “Scrub the Code” for village businesses. Frustrated by antiquated red-tape policies that were bad for business, I created a Task Force of stakeholders charged with: a) identifying problem areas in codes, permits and other processes b) finding solutions to those problems and c) streamlining inspection, permitting and other regulations that directly impact South Orange’s business environment.  Improved code recommendations will be presented to the full Board of Trustees for adoption and implementation in 2015.

Trustee Member, Planning & Zoning Committee

I introduced the Great Streets Matching Grant Program and lobbied other trustees and received support to implement a public/private partnership aimed at improving the “look” of Village storefronts for 2015.  Business and property owners will be eligible to receive Village matching funds to improve public facing exterior repair and restoration including: paint, signage, awnings, lighting and other aesthetics.

As a member of the Planning and Zoning Committee and Liaison to the Development Committee, I have brought residents directly into the planning process and have established various stakeholder working groups and leveraged the volunteer Development Committee’s professional talent by assigning committee members to evaluate and make recommendations on various projects including both public and private proposals.

Support for staff, volunteers and community events

I’ve worked diligently to recognize and thank volunteers on Village boards, commissions and committees by organizing a volunteer appreciation party and introducing bi-annual employee appreciation events with Trustee Davis Ford.  I also love organizing and supporting big community events and helped supplement the outdoor concerts on the hill series with the outdoor movies series and raising over $15,000 to bring back First Night. I also worked with several Village Temples to host the first public menorah lighting, and helped to coordinate a variety of Village cleanups. Most recently, I helped facilitate a public health partnership between a local physician and the recreation department to launch the South Orange Health and Fitness Challenge, where 130 contestants are taking advantage of a community-wide support network to meet their weight-loss and wellness goals.

Do you or any immediate family members have any contracts or other business with or concerning the local government?

No. I’m also pleased that our governing body has the strongest Pay to Play ordinance in the state that far exceeds state best practices.

What is your position on development in town? How much development should be allowed? What kind? How will/should the town deal with traffic issues? How can the town foster development without negatively impacting the character of the town? Is declaring the entire town as an area in need of rehabilitation a good or bad thing?

As the Executive Director of the American Planning Association in New Jersey, I’ve seen communities that have leveraged tools to revitalize first suburbs and business districts and I’ve also seen some really irresponsible planning which is incredibly frustrating. My position on development is that any proposal needs to be weighed carefully against our community’s goals because every town is very different and we all have different assets and opportunities as well as challenges.

Our Vision Plan, which was completed in 2010, is a great framework and was by far the most robust community outreach the Village had ever undertaken (and I was happy to participate in). In terms of how much development should be allowed, we’re a relatively built-out community with 77% of our land being occupied by single-family residential. This must be protected with zoning and master plan elements such as a historic element. Commercial and mixed-use development represent roughly 5% of our overall land and is the area where the greatest opportunities for redevelopment, rehabilitation and transit-oriented development exist.

There is no a “set” number that I can project into the future because the overwhelming majority of property is privately owned and has existing zoning that allows for redevelopment of properties. The most immediate opportunity will be for the Village to work with the new owner who has acquired what has been an eyesore in our community for quite some time at the corner of Church and South Orange Avenue (demolition began on Saturday). This is a great example of underutilized land that can and will provide for housing choices as well as new retail space to be the gateway to our central business district.

With respect to “what kind”, I am very committed to trying to develop age-restricted housing, which is part of my platform. It is our single largest deficiency in terms of having a diverse housing stock. We have a lot of people downsizing from homes to move to a “maintenance free” environment and have ease of access to public transit and amenities within walking distance in our commercial corridors. Units, such as these, are built with the master bedroom, kitchen, living room (etc.) on the first floor, and guest bedrooms on the second floor. What is unique right now is that both baby boomers and millennials are seeking the same thing out of housing and it’s what South Orange is positioned to deliver on, making us a leading smart growth community – which is why we’ve won several awards.

