The Borough of Highland Park reorganized on Tuesday, January 2, 2018, but the term “reorganization” meeting failed to convey the excitement that every elected official conveyed about the future of the small but mighty municipality. Four newly elected/re-elected officials were sworn in—Josh Fine, Elsie Foster-Dublin, Matthew Hersh, and Stephany Kim-Chohan. Councilman Phil George was elected by his council colleagues to serve as council president, replacing Susan Welkovits, who held the position for three years.
Each council member had an opportunity to give a shout out to the initiatives that were under the individual council member’s specific areas of responsibility. Particularly noteworthy were the following: Highland Park’s low violent crime rate (has the third lowest violent crime rate in New Jersey); vibrant arts scene; outstanding retail and recreational initiatives from Main Street Highland Park; popularity with Millennials (second only to Hoboken); diversity and immigration justice; settlement of Mr. Laurel affordable housing litigation; dismissal of sidewalk litigation; and significant progress on downtown redevelopment.
Below is Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler’s New Year’s address in which she summarized the exciting changes occurring last year and the ones to come to fruition in 2018.
So much has happened this last year, and I can gladly report that so much more is on the way.
It’s hard to believe, but this is my third annual report as mayor of Highland Park. One year ago, I outlined for you the four main areas we were addressing: Tax stabilization, Downtown development, Infrastructure, and Quality of Life. During 2017, we added Transparency as a goal. Just now, you heard your council members report on each of their areas of responsibility and their progress toward these goals. As you can clearly see, we have a dedicated, creative and hard-working group of elected council members here in Highland Park. I am honored to have them on my team.
Now, let me highlight some of our key achievements in 2017 and how I intend to work with the community in furthering our goals in 2018.
- Tax Stabilization #1 Goal:
What has been a daunting task over the last few years, now becomes even more of a challenge with the new tax laws passed in Washington, DC. I was happy to offer our residents who requested the opportunity to soften the blow of increased personal taxes in 2018 by prepaying their first and second quarter local real-estate taxes plus estimated third and fourth quarter taxes. Our tax collection office was aflutter the last two weeks of December.
- In 2018, we will work to reduce unbeneficial costs such as Litigations –
- Since 2003, Highland Park has been mired in affordable housing litigation. I am happy to report that the Borough Council and Planning Board have signed onto a settlement with Fair Share Housing that we hope will bring an end to these costs. We will strive to have the courts accept this settlement so that we can finally move on from this costly litigation to the work that needs to be done for all our residents.
- As you may recall, two different attorneys sued the municipality for the sidewalk program enacted in 2012. I’m happy to report that in one case a judge approved the settlement on appeal in our behalf, and in a second, the litigation brought against us was rejected by the Supreme Court.
- Grants-Grants are a source of outside funds that allow us to grow the borough and offer programs or opportunities to our residents that might otherwise have not been possible. In 2018, look for the benefits to our community from the following grants we were awarded in 2017:
- Micro Grid Feasibility Study to analyze ways to keep our key borough buildings (and perhaps more) open during temporary outages
- Safe Routes to School Grant for planning services that will make it safer to walk or bicycle around town
- Aetna Healthcare Grant to bring new community health programs to Highland Park
- An EPA/DEP Brownfield investigation grant to aid us in downtown development
- Shared services in 2017 were executed with Board of Education, Woodbridge Township, Edison Township, New Brunswick, and Rutgers University to help share in programming or employee costs
- Reorganization of staff in 2017 including new borough administrator, chief financial officer (as a contract professional), IT coordinator (as a contract professional)
- 2018 goal to conduct an efficiency study of Borough Hall and Senior Rec Center to improve utility costs and efficiencies
- Downtown Development
With very few ratables in town, downtown development is the key to our economic future. The move we took this year to make the entire municipality “an area in need of rehabilitation” was a big step in streamlining our processes. Additionally, we identified a key area in town, a portion of which is currently owned by the borough, for a second major development site. In 2018 we will continue to aggressively pursue downtown development by:
- Reviewing new ways to streamline redevelopment in downtown area for cost savings
- Pursue six new applicants in development pipeline
- Capitalize on Highland Park’s ranking as #2 in the State as “best places to live for Millenials”
- Anticipate revenue positives from new development and plan for increasing population (as recommended in 2016 Capital Improvements and Infrastructure Plan)
- Pursue Rutgers University/Highland Park Knight Share bicycle share program
- Main Street Highland Park brought new life to our downtown shopping experience during the past holiday shopping period with pop-up shops, food trucks, and a passport shopping promotional experience. We hope to see more of these weekend activities throughout the year.
- Infrastructure Improvements and Repairs
It is no secret that Highland Park, in fact most of the Northeast, relies on an aging infrastructure, some of which dates back to the beginning of the 20th Century. In 2018 we will continue to identify areas in need of updating, as well as finding ways to economically move our infrastructure into the 21st Century.
