Borough Council Quick Takes are information briefs of topics discussed at Borough Council meetings. Depending upon the issue, Municipal Editor David Learn will follow up with more in-depth stories.
The Borough Council is considering taking some undeveloped municipal lots along North 11th Avenue and turning them into a new “pocket park.”
The properties in question abut private property along Highland Avenue, and are too small for residential or other development. Many of the lots, which Council President Susan Welkovits described as about “30 by 20 feet,” already have been sold to the owners of the abutting Highland Avenue properties; but some properties remain borough holdings.
Pocket parks are small parks frequently created on small, irregular pieces of land. Although they are too small for sports fields or impromptu pick-up games, pocket parks sometimes can provide a small playground area. It was not clear Tuesday night exactly how large the potential pocket park along North 11th Avenue would be.
It was unclear how quickly or even if the suggestion would take root and grow into an actual proposal.
“We have to get permission from all the neighbors before we can do this,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler.
Residents of the Triangle are to be on the vanguard of a new trash collection system. The Borough will begin a trial in automated collection starting this June. Residents of the Triangle will receive new, 95-gallon trash cans to use as part of the pickup process.
It is important that cans not be overfilled, and do not contain hazardous waste, said Council President Susan Welkovits.
Chinese-speakers utilizing the Senior/Youth Center have had the crucial advantage of having access to the translation services of Xie Xiaoxia, a native of China and resident of Highland Park. She has been acting as a translator for anyone who needs it. Her volunteer work drew the attention of municipal officials, and on Tuesday night, Ms. Xiaoxia was appointed to the Public Information Committee.
“It’s my honor to be approved as a member,” said Ms. Xiaoxia, who now will be able to help on a broader scale.
Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler also appointed Matthew Hersh, Chaim Cohen and Valeri Widemann to that committee members. Other appointments included Jacob Shulman and Amiri Tulloch to the Human Relations Commission, and Allan Williams to the Environmental Commission and the Planning Board.
Local artist, volunteers honored
Local artist William Giacalone was honored at Tuesday night’s Borough Council meeting.
Mr. Giacalone, a longtime resident of Highland Park for 30 years, was presented with a framed print of a poster he had designed celebrating the borough’s commitment to the arts.
“His art can be seen many places around town,” Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler said.“You’re a wonderful resident and a beautiful man.”
Also honored were 14 volunteers who work at the Meadow Trails near Donaldson Park. The volunteers, many of whom were not present Tuesday night, maintain the Meadows by cutting the grass, maintaining the mulch path, and removing invasive species and vines that undermine the park’s ecological health.
State pension plan
Council members don’t like the way the state handles its money.
Council members previously have discussed how the state Department of Treasury has short-changed Highland Park and other municipalities on property tax relief that is supposed to come from an energy tax. The state in 2013 withheld $812,533 it was supposed to pay Highland Park; over the years, the aid withheld has reached more than $5.6 million, according to figures provided by Borough Administrator Kathleen Kovach.
But Tuesday night during its agenda meeting prior to the council meeting and open to the public, Councilman Philip George raised another state fiscal issue. He took issue with how the state invests the money from the state employees pension fund.
One of the companies in which the state invests its pension fund monies is JLL Partners, owner of ACE Cash Express. ACE Cash Express is a pay day lender, meaning that it lets individuals borrow money against an upcoming paycheck. The practice is banned by New Jersey state statute.
During discussion, Mr. George referred several times to a news article he had shared with other council members about the situation, which has been reported in media such as Fortune.com.
“It’s taxpayer dollars that are going into this program, which is illegal in New Jersey,” said Mr. George.
The council is considering a resolution for its May 19 meeting in which it would urge the state to divest in JLL Partners. Resolutions carry the moral weight of the Borough Council, but have no legal power to compel the state to do anything.
State licenses for undocumented immigrants
The Borough Council is considering supporting a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants the chance to get a New Jersey state driver’s license.
Under current New Jersey law, undocumented immigrants are not permitted drivers licenses, and have not been able to get state-issued photo ID since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. As a result, Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin explained, in a state like New Jersey where driving often is essential for employment, undocumented immigrants are not only unlicensed but uninsured as well, creating increased risk because they have not been tested for driver safety and increased liability when they are involved in auto accidents.
“From a public safety standpoint, we’d like to propose that Highland Park sign onto this program,” said Ms. Foster-Dublin.
The practice already is the law in 11 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, according to the National Immigration Law Center. In New Jersey, it has found support from New Brunswick, Perth Amboy, Asbury Park and other municipalities.
The Borough Council would not be able to pass a resolution supporting a change in the state’s licensing law until May 19 at the earliest, but Councilman Philip George signaled his support for it immediately.
“I would support this 100 percent on a public safety standpoint alone,” he said. He added that motorists found driving without a license can find themselves imprisoned when they are unable to pay the fines and continue to drive without a license because of job demands. “It’s highly disruptive.”
Turf fees may increase
Out-of-town organizations may find themselves paying more for privilege of using Highland Park’s sports fields.
Borough Councilman Gary Potts shared with his colleagues a proposed rate hike from the Recreation Advisory Committee that would double what the borough charges outsiders for the use of municipal fields. Fields would continue to be free for organizations based in Highland Park.
Under the current rate structure, for-profit organizations pay $75 an hour for the use of Highland Park sports fields, and not-for-profit organizations pay $50 an hour. The advisory committee recommends doubling those rates, after investigation revealed that every other facility in the area charges far more, as much as $300 an hour.
“It seems like a huge increase, but it’ll still the cheapest place in town,” said Mr. Potts.
The advisory committee also proposes doubling the rates charged for track use by organizations from outside Highland Park. The current rates are $50 an hour for for-profit groups and $100 for not-for-profit groups.
The council will consider a resolution to change the rates at its May 19 meeting.
When disaster strikes, how resilient is Highland Park?
The Borough Council hopes to learn the answer to that by having the borough participate in a resiliency study. The study will gauge the preparedness of municipal departments – such as the Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Public Works – to respond to crises, such as the winter of 2014, which left parts of Highland Park without electricity for extended periods during bitterly cold weather.
Environmental Commission member Allan Williams will head the borough effort in the study.
School board liaison
The Board of Education may soon have a voice at meetings of the borough Human Relations Commission.
The Borough Council introduced an ordinance that would grant the school board a liaison on the commission. The liaison would have no official vote on commission recommendations to the Borough Council, but would be able to share the school district’s perspective on matters that the commission considers.
“This way communication between the commission and the Board of Education would be enhanced,” said Borough Councilman Josh Fine. “I’m happy that it seems to have passed at this point.”
The commission is charged with making recommendations to the Borough Council to eliminate discrimination in Highland Park, and with promoting good relations among the various populations in the borough.
The Human Relations Commission meets the third Wednesday of each month.