Fostering developing without hurting our character can be and should be done by strong design guidelines and standards for any new development or exterior renovations. The rehabilitation designation recently adopted by the Board of Trustees is going to be a great tool to revitalize commercial corridors and properties outside our Central Business District (CBD) which already benefits from being a Redevelopment Zone which is why we’ve seen substantial investment within the downtown core over the past decade and not much any where else. Local Redevelopment and Housing Law provides that a municipality can obtain a rehabilitation designation where more than half of the housing stock is at least 50 years old or where a majority of the water and sewer infrastructure is at least 50 years old and in need of repair or substantial maintenance; which were two criteria that made South Orange eligible. The designation in and of itself doesn’t mean anything – except that we’re eligible to take advantage of tax incentives to offer property owners to improve their buildings. A program of rehabilitation is necessary. We have old buildings that are in need of repair and if we’re trying to attract good retailers, we need quality storefronts.

If you look at our Village’s Smart Growth Plan, you’ll find that publicly/funded program to help local businesses maintain, rehabilitate and improve the appearance of their place of business was overwhelming supported by 80% of respondents. Rehabilitation does not permit long-term tax abatements, but does authorize limited, short-term tax exemptions or abatements on the value of repairs and new improvements, limited to no more than five years. Under short term tax abatements, in lieu of full taxes, the property owner pays on a phased in five year schedule of at least 20% in year 2, 40% in year 3, 60% in year 4, 80% in year 5 and full taxes thereafter. When market conditions alone are not producing the types of results we’re looking, we need to be creative and proactive in achieving results. Rehabilitation will provide for modest financial incentives, which I hope, prove to work and give the Village much-needed controls as well. Additionally, the Village already had a program of rehabilitation on the books in Chapter 144 of our Village code, which was adopted in the early 1990s and needs to be renewed in some fashion. This designation will allow for continuing this program if we choose to offer exemptions to single-family dwellings. Right now, our focus is on improving and updating our three business corridors.

How are you planning to improve the South Orange train station if elected? In particular, how will you deal with the homeless issue?

The South Orange Train Station is an anchor for our entire community and the lack of maintenance is unacceptable. The first stop will be meeting with NJ Transit officials to devise a plan on what can be done to improve the overall look and condition. The Village does not own the train station, so we will need to work closely with NJ Transit as partners.

Outside of the aesthetics, I also plan to be an advocate for good service to and from our station including advocating more options for Mountain Station.

When NJ Transit and the New Jersey Department of Transportation began their multi-agency Transit Village Initiative, our community was one of the first to step up to the plate. South Orange made the commitment to transform itself into a premier transit hub that would redevelop and revitalize areas around its transit facility. Consequently, in 1999 this community was one of the first designated Transit Villages. Ease of access is one of the greatest selling points of the community and I understand that firsthand.

Prior to being elected to the Board of Trustees, I fought the NJ Transit proposal to privatize the transit lot and also worked on restoring service levels when they were cut back in fall of 2012.

With respect to the homeless situation at the train station, after much collaboration and discussion, the Village ultimately decided to close the station between 2am-5am because it was slowly turning into a de facto homeless shelter. Our station is not equipped to serve as an overnight shelter, particularly because it does not provide bathrooms, showers, food, etc. We worked closely with social service agencies to meet and assist individuals who were using the station as a homeless shelter leading up to its overnight closure. I felt and do feel very strongly that we live in a very compassionate community and one that wants to help those less fortunate and resident expects their government to solve problems and not just move challenges elsewhere.

Moving forward, we will continue to monitor the situation through our police department and work with groups and individuals who can help provide the much needed support to individuals willing to take advantage of existing resources that are geared specifically to those needing shelter facilities and food.

What is your overall vision for public safety? How will you work with the police and other public agencies to reduce crime?

