Sunday, January 2, 2011
On January 1. 2009 I told you that "Highlands Borough will be fighting for our very existence in 2009 as we have never fought before." I said that "Your 2009 Borough Council will be exploring consolidation as an option toward tax relief." But that we would not take "this drastic action without consulting you." I established a new committee to the Council, named the 'Budget Review Advisory Committee'" to "permit members of the public and business owners in the Borough to more formally participate in budget examination." I still hope that "future mayors will continue this committee's existence." I also hope that future Councils will consider the benefit of reducing Borough staff by eliminating professional positions and bringing expensive Engineering Services in house. I also hope future Councils will consider alternative revenue sources like the Clam Plant Lease, and an Aqualife Seafood Distribution Lease to offset future tax increases, and perhaps reduce taxes.
Regarding differences among Council Members in 2009 and 2010, I have recognized that "Each individual brings a different area of expertise" to the Governing Body. I still believe that "Our differences are our strength." And that "we all take to heart the best interests of Highlands Borough and the people we serve." I shared my hope that the "true 'Highlands Spirit'" would unite us in a common goal: To contribute to the betterment of the Borough, our home.
Our work in snow removal this past week is a prime example of what we can accomplish when we all work together. Volunteers from the Highlands Fire Department completed 12 hour shifts in rotation with DPW workers to provide continuous plowing, and local contractors provided the heavy equipment needed to move the 4ft to 8ft drifts of snow so that plows could enter the streets. While many were confined to their homes for nearly 48 hours, Highlands streets were cleared before many of our neighboring towns. It is the "Highlands Spirit" that makes us successful and keeps us surviving. We are strong when we are united, and there is nothing we can't do.
Much of the work I have had the honor of doing with three different Councils each year in 2008, 2009, and 2010 proves that by working together, we can truly improve our Borough.
2008 - In 2008 I established the Route 36 Bridge Construction Committee to improve communication between NJDOT and Highlands Borough regarding traffic impact and to make concerns of residents and businesses known to NJDOT and its contractors. The Bridge Update button on the Highlands Borough website posted construction updates to the public. We continued work from prior Mayor and Council on Highland Avenue repairs; Obtained NJDOT funding for Valley Avenue drain repair; Discussed Bayside Drive repairs, relocation of police communications system and Portland Road repairs; Discussed water based transportation via the Seastreak ferry service to alleviate traffic issues associated with construction and travel to and from Highlands/Sandy Hook by car.
To address flooding downtown and high flood insurance costs, we supported a moratorium on FEMA flood maps to encourage consideration of flood abatement improvements; Established regular maintenance schedule for storm drain cleaning; Obtained Engineering report, inspection and proposed improvements for pump stations, capping of outfall pipes with valves, upgrades to bulkheads, storm pipe lining/repairs, and new pump at Snug Harbor Ave.
Regarding Code Enforcement we discussed need for Borough-wide Property Maintenance Inspection Schedule, assumption of BHI inspections in multi-unit dwellings to allow annual inspections instead of once every 5 years, and Scattered Site Redevelopment Program to address vacant buildings, cleaning them up to code, or tearing them down where appropriate.
For general improvement of Borough property and programming, we demolished the old Sewerage Plant on Shore Drive, established the Highlands Public Library, and recognized the need for a new Borough Hall with redesigned/remodeled Police Headquarters. We also updated the fire radio and moved emergency communications to the new Firehouse.
We improved our Steep Slope Ordinance; Enacted a stronger Shade Tree Ordinance; Appointed fully active Environmental Commission and Shade Tree Commission; Stronger Grease Trap Ordinance; Established flow meter at Basin 8 Sanitary Sewer, and designated plans for Basin 2 rehabilitation. We also received $220,000 Monmouth County Open Space grant to acquire #2 Private Road near Miller Street for public access to the water. To date there has been nearly $700,000 in grants received for this purchase.
