The following remarks were made by Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis upon his selection on January 1, 2023 by the Maplewood Township Committee to lead the TC for a second one-year term as Mayor of Maplewood.
Thank you to my colleagues – I’m deeply honored and humbled by your confidence and faith in me. I will continue leading us with the strength, conviction, commitment, and collaboration that you’ve become accustomed from me. I will continue being our greatest representative externally to our elected colleagues and partners in government.
Thank you to Maplewood Dems without whom I will not be here, especially Chairman Grodman and Vice Chairwoman Hall, and to all of our Democratic District Leaders, I’m proud of our tremendous growth this past year and of our exceptional performance in getting out the vote here locally and for our new congressional representative, Congresswoman Mikie Sherill. We really hit so many home runs politically, truly stood our ground in Essex, quite impressively too when compared to our sister towns in the county with larger populations and greater resources. New female district leaders moved us forward, such us Becky Scheer, Erin Scherzer, Deb Engel, Nada Alzoubi and longtime DL former TC member and Deputy Mayor Kathy Leventhal & TC member India Larrier, too.
Deborah Engel, welcome aboard my friend. Congratulations on your impressive election and for making history in Maplewood – with your oath of office today we are now officially a diverse majority female governing body further strengthening our inclusivity and pushing us forward. May you find public service as rewarding and fulfilling as we do.
Happy New Year, everyone! Whatever the new year has in store of us, I’m proud to report that the township is prepared to meet it – we are strong, we are thriving, we are prepared!
As we head into our fiscal 2023 budget preparations, we are in much better footing financially than we were this time last year. We’ve paid off our 2012 and 2017 Refunding Bonds saving $1.5M and $2.3M respectively in 2023 debt service payments. Interest income has rebounded from pre-pandemic figures to over $250,000. Received FEMA reimbursement of nearly $800,000. Received Ida insurance payments of over $700,000. Still have outstanding FEMA claims of over $2,300,000 pending. Still have pending Ida insurance payments of roughly $1,400,000. Collected nearly $500,000 in Cannabis Fee revenue, double what we anticipated. Of course, we didn’t foresee state health benefit premiums rate increases at 22% effective today which we have to figure out how to accommodate, but all things considered we are cautiously optimistic about being able to adopt and produce a 2023 budget that is fair, adequate in meeting our needs, sincere, and far more reasonable in tax burden in comparison to the past few years.
We were successfully resourceful in securing federal and state grants (over 1.3MM in fact) to fund critical pedestrian safety enhancements along walking routes to schools, safety and streetscape improvements and drainage improvements/road renovations – this includes 480K in improving over 30 crosswalks with solar powered beacons. We went after Essex County Community Development Block Grants to upgrade over 26 ramps at various intersections and recently announced applying for an electric ADA accessible senior bus.
We promised last year that 2022 would focus heavily on infrastructure improvements and public works – on that we have delivered: nearly 3 miles of township roadway paved, extensive drainage improvements throughout the township completed, the design and construction of not one but two NJ DOT municipal aid projects, restriped municipal parking lots, completed the fueling station at DPW, installation of various speed humps throughout town as the result of traffic calming requests and evaluations, design and installation of EV chargers, negotiated with PSE&G the full width paving and restoration of roads affected by the gas main upgrades throughout town, planted over 200 trees and gave away hundreds of seedlings to residents to plant trees on their properties, pruned and or removed dangerous tress throughout the township, repairs to fields and recreation facilities including lighting and other necessary repairs at both DeHart field and Memorial Park tennis courts, several successful treatments to playing fields, leaf collection, bulk pick up and drop off, our library reconstruction is up and running…just to name a few.
2022 marked our finally turning the corner from COVID, rebuilding, expanding, and returning to full steam in services and programming. Most of our cultural heritage celebrations and signature events were back in a very big way. Our pool memberships rebounded and we’re especially proud of our swim lessons pilot that allowed even non-members the opportunity to learn an important life- skill. We hope to expand on that to provide more access and to make the pool more accessible, affordable. Most of our recreation camps returned to full capacity and we aim to expand access to our recreational programming overall. Pickleball the fastest growing sport in America is now available in Maplewood at our Walter Park tennis courts. A forthcoming online reservation system will enhance the pickleball & tennis experience for residents.
We continued strengthening our services to seniors and focusing on agefriendliness in all of our decisions. The SOMA Two Towns for All Ages sharedservice initiative is stronger than ever with now a Maplewood and South Orange coordinator. Speaking of shared services, our fire merger is complete and the entity – SEFD – fully operational. We entered a shared service for Health Department services with South Orange – shared services are hallmarks of efficiency, of good government, and better quality in services. The health department launched our crisis intervention social worker initiative which has been very impactful in identifying previously unknown vulnerabilities and in diverting them from law enforcement to necessary case management and support. This year we aim to expand the pilot to add an additional social worker with the goal of having an independent mobile unit soon. Our health staff performed hundreds of homebound COVID vaccinations and introduced their inaugural health fair for necessary health screenings and preventative outreach.
