First, I would like to wish everyone a very Happy and Healthy New Year!
2020 was like no other, and 2021 seems to have started off very much the same. We’ve twice postponed this speech due to the insurrection in our nation’s capital and, subsequently, my positive diagnosis for COVID-19. I want to thank everyone who reached out, checked in, and offered to help during my isolation. It is very much appreciated.
At last year’s Re-Organization meeting, I discussed our bright future. How we had delivered a $150 tax reduction on the average home, how the streetscape project was progressing, how we were nearly done with our affordable housing settlement, and how we would work in 2020 to create redevelopment opportunities to re-vitalize our Borough. All were positive and exciting challenges we were ready to tackle.
We had a plan.
But two months into 2020 – everything changed. The COVID-19 public health emergency took hold of everything. Our lives changed, the way we live them, the way we govern a town, and the aftermath of people we know – our family and friends becoming ill – or worse yet, losing them to Coronavirus.
There was no doubt that, nationally, the pandemic could have been handled better. Consistent information and establishing public trust were vital – but never happened. Here in the Borough however, we tried to give our residents good, meaningful, and reliable information. How to reduce spread, how to help maintain the mental health of you and your family, how to provide services to our residents while abiding by social distancing – were all important pieces of information and guidance we needed people to have. And we did.
As of today, 1,145 residents of Woodland Park have contracted COVID-19. That’s roughly 1 in 9.5 residents. We have had 22 residents succumb to the virus - most recently, our former Police Chief Anthony Galietti. Again, as I did at the start of our Council meeting last week, I want to express our deepest condolences on Tony’s passing and pray for his family - that they may be granted the strength to know that he is in a better place.
Since March, we have partnered with the County of Passaic through our shared services agreement for Health Department services. The County has conducted incredibly successful COVID testing sites which run multiple times a week at various locations in the County. Our residents have never had to wait more than a day or two to be tested, and their results are emailed to them within 24 to 48 hours. The County has also been instrumental in aiding our small businesses, coordinating with all 16 towns - especially the Mayors, to ensure that our response is consistent, and decisions are being made together across the County.
We must also thank our first responders and healthcare workers who have risen to the occasion while putting themselves and their families in harm’s way to help others who were ill. Our Police Department, Fire Department and especially our First Aid Squad truly did not know what they could be walking into at any call they responded to. We owe these people an enormous debt of gratitude.
To our healthcare workers who reported to hospitals, emergent care and medical facilities to treat patients while COVID-19 ran rampant – our hats off to them for their bravery and service.
It seems like so long ago that the signs displaying rainbows were taped to front doors and windows – thanking these heroes. We remember those inspirational messages written in chalk on the pathways in our parks. Donations were made of PPE, meals and snacks for all those on the front lines. We thank our residents for coming together and lifting us all up.
To our Public Works staff who stepped up and did everything to disinfect our public buildings and playgrounds, who ensured we had proper PPE, and who put themselves out there to protect everyone else – we thank you.
To all our employees who did what needed to be done, working remotely – forwarding calls to their cellphones, reporting when necessary - but always, always making sure the public’s needs were served – we thank you.
To the staff of at both our school districts – the employees, administrators, teachers, staff members and custodians – they all figured out how to educate our kids virtually – as if teaching in person wasn’t hard enough. To our custodial staff who, like Public Works, did what they needed to do to keep everyone safe. The logistics, the difficult decisions, not to mention overcoming the distance of it all, was overwhelming at times. We thank you for figuring it out and making it work – for our kids.
This challenge has been equally difficult for our families here in town. Parents who took those teachers lessons and ensured they were completed. They figured out what Zoom was and how it worked to make sure their kids could continue to learn. All this was accomplished while balancing their childrens’ needs, their work commitments, and their households – as we hoped and prayed that no one got sick.
All of this was a team effort. The coordination, cooperation, and commitment in figuring out how to meet this moment was unmatched.