The 2008 Council and I promoted Highlands through the HBP Tourism Video and Comcast Newsmakers tapings; Encouraged Realtors to propose commercial office space for properties on Bay Avenue; Discussed wireless internet connectivity downtown as a high-tech draw to vacationers and businesses; Discussed underground utilities for visual improvement and expansion of the Clam Festival; Discussed job creation in Highlands using the public library and the High School Media Center for Borough sponsored education and training; Improved Mercantile Licensing Procedures to allow new businesses in Highlands to open more efficiently; Discussed water transportation as mass transit to stimulate economic growth in Highlands and the Bayshore.
Most importantly in 2008 we cut variable expenses in the Budget 10-15%; Discussed bringing Engineering services in house to reduce costs; Reviewed Borough vehicle policy; Reviewed Clam Plant Lease, and a potential new lease to Aqua Life Seafood Distributors as alternative revenue sources to offset tax increases; Obtained 1% contribution by police officers toward health benefit premiums; Shared Service with Highlands Elementary for snow plowing, recreational programming and police communications; Discussed cooperative purchase of electricity through Bayshore Conference of Mayors to reduce utility costs to the Borough.
2009 - In 2009 after establishing the Budget Review Advisory Committee, and while continuing the Bridge Construction Meetings, our Council enacted zoning ordinances in compliance with the Master Plan, and created a Bond Ordinance allowing funding for a comprehensive solution to downtown flooding. We also supported economic development in the downtown business area for better quality of life to residents and increased property values, and improving Highlands' position in the FEMA Community Rating System for future funding and reductions in flood insurance costs.
2010 - With the 2010 Council we joined the Sustainable New Jersey Program; Supported the Clean Ocean Zone bill; Applied for a Tonnage Grant to improve Highlands' Recycling program; Established a Green Team; Scheduled a presentation on Ocean Tidal Power Generation; Delineated Flood Project Phasing to permit phased funding of the downtown flooding solution; Reduced our workforce to avoid a Levy Cap Breach and Tax Increases; Adopted the State Medical Insurance Plan to save costs and avoid Levy Cap Breach and Tax Increases; Accepted the PBA Agreement offered by the local union saving over $500,000, nearly 10 % of tax levy. We have ended 2010 with the completion of the Route 36 Bridge.
Many of you may know that I had the honor of serving the people of Congressional District 6 New Jersey as a candidate for U.S. Congress this year. I have done this for the benefit of the people of the Borough of Highlands and the Bayshore section of Monmouth County which is included in District 6. My family struggles as yours does with tax increases, job insecurity, and the fear of a bleak future for our children and grandchildren. Unlike the people of foreign nations who are denied the opportunity to participate in their government, "We the People" of Highlands, New Jersey in the United States do not have to suffer dictatorship by self interested officials who disregard the needs of the people they serve. In Highlands we, the people, elect our government to represent our interests fairly and honestly. In our small community we are able to know our elected officials and communicate with them freely. Our local officials have direct access to County, State and Federal officials who all report to us. We should appreciate our freedoms, and use the gift of self government to its fullest extent. We must remember that our Military fights to protect our freedoms, and we must honor their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families. Our government is only fully effective if we participate fully. I pledge to you that I will continue my work in whatever opportunity God puts before me to improve our government at every level for the benefit of our families, and this beloved Borough.
Thank you for three terrific years, and the historic honor of being the first Lady Mayor of Highlands Borough. I still believe that "Highlands is the best little town on Earth." I know that the 2011 Council and your new Mayor Frank Nolan will protect and serve Highlands Borough and you, the people with a fierce dedication. I will always be available from 52 Fifth Street for advice or assistance whenever I am needed.
Home is where the heart is. My heart belongs to Highlands, therefore Highlands will always be my home. A Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year 2011 from our LITTLE family to yours. God Bless Highlands, and God Bless America.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
The Borough Council asked the Highlands PBA to agree to a wage freeze to allow the Borough to evaluate our budgetary circumstances in light of the 2.0 cap imposed by the State of NJ upon Municipal budgets. After analysis of the Borough's budget, the Borough Council asked the PBA to find $420,000 in savings. The Highlands PBA contract had already been finalized and there was no obligation on the part of the Highlands PBA to negotiate. The Highlands PBA reviewed the State Health Benefits Plan recommended by the Borough and agreed to accept it. The Highlands PBA and the Highlands Chief of Police have regularly reduced overtime during my tenure as Mayor. Younger officers were hired in order to reduce exorbitant overtime costs necessary to cover State mandated shifts round the clock in the Borough. As of December 1, 2001 the Highlands PBA has agreed to forego overtime completely in exchange for compensatory time. This will guarantee over $100,000 permanent savings to the Borough per year.