- PSE&G positive partnering:
- Continue to work on replacement of gas lines
- Continue street repairs
- Team up with PSE&G to make the research solar field on the upper meadows a reality in 2018
- Work with PSE&G and the Board of Public Utilities on execution of the Microgrid Feasibility Study
- Middlesex Water Company:
– identify the most cost efficient ways to update our water and sewer lines
– install updated internal controls and monitoring of water meters
- Department of Transportation:
- Ensure that the promised road diet on Upper Raritan Avenue is executed in 2018
- Pursue additional safety steps to calm traffic on Rt. 27, particularly in the areas of River Road and Raritan Road plus North 8th to Columbia Street
- Partner with New Brunswick to ensure that the DOT maintains the Albany Street Bridge and the approaches to the bridge on both the New Brunswick and Highland Park sides properly and expeditiously
- Clean energy: I will continue to represent Highland Park in the national group of Climate Mayors as we strive to reach our clean energy goals for 2050.
- Quality of Life
The quality of life that a community offers its residents is truly the measure by which management of a municipality should be judged. The outstanding programs and the volume of programs offered out seniors and children by our dedicated team of employees and volunteers are a reflection of the warmth and commitment of our residents and employees for one another. In 2018, we hope to expand upon our offerings to now include our teens and new immigrant or refugee residents.
- Teen Center
- Broke ground in 2017
- Open for programming and utilization by all of Highland Park teens by the end of 2018
- Donations to Highland Park Gives a Hoot exceeded $10,000
- Over 500 lunches were distributed by HP Gives a Hoot in 2017
- We held our first ever Unity Sing with participation from children throughout the community and featuring a new song written specifically for Highland Park by resident and renowned musician, Mr. Ray Anderson.
- Seniors and Adults
- In 2017 we were honored with recognition as a New Jersey “Healthy Town to Watch” for our many healthy living initiatives such as the Walk or Workout with the Mayor programs, our certification as New Jersey’s first Heart Safe Community, and our ongoing senior health and exercise programs.
- In 2018, we will expand the healthy living programs available for all our adult residents by including participation by local medical professionals through our Mayor’s Wellness Campaign Plus
- In 2017 we executed our new Tree Dedication program, allowing residents to honor someone with a plaque for a tree in Highland Park. This program will continue into 2018.
- Public Art
- Bringing art to everyone was a major goal for us in 2017. We were awarded Honorable Mention for our outdoor public arts programs by the League of Municipalities in 2017 for Innovations in Governance.
- In 2017 we joined with Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts to host our first Sculpture Walk on River Road
- Thanks to long-time resident Judge Barnett Hoffman, children and adults, were able to decorate our streets at our first Chalk Art Festival. We hope to continue this program as a part of our PBA’s annual National Night Out activities.
- Special thanks to our newly reconstituted and very energetic Highland Park Arts Commission for outstanding programming throughout the year.
- Park Partners “Give Back Grant Program” completed its third year in 2017 with more participation than ever. The Park Partners program allows residents to present their ideas for improving life in Highland Park and to win a grant of up to $2,000 to help make it happen. And, you, the residents, are the voters who determine the winners. This year’s program will have some new and exciting entrees. Use your power-of-the-purse and be sure to come out and vote for your favorite projects this February.
I believe that the keys to good local government include civic engagement and open, two-way communication. That means partnering with our residents. Highland Park is blessed with a large and creative group of resident volunteers that help to make our government function. Over the years, we have endeavored to bring opportunities for participatory governance to our residents.
In 2017, that meant:
- open public meetings on issues such as assignation as an area in need of rehabilitation or on issues involving our community policing
- creation of the new Civics for the Community lectures led by Rutgers faculty, and developed to give residents a background in local, county and state governments
- More information out on social media such as the Highland Park Facebook page, Twitter, Nixle messaging
- An informative bi-weekly E-news reporting
- The continued mailing of the semi-annual Highland Park News to over 4,000 households
- Posting of minutes of council meetings in a more timely manner
- Posting of agendas and attached draft resolutions and ordinances on the Borough’s website
- In 2018 we will:
- Update the Borough Website to make it more user-friendly
- Explore additional social media venues for 2-way communication between residents and the governing body
- Execute the Digital Data Taskforce’s program of “Alexa Comes to Borough Hall” as a way to more efficiently way to direct visitors around Borough Hall
Meet the Mayor events
- In 2017 I hosted several “Meet the Mayor” events around town. These events offer residents a chance to talk with me about things on their minds in a one-on-one and social atmosphere. In 2017 we painted together, we ate together, and talked about your hopes and dreams for Highland Park. In 2018, I will continue to schedule these informal get-togethers where I invite you to share your ideas with me.