2023 Council Election Question One: Staying Independent Despite Rising Costs

Each of the candidates in this year’s Town Council election was asked three common question and three candidate-specific questions. Their answers to the common questions are presented in alphabetical order. The first common question was:

How can a small, independent town remain a small independent town in the face of rising costs and state mandates?

Christine McGrath: That’s a really great question. And it’s one that I get a lot from residents, they really care about keeping Verona, Verona, that small town. My point of view is that we need to make sure that our business corridor is fully working for us. So in the face of rising costs, we want to make sure that we’re getting that full value from the properties along Bloomfield Avenue and Pompton. And for Verona that means taking a look at our zoning, and in light of our Master Plan just being completely completed, this is the perfect time to do so. If we love to improve our zoning and modernize it to what investors are looking for, we can be able to improve our downtown businesses, and improve the look and feel of our downtown but still retain that small town character and I think that’s essential. (McGrath’s answers to other questions are here.)

Alex Roman: This goes back to everything I’ve been doing over the last eight years on the Council. The answer goes to budget and expense management. I’ve had this ongoing philosophy that we need to pay attention to all the little things and then while the big big things may not take care of themselves, they certainly become a lot easier to deal with.

If you look at the last eight years, and what we’ve done in terms of financial management, we’ve had a large cultural change internally, in that every one of our managers really understands their own budgets, the impacts of their decisions on the township as a whole, and conversely, on the tax rate, and largely on our ability to provide services at large scale. So I’ve wanted us to run all of our back office operations as efficiently as we possibly can and then turn around and put those savings into public facing services, and capital investments.

We’ve had a really good record of maintaining a stable tax rate over the last eight years without really affecting our services. So I’ve been really, really proud of that and we’ve been able to absorb pretty much everything that came our way while maintaining an average tax rate of around 2.25% a year. So we’ve cut our growth rate really in half. I would honestly say that we’re financially stronger than we were before, and that we are able to invest and deliver a lot better. So that’s a big part of it.

The other thing is looking forward. You say independent town, we still need to be looking at opportunities for savings, shared services and regionalization, again without touching direct public facing services. So we just did the shared court system agreement with Essex Fells and North Caldwell. That’s a perfect example of an area where we absolutely do need to be partnering up with other municipalities and moving services to a level that is more appropriate for the actual job at hand. So you know, things that directly affect the public, like our public safety services, our recreation services, public works et cetera, that the residents really depend on the Verona level of service. We don’t change things like that.

But if you look at a lot of our back office services, you know, payroll, or other back office operations, we can start finding groups amongst the municipalities. The other ones are things like our dispatch; we’re already doing building inspection, maybe we can expand on that. We just need to get more efficient without really affecting the service level. The other big thing that I really see that needs to happen in New Jersey and our area as a whole is trying to get the county or the state or other entities to provide larger services as well. We have some shared services like health, animal control, etc. I wonder why those services aren’t truly regionalized because there’s usually services both at the municipal level and at the county level.

Tax assessment is another big one. That is an area that I’d like to see the county pick up. There are just areas of what we do that make sense to be done at different levels of government. So we want to maintain the independence at the service level that really affects residents but then keep looking at the areas where we can become more efficient and gain economies of scale and that’s really how we operate going forward. (Roman’s answers to other questions are here.)

Christian Strumolo: Right, and cost in reference to what?

In reference to the spending that’s necessary to operate a town.

Christian Strumolo: Well, first and foremost, Alex Roman has been there eight years. Christine McGrath has been there for four years. It took our new administrator to finally come in and hire a grant writer. What have they been doing for the years they’ve been there? We’ve never had a grant writer. Our Council does not really have any relationship with our county executive Joe DiVincenzo, our new state senator Kristen Corrado, nor our new Congressman Donald Payne (Jr.) . I have those relationships. I specifically asked Alex Roman if he’s met with any of those three. And his answer to me was “no.” * So I think they are a huge tool for small towns like Verona to form a relationship with to get all that state, county and federal funding. Along with, believe it or not, there’s tons of residents that would love to pitch in and help in any way they possibly could. And I just feel that the Council is kind of disconnected to what really needs to be done in Verona. These issues that, you know, are upon us today, did not happen overnight. They’ve happened from years and years of neglect. And now all of a sudden, it’s two weeks to the election, and we want to purchase property. We want to have special Council meetings. But I really feel the residents of Verona, especially the voters, are not going to be fooled. They’ve had their chance to get things done. And it seems like we’re in a worse position today than we were eight years ago.

With all due respect, Mr. Strumolo, it doesn’t entirely answer the question of what a town can do. All of these things exist, but we have spending mandates.

The Waste Water Treatment Plant hasn’t just crumbled yesterday. Our police station that’s antiquated hasn’t crumbled yesterday. Our fire station that has crumbled did not happen yesterday. Our baseball fields, that have been neglected year after year after year, did not happen yesterday. These are issues that have been brought up by residents of this township for the past 8, 10, 12 years. And they’ve gone on deaf ears and the residents are tired of it. Now we’re in a position where everything’s gonna cost double, triple, quadruple, because nothing’s been done. Our wastewater treatment plant I heard could cost up to $10 million. What have we been putting into this? Over the past eight years? Our police station, we had female officers for over eight years. All of a sudden now, Oh, they have no locker room for the females. It’s election time. Let’s make it an issue. But for the past eight years, it wasn’t an issue. And I can go on and on and on. It’s neglect from the Township Council from the top down. (Strumolo’s answers to other questions are here.)

*Mayor Roman has met with Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and Congressman Donald Payne Jr. and has provided MyVeronaNJ with photos from both encounters.