The Agreement with the Highlands PBA for which I voted on December 1, 2010 includes:
1. Highlands PBA concession to accept the State Health Benefit Plan, amounting to $320,000 in savings to the Borough of Highlands.
2. Overtime savings in this budget of $66,668.
3. Court time savings in this budget of $8,140.
4. Overtime savings in 2011-2012 budget $106,205.
5. Court time savings in 2011-2012 budget $13,000.
6. Waiver of Retroactive contractual wages that the Borough owed the PBA from July 1, 2010 to December 1, 2010, a savings in this budget of $140,000.
7. The single raise of 4.25% for a six month period from January 1, 2011 until June 30, 2011 allows retirement eligible officers to retire at a wage level less than but nearer to what they would have received under the contract to which the Borough was obligated. This concession also produced a savings to the Borough in the 2011-2012 budget. If retirements which have been mentioned actually occur as verbally represented, substantial savings to the Borough will result.
In conclusion, we must support Governor Christie's tool kit. Toward that end we must ensure that in the 2011 election cycle, WE THE PEOPLE deliver to Governor Christie a State Legislature that will work with him on the Tool Kit and other tax saving initiatives. Until the Tool Kit is in place, agreements with bargaining units are the ONLY way to ensure savings to municipalities. Layoffs of three police officers in the Borough of Highlands surely would have resulted in additional overtime costs to the Borough because of State mandates. Initial calculations indicated that the Borough might have been charged up to $18,000 per month in overtime.
Therefore, the PBA Agreement for which I voted on December 1, 2010 and which secured savings to the Borough of $654,000 (not including the contractual reduction in raises and expected retirement of senior officers) was in the best interests of the People of the Borough of Highlands. It is the People and only the People whom I serve during my tenure in elected office.
Monday, March 1, 2010
The cost of Borough operations in Highlands has been the subject of much scrutiny over the past two years. Levy Cap restrictions have generated concern as reductions in State Aid produced a need for possible tax increases throughout the Borough. The Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands is proud of our work with the Budget Review Advisory Committee in scrutinizing our Borough budget, and in prioritizing actions to keep taxes from rising despite economic forces beyond our control. Every employee in the Borough has committed to seeking ways to reduce costs in each department. Understanding that Borough operations are already at a bare bones level, your Borough employees have worked with the Governing Body to reduce the Borough budget by 5%. Sadly, this was not enough to result in a budget with a zero increase this year, the goal of the Budget Committee.
However, your representatives are continuing to identify Council actions that will further reduce the Borough's budget while we look for ways to increase revenue to provide resident taxpayers some relief in troubled economic times. Improving the Downtown Business District is one solution which would provide significant additional revenue. Through renewed Code Enforcement efforts along Bay Avenue, Borough officials will assist property owners in cleaning up and ensuring a presentable appearance adding to property values in the Business District. By enacting new zoning ordinances with relaxed height restrictions, we have made it possible for new Commercial Uses to be established downtown. Professional offices provide pedestrian traffic and a demand for retail and restaurant services throughout the day. Such offices provide minimal negative impact to residents living in the mixed use environment on Bay Avenue.
Commercial uses in properties on Bay Avenue provide reliable rental income to property owners. The potential income realized from the operation of a business on the property increases the assessed value of commercial properties in the business district. Because Borough operations remain more or less the same, if businesses are paying more taxes, the resident portion of the tax levy should decrease. Targeting Bay Avenue for commercial uses that will increase property values is one way Highlands Governing Body can produce relief for resident taxpayers. The new Commercial Uses would also provide new or increased income to property owners.
During this difficult Economic time when people are losing their jobs and seeking alternatives to support their families, Highlands must be creative in providing every available opportunity for Borough residents and business owners to survive. The Economic downturn is causing many business owners in more expensive commercial districts to consider downsizing or closing their doors. The Highlands Business District provides an alternative for these businesses to reduce their costs and remain viable, saving jobs and maybe even producing a few for Borough residents.
The Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands reminds our resident taxpayers that successful businesses in Highlands keep your residential tax bill low. When businesses leave Highlands, resident taxes will increase. Remember to thank a business owner for toughing it out in this difficult economic time. Try to shop local, keeping revenue close to home. And above all we must count our blessings in each other, and pull together against the pressures we are facing. Highlands people have learned over the years that by working together, we can weather the storm. We are strong stock. Our struggles make our future brighter. It doesn't cost a dime to see a sunrise on Sandy Hook, or to watch a sunset from the Highlands waterfront. With so many priceless gifts to offer, there is no reason we should not prevail.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Highlands First Impressions: Inviting Residents and Business Owners to Live, Work and Play here year 'round
For many the onset of Spring signifies a new beginning. In Highlands Spring reminds us that Summer fun is on the horizon. We emerge from cabin fever, spending more time outside in mild weather, enjoying nature's new life. Just as we spruce up our homes in the Spring celebrating the end of winter confinement, we straighten up our yards and make improvements that we can enjoy outdoors during our leisure time. The goals of Borough government are very similar.
Spring is the season for clean up throughout the Borough. Beach sweeps, bulk and brush pick ups, mulching and pruning in the parks, and general clean up of the basketball and tennis courts are some of the tasks assigned to the Department of Public Works in the Spring. Likewise Property Maintenance Code Enforcement becomes priority, as residents and visitors alike begin to stroll on Borough streets at all times of day and evening. Residents and Business Owners are encouraged to seek assistance and advice from Borough Hall in disposing of unwanted, unnecessary items and in improving the appearance of homes and businesses.
In 2010 the Highlands Borough Council has targeted the Downtown Business District for improvement. We are investigating requirements for a facade program for commercial property and residences throughout downtown. The Substandard Housing Committee continues to target vacant buildings in disrepair. Property owners are encouraged to meet with Borough Officials to discuss the condition of their home or business, receiving instructions about how to comply with code requirements. The benefit to the Property owner is a maximum value for their home or business. The benefit to the Borough is a clean and presentable appearance for Borough residents and visitors to the Borough.
Discussions are ongoing regarding grant opportunities for downtown improvements such as a Bay Avenue street scape, Broadband (aka Wifi) internet access, and underground utilities in targeted areas of the Business District. Grants are being carefully scrutinized for cost evaluation given the tight budget constraints facing residents, business owners, and municipalities alike. Planning future projects gives us hope and pride in Highlands Borough. Cleaning up what we have reminds us to put our best foot forward, reflecting on the value we place on our identity, history, and charm as a community. Projects which might draw new commercial uses to the Business District are high priority, because maximizing Commercial Property Values results in increased revenue from the Business District and a lower tax burden on residents at this difficult time.
In all matters facing the Borough of Highlands in 2010, we must be mindful of the need to balance the benefits and the cost of improvements to the Business District and generally throughout the Borough. Input from residents and business owners is key in determining where the benefits outweigh the costs of any project. The Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands encourages all residents and taxpayers to communicate with us via the web site and Borough Hall providing perspectives on the grant applications we may consider. We look forward to working with you as your representatives toward bringing out the best in Highlands for ourselves, and for future generations to come.
Friday, January 1, 2010
In 2009, we continued to face many of the challenges that we faced in 2008 . Worldwide economic pressures yet unresolved resulted in new budget challenges here and in all levels of government. Moon Tides and sudden downpours continued to create flood management requirements. Bridge Construction continued to affect quality of life for residents and businesses throughout the Borough. Highlands felt an increased impact of the war in Afghanistan as we honored veterans and were reminded of the sons of Highlands fighting in the present foreign war, recognizing the needs of their families here at home.
We ourselves created a few new pressures on businesses via our ABC Ordinance enforcement and ID card requirements. We also sent business owners scrambling to rework the budget of the Highlands Business Partnership, and to determine new methods for running HBP signature events without the “seed money” provided by the annual assessment imposed by the businesses against themselves. Through communication about these issues, members of the Governing Body proposed changes to the ABC Ordinance and ID requirements, and business owners resolved to continue operating the Highlands Business Partnership as a nonprofit organization. Our work in these areas is far from complete.