As the current Chair of the Village’s Public Safety Committee, I’m very proud of the police department and the work that we’ve been able to accomplish together. Part I (serious) crimes are down 24% in the past year alone and is following a 4 year trend of a 40% overall reduction. I attribute this primarily to having very committed and effective police officers but also to significant Board of Trustees investments in technology and building efficiencies, which will continue.

First, we need to complete our public safety radio communications projects to ensure that all our public safety groups have reliable communication with one another and surrounding jurisdictions. This is a project I have been working on for about year.

Next, we need to continue to build upon being a “data-driven” department and accordingly, align our patrol shifts and resources to peak times when call volume is typically high and when we know crimes are being committed (many are crimes of opportunity that occur at night time hours.

I also believe very strongly in “community policing” which encompasses continuing to build our neighborhood watch program, and making crime reporting easier and crime data more accessible so residents play an active role in crime prevention.

Recently, I worked on two initiatives with our Community Relations Bureau (Coffee with a Cop & Positive Behavior Citations to youth) to increase interactions between law enforcement and the public they serve. It is together that we’re able to keep South Orange a safe and vibrant community. I also want to explore bringing back bike patrols for our commercial corridors. Lastly, over the next four years, we will need to upgrade and expand our Village-wide wireless network which enhances our capabilities to prevent and solve crime using modern technology.

What will you do to ease the tax burden?

Delivering quality services at an optimized cost would be a top priority for my administration and I’m pleased to have voted for the two lowest municipal tax increases in 15 years during my tenure on the board. Our average spending increases are roughly .67% which is an accomplishment considering that so many of our fixed costs are higher than that.

Moving forward, we’d continue to aggressively pursue shared services. Who does it better, faster, and cheaper is my motto. Our greatest opportunities are sharing our recreation services and I have a new proposal to create a shared Division of Senior Services with Maplewood as well.

We’re currently taking the lead in IT with Maplewood paying us to provide that service and I believe we can be a leader in public safety dispatch operations between several communities. Next, economic development and attracting investment to our community is critical to expanding our overall tax base.

Taxes are high because we have limited commercial ratables – no malls, no home depot, etc. It’s made even more difficult because our largest landowner is tax exempt. As noted in a previous question, 77% of our overall land is single family residential and that will not change. Our commercial land mass is less than 5% of our land yet has the greatest opportunities.

While I wasn’t on the Board of Trustees at the time, I can speak to the Developer’s Agreement with Jonathan Rose for the 3rd & Valley development. The Village received new public parking (which we desperately needed and would have had to construct at municipal rates in the near future), $400k to our affordable housing trust fund, $1.1M to our South Orange Rescue Squad for a new headquarters that volunteers have been seeking for many years, $250k which will be put towards alternative transportation and/or parking, and roughly $600k in new revenue annually which increases ever year.

This basically comes out to be a $10M package in direct and indirect value plus the annual payment from the developer. To put that into perspective, every time the BOT increases taxes by 1% it’s equivalent to approximately $100,000. Next, having shovel ready projects for grants and being ahead of the curve is critical.

This past year, the Village received the single largest Department of Transportation grant for Phase IV of the River Greenway project – $1M. In the past two years I’ve been on the BOT, we’ve received over $2M in grants. Most recently, we submitted a grant request for $700,000 to fund the public safety radio system project. 

What will you do to attract new businesses and help sustain existing businesses?

Supporting small businesses is an incredible passion of mine and I’m a shop local junkie. Attracting new business is great but more importantly is attracting businesses that will be supported by our local economy and not turn over.

Through a study conducted last year, we now have the data available to directly target the types of businesses South Orange would like to see. The report indicated that we have a $180M retail leakage occurring within a one-mile radius of our Central Business District (CBD), which is a very big problem. With the data, we remove the “guessing” out of the equation and can directly approach business models that we know can succeed and can assure them based on data that their business will do well with our demographics (restaurants, specialty food stores, arts & crafts, home goods, clothing, hardware, etc.).

