State of Maplewood Is ‘Excellent,’ Says Mayor DeLuca in Annual Address

by The Village Green
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The following State of the Township Address was presented by Mayor Victor DeLuca at the Maplewood Reorganization Meeting on January 1, 2016:

Happy New Year!

Congratulations to Nancy and Greg on the first day of your new terms. Marlon, India and I look forward to serving with you and benefitting from your new ideas and enthusiasm. You will find being a Township Committee member is challenging, rewarding and at times frustrating. Nevertheless, it is a terrific experience and I know you will be grateful for this chance to serve your community.

I do have one bit of bad news. A new Harvard study found a decrease in lifespan for elected heads of state in 17 western countries. Compared to the runners-up in those elections, the average lifespan difference was 2.7 years in favor of the political losers. Now I don’t know the correlation between heads of state and Township Committee members but maybe those who ran against us are having the last laugh. And they are laughing almost 3 years longer.

Thank you Kathy Leventhal and Jerry Ryan for your years of service to the people of our community. We accomplished a great deal and each of you made Maplewood better by your actions.

Thanks also to my colleagues for electing me as Mayor for my eleventh year. This is a collegial and cooperative body that always keeps the interest of Maplewood as its first order of business.

Today, I am happy to report the State of Maplewood is excellent. Our fundamentals are as solid as ever before. Homes are selling above asking price, with the average home sale now $549,000. That’s nearly 6 percent more than 2014. On average, homes are staying on the market only 36 days, 19 percent less than a year ago.

Major crimes are down by 12 percent. This decrease follows a 10 percent reduction from 2013 to 2014, and constitutes one of the lowest crime levels in the past 15 years.

A new CVS opened on Valley Street. The Park Wood Diner made the Star Ledger’s list as one of the 25 best places to eat in New Jersey. Restaurant Lorena’s was named one of the 100 Best Restaurants in America by OpenTable diners. Verjus was selected by NJ Monthly’s as one of the top 25 restaurants in the state.

And we won the Downtown Showdown – the Most Favorite Downtown in New Jersey. With your votes week after week, we easily bested other downtowns – shattering Summit; pounding Princeton; mashing Montclair; and mowing down Morristown. It was a much deserved win. On November 14th we celebrated and it was a fun day and night in the state’s best downtown.

So you see; our fundamentals are very sound. But there is another aspect of our community that makes it extraordinary. We are inclusive, open and welcoming, a desirable place that people choose to move to, live in and raise a family.

Maplewood stands in stark contrast with most cities and towns in New Jersey and America. A July New York Times poll found that blacks and whites live in separate societies – 79 percent of whites said they do not live with more than a few blacks; 81 percent said they do not work with more than a few blacks and 68 percent said they do not come in regular contact with more than a few blacks.

Sadly, we see presidential contenders exploit resentment and promote fear over facts to build up their campaigns, using code words to divide us by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. We have governors competing with one another on how tightly they will close their borders to refugees from Syria and other war torn parts of the world.

Meanwhile in Maplewood, our diverse community rises above this fray, joining together as one people to promote peace and harmony.

For six days in August, five Buddhist monks from Tibet created a magnificent work of mandala sand art. Each day, hundreds of people of all races, religions, beliefs, and ages visited the Woodland to watch the monks construct this masterpiece. And after 30 hours of artistry, the mandala was deconstructed and the sand deposited into the East Branch of the Rahway River, dispersing the healing energies of the mandala throughout the world. Our community came together as one, welcoming and embracing the culture and traditions of people from another land.

Last month, our friends at Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church spoke out clearly and boldly for compassion. In the face of many voices across our land arguing against accepting Syrian refuge families, Morrow Church leaders stood strong, raising funds, food and clothing to help a family resettling in New Jersey from Syria. I want to applaud the Reverends Motta and Ehlers and the Morrow Church leaders for being a shining light in our community.

There is no more important service the Township provides than public safety – police, fire and emergency medical services. Our responsibility is to do all we can to protect our citizens. Last year the police department generated about 40,000 officer activity records and handled 70,000 phone calls with 10,000 being emergency 911 calls. Officers made approximately 200 adult arrests and 150 juvenile arrests during the year.

As I mentioned earlier, major crimes are down from a year ago. We are particularly happy to see robberies decline by 50 percent and a dramatic reduction in the use of firearms in these robberies. In 2015 there were 4 firearms used in 17 robberies compared to 19 firearms used in 35 robberies in 2014. While this reduction is good news, there are still too many illegal guns on the street and I will continue my advocacy to bring about common sense gun laws in our nation.

We do live in uncertain and dangerous times with ever-evolving threats of domestic and international terrorism. The Maplewood Police Department engages in emergency planning and specialized scenario based training in order to rapidly respond to a wide range of threats. The department maintains relationships with local, state and federal law enforcement partners, including the Department of Homeland Security, in order to respond properly in the event of any large scale threat or incident. The department is prepared to act if need be.