You know when I became Mayor 9 years ago, I was prepared for floods, power outages, water main breaks - even unexpected tragedies. Mayors expect to receive phone calls in the middle of the night from the Police Chief telling them something they do not want to hear. But we figure it out. We call others who have dealt with similar circumstances. We share information and experiences, and we make the best decisions we can in those moments. But there is nothing that gives any of us in government a playbook on how to deal with a pandemic: the likes of which we have not seen in over 100 years. Let’s face it, before now, a pandemic was not high on any elected official’s list of things to worry about. Only the professionals in public health – who we must applaud repeatedly for their efforts – knew this needed to be a priority and knew how to take charge.
And here we are.
I understand people’s frustration. How this has affected their lives, their employment, their way of living, their children’s way of living, and what they’ve lost this past year. I get it. My friends, this can only get better. With vaccinations beginning to be given out and people continuing to follow public heath guidelines and recommendations – we will overcome this. Our kids will go back to school full-time and resume their normal education. We will shop in malls again, go to movie theaters, and go to football games. It may not be tomorrow, but I want 2021 to be the year we inched back to normal. The year we came back. The year when we healed.
I want to thank the voters of Woodland Park for choosing me to serve as your Mayor for another three years. I say it all the time, but it is an honor and a privilege to serve in this seat – and I truly mean that. When it doesn’t feel that way, it will be time to go, or be let go by you, the voters. But in the meantime, it is time to get to work.
I want to congratulate Councilman Vincent DeCesare on his selection as Council President this year. Vinnie’s vast experience in public works and personnel, in addition to his work as the Chair of the Public Safety Committee will serve him well as President of the Council.
I also want to congratulate Woodland Park Board of Education Members Laura Spagnola-Vargas, Jairo Rodriguez and Glen Grimes on their elections to the local school board, and to Lori Brigati as she begins a new term at Passaic Valley. I want to congratulate Assistant Fire Chief Michael Herrmann on his election as Assistant Chief at Company #2. I also want to thank outgoing Assistant Chief Mike Muccio for his 27 years of dedicated service with the West Paterson Volunteer Fire Department.
It’s also worth noting that our very own County Commissioner, Pat Lepore, has been selected as the first Director of the Passaic County Board of Commissioners. This is truly a historic moment. Congratulations Pat!
The Council and I remain committed to maintaining a fiscally conservative philosophy in 2021. This will be even more important in light of the revenue shortfalls relative to the COVID-19. While our tax collection rate hovers around 99% and did so throughout 2020, and while our Building Department, led by Allan Burghardt has done a great job in keeping pace with permits and inspections – we will not realize the same in court collections as we have in previous years. Let me stress this is no one’s fault. Fewer people were out and about, fewer people were driving on our roads and we did work to limit our police officer’s exposure to the public last spring. Thus, the number of tickets and fines dramatically fell. We are already working on solutions to help balance our 2021 budget and through the hard work of our CFO, we have a plan in place to try to limit the burden on our taxpayers.
Despite our required focus on the pandemic, projects continue here in the Borough...
• Our streetscape project continued along McBride Avenue, extending to Dowling Gardens. In addition, our DPW planted new trees along McBride. This spring, we will break ground to complete McBride Avenue from Dowling Parkway to Lackawanna Avenue through two grants totaling nearly $2 million dollars. The re-developer of the Kearfott property has agreed to fund and build the streetscape along their entire property line, and we look forward to seeing the entire main strip of our town fully streetscaped!
• A main priority in 2021 will be to work with our Municipal Planner to identify areas that may be in need of re-development, especially along the McBride Avenue corridor. We will form an ad-hoc committee of members of this Council and members of the Planning Board to begin this process. Our goal will be to incentivize property owners and re-developers to invest in our community and transition to new modern buildings, exteriors, and new uses in our commercial center.
• Through a $96,000 Community Development Block Grant, we will add sidewalks along West 36th Street next to School #1 up to Mary Avenue. We are also preparing a 2021 CDBG application for sidewalks along Newby Avenue behind School #1. This will provide safe conditions all around our new Pre-K Center.
• Our turf athletic field at Zaccaria Park was completed last year. The project was funded by the Passaic County Open Space Trust Fund with just under $900,000. We are proud that while Little Falls and Totowa were right behind us, we were the first town in the Passaic Valley region to have a turf field in our community.