I intend to work closely with staff at the South Orange Village Center Alliance in recruitment efforts using the data to get what we want and directly work with property owners in our commercial corridors to make sure they have all the necessary information to attract tenants that will succeed.

Next, through the program of rehabilitation discussed in a previous question, we will work directly with property owners and business owners to upgrade their properties by giving them competitive financial incentives to do so. The overall look and interior condition of all our business corridors needs to be improved and quality tenants want to locate to good storefronts. Good properties attract good retails, it’s pretty simple and it’s why new retail space goes so quickly while others remain stagnant. Using tax incentives strategically gets us to a desired outcome and generates new revenue for the Village – revenue that would not be realized otherwise.

I’ve also been working with stakeholders to create a “Great Streets Matching Grant” program that will match small businesses up to $2500 for façade improvements – signage, awnings, lightings, etc. The grant is contingent on working with a newly established Design Review Board to ensure compatibility with surrounding storefronts. This will be free technical assistance by professionals (who are volunteers) to better help our small businesses with their marketing and branding efforts.

Moreover, we’ve already begun the process of making things easier and faster for people to own and operate a business in South Orange which is why I created a Task Force this past fall to review all our municipal policies and procedures that adversely affect our business community. The full series of recommendations will be presented in 2015 to the governing body for adoption.

Lastly, I intend to work with our business community and BOT to advocate the advancement of amendments to NJ’s liquor license laws and a bill is currently being considered in Trenton. Right now, we have antiquated liquor license laws that hurt our table service restaurants. The going rate for a license in South Orange is roughly $500,000. Under a new bill being proposed, table service restaurants (Boccone, Walia, Reservoir, etc) would be able to obtain a beer and wine license for $3,000. Existing license holders will be fairly compensated through tax credits up to the full amount of the value of the license and then they can keep the license as well.

Amending antiquated laws will have a profound impact on so many small restaurants and from the data, we know South Orange loves its food and an amendment like this will be a game changer for our commercial corridors.

What are you thoughts on working with the South Orange-Maplewood School District?

Within my platform, I propose creating an Inter-local Budget Advisory Committee between South Orange, Maplewood, and the Board of Education to address municipal and schools needs in a coordinated fashion and maximize taxpayer value. I’m also happy to have the support of all members of the board of education who reside in South Orange. Our success is interconnected and the decisions we make both in South Orange and Maplewood have impacts on the schools and vice versa. Where I believe there is a lot of opportunity is in facilities planning. A great example is when the school board was considering the construction of an $8M aquatic center. A conversation like that should start with the municipalities and understanding each of our assets and how we can share. There are many more examples but the first step is bringing all of us around the same table, which I’m committed to doing.

What do you envision for future animal shelter needs? And what vision do you have for the future of the former JAC building?

This ties directly to my response about taxes and the need to share services. With respect to an animal shelter – any facility and staffing needs to be done with an eye towards shared services and inter-local agreements to provide quality and reliable services at the best cost and this could certainly include South Orange taking the lead and keeping the JAC building as an animal shelter and working with a nonprofit organization such as Furry Hearts Rescue. I’m an animal lover and one of our Chihuahuas came from the JAC. I’ve also been working with some volunteers on exploring a TNR program to pilot in our community. I’m definitely committed to getting us to a desired outcome but can’t make a commitment one way or another right now because we’re moving through a process allowing all stakeholders to have a voice. The JAC building is being considered for several options and we’ve also engaged the Farrell Field Park neighborhood association to participate in conversations as well.

What is your vision for the future of Village Hall?

I led the effort to issue an RFP for a 3rd party to bid on Village Hall with the requirement that the exterior be fully restored and to meet the requirements of historic guidelines. There is zero interest in demolishing the building. It will be preserved no matter what because it’s an amazing Village icon and it is protected on the both the state and national register. The question I posed to my colleagues was can we find an interested buyer to purchase the building from us (meaning we get money from the sale), restore the building to historic standards (which can be done less expensively than if we did it – our construction costs are estimated to be roughly $5.5M), and is there a better use of the property compared against municipal administrative functions. So we issued the RFP while still continuing down the parallel path of renovation for municipal purposes.