Throughout 2009 the Highlands Borough Council continued our work on budgetary issues. Worldwide economic decline pushed unemployment into double digits, forcing state government to reduce aid to municipalities once again. Policy changes and new ordinances passed by the 2008 Council, and cost saving suggestions by Borough employees, saved Highlands from levy cap breaches yet again in 2009. The Budget Review Advisory Committee spent countless hours analyzing the Borough's budget and has learned much about the difficulty in making short term budgetary changes. The Committee has many long term goals which will be helpful guidance to the Governing Body in 2010. The 2010 Council can look forward to considering actions to facilitate the goals of this very valuable Committee.
Construction of the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge progressed with consequent quality of life issues, including traffic impact which created difficulty for residents and businesses alike. Through the Bridge Committee here in the Borough and via participation in the NJDOT construction meetings at the office of the Resident Engineer, we have made the concerns of residents and businesses known to NJDOT and its contractors. We continue to work on resolving many of the issues related to Bridge Construction, and will continue to post updates on the website under the Bridge Update button throughout 2010.
Our two most important achievements in 2009 were in the areas of zoning and flood abatement. In December 2009 the Governing Body enacted zoning ordinances in compliance with the Master Plan Reevaluation conducted by the Highlands Planning Board, and created a Bond Ordinance which would allow funding for a comprehensive solution to downtown flooding. Applications for funding assistance based on designs facilitated by the Bond Ordinance are expected to be submitted within the first quarter of 2010. These accomplishments were important in support of economic development in our downtown business area, improving quality of life for Highlands residents and increasing property values. Projects such as these improve our position in the FEMA Community Rating System giving us stronger eligibility for future funding and reductions in flood insurance costs.
I have already met informally with members of the 2010 Borough Council. There is certainly a different dynamic present in 2010 as compared with 2009. While our agenda for 2010 is still being formed, I am hopeful that in the true “Highlands Spirit” we will find unity in our common goal: To contribute to the betterment of the Borough, our home.
On this New Year's Day 2010 we should all be reminded of the gift given us by the founding fathers of our country, and which our military fights to preserve today. In many countries people are denied the opportunity to participate in their government. They are dictated to by leaders who are self interested and who disregard the needs of the people they serve. In Highlands we, the people, elect our government to represent our interests fairly and honestly. In our small community we are able to truly know our elected officials and communicate with them freely. We must all be encouraged to appreciate our freedoms and to use the gift of self government to the fullest extent. Our government is only fully effective if we participate fully.
Best Wishes for Peace and Prosperity in 2010. A Happy New Year to everyone.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The Borough of Highlands was enabled by state statute to created a Special Improvement District (SID), and so did by Ordinance. The law requires all commercial property within the district must be assessed an additional tax to fund economic development efforts within the Special Improvement District (SID). The law also requires establishment of a nonprofit corporation to manage the district. Thus, the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP) was formed.
Every entity assessed by law is a member of the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP). The Board of Directors is established by annual election among the members of the nonprofit corporation. The purpose is that economic development be funded by the businesses and for the businesses, and that the managing corporation be governed by the businesses via democratically elected leadership. The Borough of Highlands participates in the management of the corporation by appointing two voting members of the Board of Directors.
The benefit to the Governing Body of Highlands is that there is no line item for economic development in the borough's municipal budget. Likewise, there is no staff in Borough Hall with duties toward economic development. In essence, the people of the Borough of Highlands have been saved this taxpayer funded expense because Highlands businesses pay for it themselves. In addition, Highlands residents benefit from a series of events funded by the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP), e.g. the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Clamfest, the Oktoberfest, and others.
The current economic downturn, political agendas, and personal agendas have culminated in an effort by the Borough Council to reconsider the benefits of the Special Improvement District (SID) and the managing corporation, the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP). The context of discussions regarding this issue is submission and approval of the HBP 2009 Budget. The Borough Council has suggested that it may not approve the HBP Budget, but rather that events previously run by the HBP would be run by Highlands Borough instead.