• Our focus on open space efforts will lead us this year to Diane Grimes Park on Mt. Pleasant Avenue, where we hope to completely revitalize the playground area and, by making future grant applications, to build a turf field there as well.
• Speaking of grants, it should be noted that we received $817,000 in grant money this past year, even while many applications were placed on hold during the pandemic. It is also worth reporting that we currently have just slightly under $1 million submitted in pending grant applications.
• The archway sign at Memorial Field was also added last year and makes for a great entrance way to the Memorial complex.
• The Library Board will make a second-round application to renovate the Alfred H. Baumann library building with funds matched by the Library Construction Act grant program, which was approved by voters Statewide in 2016.
• At the end of 2020, the Council rescinded the ordinance banning single-use plastic bags from being distributed by retailers. With the State implementing their own law, we will follow their regulations beginning in 2022 in order to be more environmentally friendly.
• In the public safety area, last year, the Borough and Board of Education delivered on our joint commitment to hire three Special Police Officers – one for EACH school here in town to keep our children and school staff safe, while also ensuring that we are only educating students who reside here in Woodland Park. It is our intention to add a 4th officer for School #1 this September.
• Under the leadership of Fire Chief Paul Salomone, our Fire Department continues to do incredible things. They not only protect our community, but they brought the Holiday Lights Parade to us again this year – this time going block-by-block for not only our children to enjoy, but adults too!
• Our Police Department under the leadership of Acting Chief Uzzalino continues to hire outstanding new police officers. I again welcome Officer Lidia Aguilar to the ranks of the WPPD. Lidia is the 4th female officer here in Woodland Park. I also want to thank Acting Chief Uzzalino for stepping in right after Chief Tiernan’s retirement in March and for all his work in immediately facing the issues regarding COVID-19.
• We must also thank all the First Aid Squad, under the Direction of Captain Andy Dillon for all they have done. From responding to so many calls – many COVID related – to ensuring the Easter Bunny got around town last spring with the help of our Police and Fire Departments, to the birthday drive-byes they all provided our children. All our emergency responders found ways to keep us safe and lift our spirits.
• As many of our residents have contended with neighborhood disruptions, PSE&G has finally completed their gas main replacement in the community. Each of our Borough roads impacted by this project have now been paved curb-to-curb at minimal expense to our taxpayers.
• In 2021, the Borough will need to resurface only a handful of streets still needing to be paved: including Bergen Blvd., Hughes Place, a portion of Rockland Avenue, and sections of Highview and Brookview Drives where we recently experienced water main breaks after PSE&G paving.
• We’ve once again hit another milestone in our effort to build the Peckman River flood diversion culvert. The US House of Representatives has passed S. 1811 which authorizes the US Army Corps of Engineers to build and fund the project in the amount of $95,022,000. A huge thanks to Representatives Bill Pascrell, Jr. and Mikie Sherrill for their hard work in making this happen. Also, much gratitude to the Passaic Valley Regional Flood Board who never took their foot off the gas in advocating for this.
• We have also remained in close communication with the NJ DOT regarding the additional sound barriers needed on Route 80 here in Woodland Park. The barriers are preliminarily slated for a planned Route 80 West improvement project from Polifly Road in Hackensack to Squirrelwood Road in Woodland Park. Although the project title is Route 80 “West,” barriers on both sides of the highway would qualify to be funded and installed.
• The Council and I will also re-open discussions with the Passaic Valley Water Commission and monitor their continued talk of capping our two reservoirs on Rifle Camp Road and replacing them with concrete storage tanks.
• We will continue to advocate for full Verizon FiOS installation town wide. In fact, we have seen areas this past year, finally built out and more residents are eligible now to subscribe to FiOS.
As always, I want to thank our Borough employees, volunteers, and our business community for all they do for our community – especially during these challenging times!
Council President DeCesare, the Council and I look forward to working with all our residents to make 2021 another great year for Woodland Park.
As always, if you have any questions, concerns or ideas for our town, never hesitate to contact us! I again wish you a happy and healthy New Year and God bless.