What I liked most about this process, which was done at a very low cost, was making sure that companies who were bidding on the municipal renovations knew we were also considering adaptive reuse options – so sharpen your pencil. And know that as Village President, I will always, always position us to have options and never feel backed into a corner. Options are good because it puts us in the driver’s seat where we should be.

Many thought this exercise wouldn’t produce results but it did. We have competitive bids that we’ve narrowed down to two uses: 1) a boutique hotel which was identified in the Atlantic Group report as a good use for our downtown and 2) a restaurant with a formal dining room, outdoor seating, farm to table food with an expected liquor license, and 2nd floor meeting space. It’s worth noting that this restaurant group has tremendous experience in restoring historic buildings and turning them into successful restaurants and we know from our most recent report commissioned by the Village Center that this community supports quality food establishments. If the economics work favorably in the long term to the Village and if we agree that a superior use is being proposed, then yes, I would move in the adaptive reuse direction.

In the next 20 years, we will easily double our debt ($50M) if we are unable to be creative in reaching collective goals and create a program of maintenance for all existing village facilities and sometimes that includes adaptive reuse for historic buildings or entering into public-private partnerships. Many of the buildings needing renovation today are a product of deferred maintenance and I have no intention of kicking the can to the next governing body. Hard choices will be made and that will be done through a public and transparent 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (in my platform) so we all get on the same page on how we’re moving forward in a responsible way that gets us to a program of maintenance.

Are there any more shared services deals to be made? Police? Fire? Or are we all tapped out? 

We’re not even close to tapped out. Anything and everything (legally permissible) is always on the table for discussion. Recreation is a great opportunity for South Orange and Maplewood as is a Division of Senior Services. I’d also like to revisit the discussion the Board of Trustees had in 2010 with Maplewood with respect to a combination fire department. The cost savings for both towns on a proposal such as this could be tremendous if we could use each other’s headcounts to be calculated in minimum staffing numbers for shifts to provide sufficient shared coverage while avoiding costly overtime expenses. Currently, police and fire both benefit from strong mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities, which is great. But because public safety comprises the largest percentage of overall personnel costs, they also have the greatest opportunities for savings if done correctly. Unfortunately, existing state laws don’t make it easy for non-civil service communities and civil service communities to enter into meaningful agreements. I do anticipate that in the next 5 years, we will begin seeing real reform and tools at the state level to better encourage and facilitate municipal cooperation

How will you work to increase community engagement and provide more and better communications with the public?

During my tenure on the Board of Trustees, I’ve probably hosted more community forums and neighborhood meetings than any Trustee to ever sit on the governing body. Why? Because working directly with residents, listening to concerns, brainstorming solutions (etc.) is one of the aspects of being an elected official I like the most. Look at my campaign trail alone – I loved every second of 20 events in 30 days and sitting directly across from those I wish to serve. I already regularly send out emails to neighborhood associations, I post on social media, I answer questions on Nextdoor and Maplewood Online, and quite frankly, having an actively engaged community with two-way communications helps us make better decisions as a governing body.

I would like to continue having “meet and greets” in neighborhoods throughout the year and I’d also like to establish a Neighborhood Leaders Forum quarterly. I’d like the Board of Trustees to have a table at our community events and be available to answer questions, address concerns, and solicit feedback. I also want to introduce digital newsletters to provide more timely updates on topics of interest. The website will hopefully be launched soon under the work of our Public Information and Marketing Committee and we will be able to leverage tools, such as Peak Democracy, to solicit feedback from the public on a formal online forum. I’ve also been working with our senior buildings on establishing technology trainings with Seton and a wifi zone for our senior citizens to learn more about how to use technology and having it readily available for them.


Read more about Collum’s campaign here.

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