Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler began her “state of the town” speech at the January 5, 2021 Borough Council Reorganization meeting (virtual) with the words: “What a wild year this was!” And her comments came one day before one of the wildest days of the century, when a mob stormed the Capitol in the nation’s capital. But her speech was most inspiring after the horrific scene of January 6, 2021, because it reaffirmed order and principles and a determination to what is best for the residents of Highland Park. Two Councilmembers – Elsie Foster and Matthew Hersh – were sworn in at the meeting, replacing Councilwoman Susie Welkovits who tragically died a few months ago, and Councilman Josh Fine who retired from Council.
What a wild year this was!
It is easy to wallow in despair and sadness. There were plenty of reasons for this. But, as a community, Highland Parkers came together to support one another in many ways. Tonight I want to concentrate on all the positive things we saw in Highland Park during 2020.
This administration focuses its efforts in five key areas: tax stabilization, downtown redevelopment, infrastructure, quality of life goals, and transparency. Let’s sort through 2020 through the lens of these criteria.
Despite all of the fiscal challenges presented to local government by the shut downs over the past nine months, and the continuing challenges of very limited rateables in town, in 2020, the property tax rate was held flat. And, when Covid-19 caused lost jobs and income for many of our residents, I joined together with the mayors of Metuchen and Edison in allowing the delayed receipts of 2nd Quarter real estate taxes to help ease the burdens felt by many of our residents.
Though she is new to this position, I’d like to thank Councilwoman Tara Canavera, Chair of the Council’s Finance Committee, for working with me in monitoring our receipts of taxes and impacts throughout the second half of 2020.
To help reduce our municipal taxes, the governing body, the administration, and our volunteer groups worked aggressively to secure grants offered by State or Federal agencies. In 2020, we were awarded over $1 million dollars in federal and state funds. That includes nearly $604,000 in grants for programming from senior services to child activities and much more, plus over $478,000 in CARES Covid-19 related funding.
As you can see, access to State and Federal funds and grants are critical to our tax stabilization. That is why a robust response by our residents to the 2020 Census was a must. The census only comes around once every 10 years and Highland Park stands to benefit with $3.5 million in federal and state funding from a complete count. This year, thanks to resident volunteer Udi Shorr and his amazing Complete Count team, we exceeded our 2010 count by 6.5% and had nearly 76% of residents self-reporting in the 2020 Census.
Community benefits from development also generate revenue and opportunities to stabililze our local taxes. The relocation of a girls’ parochial school to a property on Cleveland Avenue is a good example of this. First, the developer has agreed to a voluntary payment to the Borough of approximately $200,000 over a 10 year period. Secondly, by locating the school here from its current home in Piscataway the Highland Park schools should see a positive impact of at least $50,000 per year as most of the students at this school are now being bussed from Highland Park to Piscataway at the expense of our public schools. Additionally, the developer has agreed on other community benefits including $85,000 in renovations at our Community Center (with a much needed new Food Pantry storage unit) as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood surrounding the school.
We are exploring other opportunities for increased activity and rateables on the Cleveland Avenue corridor as two new developments have been completed and fully sold or rented out. This opens new possibilities for us in an area of town that has long been in need of rejuvenation. I have asked our planner to put together a creative redevelopment plan for this area of town for review in 2021.
As we look at where we are today and where we can go in the years ahead, it is evident that Downtown Development is the key to Highland Park’s economic future. So, let’s talk about Downtown Development.
Our Main Street Highland Park organization, has created a buzz for our downtown throughout Central New Jersey. When the pandemic closed down our indoor dining opportunities, we initiated our well-used Town Tables for outdoor dining. These tables are located on South 3rd Avenue and North 4th Avenue and have provided our restaurants and coffee shops much needed continued business during 2020.
You’ve heard me talk about the importance of public art in the life of our residents before. Free public art warms the spirit and spurs new creativity and forms of expression. It also brings residents and visitors to our downtown.
This year we saw more murals decorate our downtown businesses on both Raritan and Woodbridge Avenues. “Art Benches” can now be found throughout town. In 2020, thanks to our Arts Commission and Arts Collective, a new Black Lives Matter street mural was painted outside Borough Hall as a reminder that public art can also make a strong statement.
During 2020 we worked with developers and residents to identify mutually agreeable new downtown buildings and new community benefits. The developer interested in building a mixed use apartment building on Raritan Avenue, between S. 2nd and S. 1st Avenues, met with resident stake holders and identified opportunities to update their plans in ways that will add comfort and improve safety for all residents in the area.
In 2020 I asked our Economic Development team, chaired by Councilman Matt Hale and coordinated by Borough Administrator/Director of Redevelopment Teri Jover, to work with our planner on a comprehensive downtown redevelopment concept. A very exciting vision focusing on four project areas along Raritan Ave, a new public square, and a viable off-site parking lot was presented in several open public meetings. The input from these meetings is currently being reviewed and we will continue to move forward with an updated plan, market research, and community discussions in 2021.
All of this new redevelopment goes hand-in-hand with our planning for updated infrastructure needs.