Our Fire Department is second to none, responding last year to nearly 4,000 requests for assistance. In addition to fighting fires and performing fire safety inspections to protect our lives and properties, the Department provided 1,750 emergency services responses. If you’ve ever seen them in action, you will know why we are in good hands with our Fire Department.

No volunteer board or committee was busier than the Planning Board. Last year it held 17 meetings and approved projects totaling 283 apartments, including those at the former PSE&G building and former Post Office, and six retail stores. Additionally, it approved plans to expand the Able Baker, to build a Wawa convenience store and gas station on Springfield Avenue, and further develop Winchester Gardens.

The Township Committee also was busy greeting residents at its monthly Talk to the Township Committee sessions. To reach all in our community, we expanded the areas in which we stand one Saturday each month to include Maplewood, Springfield and Irvington Avenues, Jacoby Street, DeHart Park and the DPW recycling center. Another effort to boost civic engagement was our accepting real time email questions from viewers during last January’s municipal budget hearings. This is something we will do again this year. And, under Mr. Brownlee’s leadership, neighborhood leaders regularly met through the Maplewood Community Action Program to discuss concerns and shared information.

In 2015 we also:

  • Paved the eastern portion of Springfield Avenue and installed pedestrian activated lighted crossing signs
  • Rebuilt the Skate Park at Maplecrest Park
  • Upgraded the restrooms, pathways and entrance to Borden Park
  • Resurfaced the Memorial Park tennis courts
  • Repaired 860 potholes
  • Planted more than 100 trees throughout the Township
  • Entered into a contract with St. Hubert’s for animal control services
  • Worked with Maplewood Loves Wellness to publish a Healthy Cook Book
  • Sponsored a dozen health screenings for adults and seniors
  • Issued 1,600 building permits totaling nearly $25 million in construction work
  • Restored Sunday library services at the Hilton Branch
  • Attracted over 1,400 attendees at the 2015 Maplewood Ideas Festival
  • Maintained the Township’s AA/Stable Credit Rating by Standard and Poor’s
  • Implemented a Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release Program for feral cats

None of this could have been accomplished without a professional and competent staff. At the helm is Township Administrator Joseph Manning, who we thank for his excellent leadership. Cesar Correa, Assistant Township Administrator; Roger Desiderio, Township Attorney; and Elizabeth Fritzen, Township Clerk, round out the executive team. We thank them for their support and assistance.

I also would like to recognize our department heads and employees who do a terrific job in serving the people of Maplewood. Please stand so we can properly thank you.

What’s on the horizon for 2016?

We will move forward with our plans to revitalize and rebrand the Irvington Avenue shopping district as Maplewood Corners. A leadership team of residents and business owners will guide our work. This is an exciting opportunity and we look forward to working with the County of Essex and South Orange to complete this project.

The Maplewood Arts Council will be re-energized as a facilitator and coordinator of arts and cultural offerings in town. The Woodland already houses numerous events and this year we will bring the kitchen up to current day standards to allow for its use. We also will air condition the community room at the Burgdorff Center making that space available all year round.

If I had two words to share with the drivers in town they would be SLOW DOWN. In the past 70 days we have had two pedestrians hit by cars and that is two too many. We are a walking town and need to focus more energy on pedestrian safety and enforcement of traffic laws. I intend to organize a Traffic Summit to plan a response to this growing problem. We will bring together representatives from the Township, traffic professionals from county and state departments of transportation, and experts from colleges and universities. We have to make it safer for our residents and they are demanding nothing less than that.

I want to applaud South Orange Village President Sheena Collum for her leadership on thinking about ways to share municipal services with us to improve delivery and lower costs. We just created a partnership on senior services that will bring dramatic changes to the types of services we provide in our two towns. We also are continuing the conversation with South Orange about sharing fire services and have not forgotten about a possible shared service for animal control.

Some of our other 2016 initiatives:

  • We will hold our second “Doing Business with the Township” session for local business people, including those working from home, who are interested in selling goods and services to the Township.
  • We will continue to work with the school district and South Orange on strategies to improve school safety.
  • We will implement a $350,000 Safe Street to School’s grant to improve drop off and traffic conditions at Clinton School.
  • We will kick-off the planning process to create a Library for the 21st Century.

In compliance with an order from the Essex County Tax Board, Maplewood will join with South Orange to conduct a joint property reassessment. A private firm will be hired in the spring to review sales and do field inspections of all properties in the two towns. The new property values will be announced in the fall and property owners will be given opportunities to meet with the assessors to fully understand the assigned values, which will be put on the books for the 2017 tax year.

There is much happening around town and we invite you to get involved in civic life. We have more than 100 positions on the Township’s 16 boards and committees and we thank those who have stepped up and volunteered. We appreciate the time you give to your community and the contributions you make to moving Maplewood forward.

And for those of you not yet engaged, we have vacancies. We would like to appoint more new residents to our boards and committees and especially, more people of color. Volunteerism has been a hallmark of Maplewood and we urge you to get involved.

Maplewood’s future is bright and I am excited about the possibilities that are before us. I hope you are too.

Thank you.

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