We remained leaders in sustainability achieving silver recognition from Sustainable Jersey and furthered our green initiatives including expanding our township wide Compost pilot, and the SEA – The Sustainable Essex Alliance (SEA) concluded its second successful contract with an alternative energy supplier in September, again enabling participating residents to save money on electricity supply, while doubling the renewable energy provided by PSE&G. Maplewood continues as SEA Lead Agency. With our municipal partners South Orange, Montclair, Verona, Livingston, Glen Rock, and Glen Ridge, guided by our consultant, we continue to test the energy market through competitive bidding for third favorable contract, dual streaming recycling starts tomorrow, our gas-powered leaf blower ban goes into effect today.
We bolstered our communications introducing a new, improved user-friendly website, digitized many of our services through GovPilot, and soon to introduce SMS notifications for immediate notifications about important happenings in town.
We celebrated the openings of many new businesses further underscoring the vitality and strength of our business districts. And we gave out cannabis licenses to women and BIPOC owned businesses. We also ushered in a new outdoor dining seasonal program that is equitable, uniform, and regulated. In the Village, we finally received official notice of our historic designation on the state and national registers of historic places – Durand-Hedden held a great exhibit highlighting that and celebrating our town’s centennial – if you haven’t seen it, go check it out.
Our commitment to inclusionary, affordable, smart & transit-oriented development continued with the approval of a redevelopment project at the former Gleason’s property and recently announced a proposed development at Yale Corner that may provide first-time homeownership opportunity. While home sales normalized a bit from the frenzy, the town remains wildly popular with in-movers, and existing homeowners continue to improve their homes – we issued over 2K permits, completed over 3K building inspections, and completed over 3K property maintenance inspections.
One of our main focuses of the new year will be the introduction of and public participation in the first draft of a new master plan. Thus far, our public workshops and stakeholder meetings have revealed common themes, such as “Connection,” “Quality of Life,” and “Resiliency” …. Connectivity meaning transportation and mobility, quality of life being affordability, resiliency meaning mitigating and adapting to climate change. Underlying everything is the concept of equity, which we believe will be the overarching theme of the new plan.
Unexpectedly we lost our dear Chief of Police, Jimmy DeVaul. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to deliver a eulogy worthy of him in front of his grieving family & our men and women in blue, to properly honor and remember him. But through our grief we had to preserve continuity and strength, so we quickly appointed Jimmy’s number two as our new Chief of Police, Al Sally making history as our first African American Chief of Police, and on Tuesday night we will be making history again, as we swear in Captain Niheema Malloy as our first ever African American female Deputy Chief!
We recognize that we’ve been challenged by the recent crime wave communities everywhere are facing, it’s shaken our confidence and tainted our perception, but make no mistake, we are taking this head on with better strategies in patrol, in leveraging technology such as license plate readers, sharing neighbors’ ring camera feeds, strategies which have already proven effective. And, we will continue strengthening relationships in the community to empower our residents in crime prevention. We remain safer as a community than we have ever been.
In the coming weeks, I will be launching a Mayors Wellness Campaign to promote greater health & wellness in our community and to further the Health Department’s soon to be shared community health assessment action plan. Our plan is to achieve Gold in Health rating from Sustainable Jersey – only two other municipalities in New Jersey have done so, the race is on to join them!
We will continue to look at areas where redevelopment may be necessary as an economic development opportunity and we will be focusing on housing, housing housing – marketing and educating about existing initiatives (such as ADUs) and reconsidering our zoning as the new master plan will reveal.
Our success is deeply rooted in the professionalism and dedication of our staff, in the leadership of our department heads, all of them exemplary, all around 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 crew
• Health Officer Candice Davenport, Nurse Anna Markarova and our entire team in Health including our vulnerable populations outreach coordinator Taliah Jeffers
• Community Services Director, Melissa Mancuso and her team Nick, Jamie, Denise, Stacey
• Finance Director, Joe Kolodziej & his Deputy the dedicated April Miller
• 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, and she’s now joined by Amari Allah her Deputy Clerk who is quickly emerging as a vital support in our services
• Township Interim Administrator Gregg Schuster and Assistant Admin 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
• Community Development Director (and our local Prosecutor) the incomparable Annette DePalma • Our courts administrator & director Ryan Bancroft
• Our social worker Marthe Eustace, senior services Michelle Wesley, and our two Some Tow Towns coordinators, Kristin & Amy
• Our township counsel, the one and only Roger Desiderio
Just to name a few…..
They are all the unsung heroes!
We all of 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 & services – thank YOU!
It’s going to be a great year, I just feel it ….stay engaged, let’s continue working together. It remains a great privilege and honor to serve you Maplewood. I’m grateful your support, I remain your steward in 2023 and beyond. Thank you!