Like most municipalities in the Northeast, Highland Park’s infrastructure dates back 100 years. During 2020, we began addressing some of these upgrades. Council President Phil George, Chair of the Council’s Public Works Committee, worked closely with our Public Works Department to ensure that all of our community’s infrastructure needs were properly addressed in 2020. Here’s a sampling of the issues tackled:
1. PSE&G began an extensive project to replace the gas lines throughout town. I want to thank all our residents who were inconvenienced by the construction for their understanding and patience. The good news is that once completed our residents will enjoy a safer, more efficient distribution of gas from the utility company.
2. At the end of 2019 the Borough Council, after public discussion, approved new rates for water and sewer service in Highland Park. The first bills with this new rate went out in 2020. The rate increase was an important step in the ongoing improvements to the Borough’s water and sewer system. It will support more efficient operations and maintenance, including compliance with ever-increasing state and federal regulatory requirements. The funds will also support important capital projects, such as replacement of old, Borough-owned water meters, sewer system repairs to reduce inflow and infiltration, and repairs to the emergency interconnections with neighboring water systems. All of these projects will stabilize the water and sewer operations and keep costs down in future.
3. In 2020, Highland Park contracted with Middlesex Water Company for the maintenance and operation of our water system. We held several open public meetings to explain the new relationship. The municipality maintained ownership of its water infrastructure (pipes). This agreement puts maintenance and operation of the water system in the hands of professionals. One of the first steps was replacement of old, malfunctioning water meters throughout town.
4. During the latter part of 2020, several residents saw unusually high water bills. The Borough’s Water Sewer Department is committed to working with each resident who calls to investigate the cause of the increased bill. This is an ongoing project. If you have a significant concern with your 4th Quarter water bills, please contact our Water Sewer Department at 732-819-3788.
5. During 2020, 13 roads were repaved. This includes 3 roads repaired through DOT grants throughout town plus 10 additional streets repaved by PSE & G as part of their gas line replacement program.
Speaking of PSE&G, in 2020 we saw the results of our Solar for All public/private partnership project come to life. The solar field, constructed on a former landfill on Donaldson Street, not only provides research on battery storage which will benefit all of New Jersey, but will also generate enough solar energy to power 100 homes. The green gas emissions savings from this project is equal to removing 70 vehicles from the roads per year. The project helped Highland Park and PSE&G earn the NJ Business and Industry’s 2020 Good Neighbor Award.
Since the catastrophic pedestrian accident occurred a few years ago in the Upper Raritan Avenue area of Highland Park I have been working closely with Senator Pat Diegnan and Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti’s team on improved safety in the area. We developed a plan in 2019 and I am happy to say that the initial work on execution of that plan began in 2020. The “road diet” for the area includes a reduction in the lanes from four to two plus left turn turning lanes, increased pedestrian signage and a reduction in the speed limit in the area.
Covid-19 brought many challenges, not the least of which was the need for more places for our residents to get healthy, physical activity in the safer outdoors. Our Safe Walking and Cycling Committee worked with Administration, Police and Public Works Departments to create the Shared Streets program, connecting the North and South sides of town and enhancing access to downtown and our two County Parks (Johnson and Donaldson). It was a pleasure to see so many young people skateboarding or bicycling, along with adult walkers and runners. The Shared Streets are taking a break for the wniter to allow for snow plowing when necessary and we will look into a new plan for the spring. This unique approach to new uses for our Borough streets is a good introduction to other quality of life improvements in 2020.
Quality of Life:
Needless to say, the world felt a bit out of control as the Coronavirus waxed and waned throughout 2020. That is why so much of our attention was focused on ways to improve our quality of life during pandemic times.
In March, I created our Covid-19 Task Force of key volunteers (including representation and advice from our Highland Park Board of Health), employees and public safety members to address issues that arose in response to lockdowns, pre-emptive policies to slow down the spread of Covid-19 in town, and overall community and Borough safety. The group, which initially met daily, continues to meet weekly by phone and address items such as obtaining necessary PPE, allowing the Farmers’ Market to continue in a safe, socially distanced manner, building safety policies including how/when to open, staffing requirements, cleaning and maintenance needs, etc. This team continues to work with me even today. The work of the task force received statewide recognition in a glowing profile printed in the fall in the NJ League of Municipalities monthly magazine.
With schools closed and then reopened in limited fashion it became imperative to find ways to continue our Recreation Department’s youth activities. With guidance from Governor Murphy’s outdoor sports executive order, we held all-outdoor summer camp and continued the operation of permitted outdoor sports programs. And… what a good thing that was! Particularly for our boys’ baseball leagues. Our 10 and Under (10U) boys baseball team, newly formed in 2020, that finished the season with a 13-0 record. They won the league championship in two hard fought games, winning victories against strong opposing teams. I’d like to take a moment to thank outgoing Councilmember Josh Fine for his work with our recreation department in 2020. Our programming for seniors also achieved acclaim in 2020 as Highland Park was named Middlesex County’s first municipality accepted into AARP’s Network of Age Friendly Cities and Communities. This program will provide Highland Park with the resources to become more age-friendly by tapping into national and global research, planning models, and best practices.