A few difficulties exist with execution of the Borough Council's suggested plan. First, contracts for vendors and participants in 2009 events may have been signed in 2008 with the HBP. All or part payments may have been made to or from the vendors/participants at that time. Second, all advertising of the events was made at the expense of and in the name of the HBP. HBP has the right to advertise events as canceled. Highlands Borough would have to re-advertise events as not canceled. Third, Highlands Borough does not have staff or funding in place to support this year's events. Highlands Borough would have to establish staff and funding to do the work that the HBP now does. Fourth, equipment and utility upgrades paid for by the Highlands Business Partnership may belong to the Highlands Business Partnership and might have to be paid for or replaced. Highlands Borough could not use the assessments to pay for expenses, as there are no assessments unless a budget is approved. Fifth, Highlands Borough would not have the right to information collected by the HBP in running past events, as this information belongs to the HBP. In essence, Highlands Borough would be starting from scratch to run events that the HBP now successfully runs, and spending funds not allocated in the 2009 and 2010 Budgets at a time when services are being cut and layoffs are contemplated.
It is true that the Special Improvement District (SID) and the Highlands Business Partnership (HBP) have been politicized in the past. This tactic was unwise and inappropriate. Regardless, the benefits of the Special Improvement District (SID) and the HBP are undeniable.
The Borough Council has suggested that there might be more suitable projects for the HBP to champion, and that the Borough is capable of running Highlands' signature events. This may be so. However, transition of the events from HBP sponsorship to Highlands Borough sponsorship must be a collaborative and cooperative project. The Borough Council should send communication to the Board of Directors requesting the transition. Transition could take one to two years to complete. The HBP could then focus on these other projects with cooperation from the Borough Council without negative impact on the Borough's economy or loss of diversions for borough residents at a time when life at home may be an economic struggle.
The Borough Council has suggested that a chamber might be a more suitable organization funded by donations instead of by an assessment. This may be so. However, businesses who are assessed should be making this suggestion. Not hearing this from the HBP Board of Directors, and not hearing businesses lobby the HBP Board of Directors for relief, I cannot justify the Borough Council taking action upon this matter at this time.
Some members of the Borough Council state that businesses need a break during this difficult economic time, and therefore the HBP budget should not be approved. It is the responsibility and the prerogative of the businesses serving on the HBP Board of Directors to vote to disband the organization or cut their budget due to the economic downturn. I cannot justify Borough Council action that works against the spirit and purpose of state law and the borough ordinance that established the SID. Likewise, I cannot justify additional expense line items in the 2009 or the 2010 Municipal Budgets at a time when we are approaching breach of our statutory levy caps.
Highlands Borough is undertaking a Master Plan re-examination to increase potential commercial uses on Bay Avenue, e.g. professional service/office type uses. Highlands is also examining the benefits of reinvigorating our active seafood industry downtown via potential improvements to the Clam Depuration Plant and potentially establishing a new seafood distribution center in cooperation with Aqualife. Highlands Borough has been the center of discussions regarding expansion and development of water based transportation in the Bayshore Region of Monmouth County. This transportation alternative is significant in light of the Route 36 Bridge Construction and summer traffic conditions. Now is a time to build on our successful endeavors. Now is not the time to destabilize our economic engine.
There are so many pressing issues before the Borough Council, e.g. downtown flooding, budget reductions to comply with statutory levy caps, the need for a new Borough Hall, fighting gang influence, guns and drugs, code enforcement matters involving unsafe vacant buildings and property maintenance issues. The HBP issues can be solved via the HBP meetings and subcommittee meetings where businesses, council members and the public can plug in making statements and suggestions. The Borough Council should not unilaterally shut down a functioning organization without trying to effect changes appropriately through its process. If the Borough Council has tried to effect changes and failed because businesses do not agree, then we must not overstep our boundaries.
I hope that this matter can be decided based upon rational analysis, and not on political or personal agendas. A small town is like a family. We do not always agree with one another. Living in close quarters, our quirks can get on each other's nerves. However, none of us intends to leave Highlands. Thus, we must find a way to work together. Residents, Businesses, Governing Body, HBP: All for one, one for all. Better said: United we stand, divided we fall.