Our Health and Human Services Council Committee chaired by Councilwoman Stephany Kim-Chohan quickly activated existing and new services to aid residents most affected by Covid-19. We saw dramatic increases in our social services during the year.
1. Our dauntless volunteers for the Highland Park Food Pantry never missed a beat as the number of clients increased more than three-fold to nearly 600 in 2020.
2. Highland Park Gives a Hoot provided two-to-three dozen bags of groceries per week to additional families, who are associated with our Zone 6 Teen Center.
3. A new Mental Health Committee was formed to address these growing needs especially amongst teenagers.
4. In late December, our Community Center held a flu shot clinic sponsored by Rite-Aid
5. With help from the County, the Jewish Renaissance organization held free, one-day Covid-19 testing at the Community Center parking lot. 50 residents signed up to take the test there.
Councilwoman Elsie Foster, Chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, worked closely with me to improve communication and equity issues at our public safety departments throughout 2020.
The leadership at our Police Department, Chief Abrams and Captain Curbelo completed their first year on their new jobs during 2020. I’d like to thank Chief Quovella Spruill for her guidance in mentoring our new leadership this last year. This new leadership has embraced our commitment to updated and more equitable policing policies. Since they took office, the HPPD leadership has instituted, among other things, annual training for all officers in crisis intervention, de-escalation, understanding implicit and explicit biases, and mental health first aid. They’ve held several open forums with the public, where they presented updates and took questions directly from residents on a wide range of issues. They’ve also expanded their commitment to body cams for all department personnel, which puts the HPPD ahead of over half of all 537 law enforcement agencies in the state.
Additionally, in an effort to create a police department that better reflects our community, new officer hires have helped to further diversify the department.
I’m happy to report that based on the recommendation of outside consultant DeLacy Davis, whose findings regarding stop analysis were presented to the public in 2019, we have signed an agreement with Rutgers University to do ongoing analysis of our police stop-data information so that we can address any ongoing issues.
To help advise me on continuously improving the role of our police department in ensuring equity in our community I formed the Mayor’s Equity Advisory Council. This group will work with me in identifying steps which should be administratively implemented to address and eliminate bias issues in our town and improving police-community relations.
In 2020, in order to address needs at our Fire Department and First Aid Squad, Highland Park hired its first Emergency Services Director. Mr. Pat Renaldi came to us with years of experience as a fire fighter and fire chief plus EMS experience in other municipalities. Under his guidance the First Aid Squad reorganized and the Fire Department policies have been updated and improved.
To address resident concerns regarding an increasing deer population in Highland Park, the Borough commissioned a drone survey to identify areas of high deer population throughout the municipality. We’ve been working closely with the NJ DEP’s Fish and Wildlife division and taken a good deal of input from residents. Our Borough Administrator is in the process of drafting a deer management plan for presentation in 2021.
The first peak period of Covid-19 in March and April brought a shut-down and shut-in for New Jersey. Our most at-risk residents, primarily seniors, were shut in without their regular activities at our Community Center or the ability to go grocery shopping. Once again, Highland Park volunteers came through in times of need. Our CERT team created the new COPES team of over 80 volunteers to shop for homebound residents and to provide welcome phone calls and safe social contact.
No one knows more about needed improvements to our quality of life in Highland Park than our residents. That is why our 2020 Park Partners “give back” program was the most successful to date with 16 exhibitors, over 330 voters and 5 prizes of $2000.00 each awarded to the projects YOU selected. Applications for 2021’s Park Partners program are now being accepted. You can find more information on this on our Facebook page or our website.
Over the last few years we have placed a greater emphasis on open and transparent governing. The limitations imposed on all of us due to the pandemic certainly made this tricky in 2020.
Zoom meetings for Council Meetings, committee/commission meetings, and forums on several different topics became the norm. We saw some meetings attended on Zoom by close to 100 participants and other meetings with less than 10 participants. At this point, until it is Covid-19 safe to hold meetings in person again, we will continue to operate remotely via Zoom. Additionally, our hpboro.com website became a more crucial element of communication this last year and staff has been working hard to keep it updated on a regular basis. Our communications team is coming up with new media and strategies to keep residents informed in 2021.
I should point out that some of the projects I identified in this report were the result of the efforts of Councilwoman Susan Welkovits, who passed away mid-year. Susan was a friend and a dedicated Councilmember who worked selflessly for the benefit of all of us. I dedicate this State of the Borough Address to her tonight.
Finally, let me offer a heartfelt thank you to all the residents who have taken the pandemic seriously, who follow social distancing rules, who wear masks whenever they are in public, and who curtailed social engagements to keep us all safe. Yes, help is on the way in the form of well-regarded vaccines. But, we’re not out of the woods yet. Please keep up these practices for the benefit of our entire community. Get inoculated when it is your turn. If we bear with these requirements a bit longer, hopefully, you’ll be joining me in person for autumn streetfairs and summer fireworks in 2021. Thank yo