Alex Roman, Line 3A
Q: How can a small, independent town remain a small independent town in the face of rising costs and state mandates?
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.
Q: How do we get through the next round of state-mandated affordable housing without the cost and confusion of the last round?
Alex Roman: I would say that we are already in a much better place than we were. What got done in this round of affordable housing really does set the stage for future rounds of compliance. This year or this round, we had a very high burden due to the changes related to age restricted housing. So first off, it’s far less likely that the burden in future rounds is going to be as strong as it was in this round. I do expect that we will need more units. I just don’t expect it to be the same quantity of units.
What we have coming up right now is work left to be done in terms of all of our compliance items from this round. We have to pass the Affordable Housing and Development fee ordinances. We have the housing element of the Fair Share Plan. We have the affirmative marketing plan and the spending plan coming up. All of these elements are targeted towards compliance going forward. The other big thing is the additional TCM overlay zone, the Montrose-South Prospect zone where we can develop another fourteen units of affordable housing, they’re out of seventy promotable on that site, assuming that someone actually purchases any of that land and consolidates it into this new project. But we are zoning for it. So we’re in a much better space to where we will probably have less of a surprise this time around I would say. We also have a set aside ordinance that we put into place.
So anything that’s multifamily that generates five or more new units has satisfied requirements. That’s what we’ve done already. The other big thing that we need to look at, and this ties into the Master Plan as a whole, are some of the recommendations that were made regarding the town center zone. The zoning there essentially makes it very, very challenging for new housing to be developed without it being under a variance process. Because while we allow three story buildings, we do require the equal distribution of uses for mixed uses and as a result, nothing gets redeveloped down there simply because it doesn’t economically make a lot of sense to build only two story buildings. You can’t really functionally build a three story building with a 50/50 mixed use. So that’s one of the things that we want to look at as a potential change that can help generate affordable housing units or at least allow for zoning to make them realistically developable. Not changing the maximum height of the buildings, not changing the size of the building that could be developed, but simply making it so that someone could potentially develop a building realistically that had two storys of housing over one story of commercial. I would only do that in the town center zone, not in the extended Town Center Zone.
The character of those zones are very different, but that’s a good way of allowing us to have additional developable use going forward. The other big thing that we need to do is keep preserving open space. That’s another very powerful strategy because it lessens our realistic development potential. So even if we are given a high number of affordable housing units for a need, they still look at our total RDP. (RDP is essentially a cap on what can truly be developed versus the need for affordable housing.) Conserved lands that are protected by a steep slope ordinance can essentially make it so that there’s a certain amount of development that can’t happen even if there is a need for affordable housing. You still may end up with an unmet need, if you don’t have land that can be developable. So anytime that we’re preserving land in terms of open space that is actually a protective element going forward as well. So I think that has to play into our strategy. We did very well in terms of preserving a lot of open space both through land acquisition and through a land donation recently and we need to keep looking for those opportunities going forward.
When you refer to the property on the south side of Bloomfield Avenue below South prospect, is that primarily the old IHOP lot or is that bigger than that?
Alex Roman: So as part of the settlement in this round with Fair Share, in addition to the development projects that are actually being done, one of our other requirements was to create one more overlay zone within town to allow for the potential of future development. We looked at several sites. The one that we landed on was essentially Bloomfield between Montrose and South Prospect. We are defining the Town Centre mixed use overlay zone there that allows for increased density in that zone. There is not a project on the table and in fact, all of those lots are principally owned by separate owners, but we had to declare an additional potential redevelopment zone as part of this round’s compliance. But that helps us out because now there’s a possibility of developing 14 more age-use units if needed. You have to have a willing seller and a willing buyer, and someone that sees an economic development project there but being able to do that helps us even if it does, or does not get built at any point in time in the near future. That creates the potential for affordable housing development in the future.
Q. The next Council must update the Zoning Code to be consistent with the new Master Plan. Which aspects of the commercial zone should it focus on, and which aspects of the residential zones?
Alex Roman: Okay, that’s a good question. Through service on the Planning Board, I was heavily involved in the Master Plan generation process and I think a lot of attention to land use. One of the big things that I want to do in Verona is not change the character of the town. I have a feeling that if you have come to Verona and put down roots here, you should expect the town to not drastically change. You should expect the character of the general feel of the town to remain similar to what it is. So I am always a little bit wary about recommendations in planning. Sometimes I feel you always have to temper the planners a little bit because they’re always very interested in development and you need to continue being a very suburban sort of quiet, residential community. We need to be cautious about how much development there is, so I want to maintain the single family neighborhoods in their existing character and condition. And I really didn’t see any recommendations related to the residential zones that would substantially affect that. So I am not really looking to change anything in any of the residential zones. In the commercial zones, I think we have to be responsive to the commercial needs. We focused a lot through economic development programs on retail vacancies. I really want to make sure that we don’t have retail vacancies stacked up in this town. We’ve actually done pretty well with filling a lot of them. I’m really, really proud of what’s happened with our business community. And I think that we have done well with that. But I look at the building stock in Verona and some of what our downtown building stock is, I feel is not helping us a lot. There are some older buildings there that are simply not conducive to modern restaurant and retail uses.
So I want to encourage appropriate updates to older properties. I would still like to see facades be improved. I’d like to see underutilized properties improved just because I want to have uses in the town center that people here in Verona really want. I think that every time that we add a restaurant that people enjoy here that’s a big amenity to the town. I’d like to see us to have services, like I wish we had a small hardware store. I wish there were a lot of things that we had in downtown Verona that we don’t. I feel like we need to guide the commercial building owners in a direction to which they’re economically incentivized to improve their buildings to bring better uses. So that’s why I touched on the potential for use change in the Concentric Zone. If you make it so that somebody can add revenue generating residential on a building, at the same time, they’re going to upgrade the facade of the building or upgrade the entire building if they have the ability to put a couple of apartments above it. So I think that by making that simple change to the town Center Zone by saying that you can do 242 floors of residential or one floor of commercial. I think you’re going to cause a lot of the older buildings to get updated in and of themselves. I don’t want to change the Extended Town Center Zone, that zone has a very different feel to it. If you look at the Extended Town Center Zone, the building setback off of Bloomfield Avenue and you start having a setback you start seeing more landscaping. So I really don’t want to change that feel of it. You see a lot more professional offices, medical and dental offices, real estate offices in Extended Town Center. So it has a use and it has its own specific purpose, but it’s not Town Center. Also, Extended Town Center tends to backup to more single family neighborhoods whereas Town Center tends to backup to other commercial or to churches or parking lots, etc. So we need to always balance between the zones. They did propose certain things in the Extended Town Center Zone with relation to parking. I always am very very cautious about lessening parking requirements because we consistently have traffic and parking issues here in the town. So that’s a recommendation that I would be very cautious about how I accept it, if I did. We can potentially allow for shared parking payments in lieu of parking, things like that to still make sure that we don’t end up with people parking in residential neighborhoods. For some of these buildings, there are two other big challenges that did get picked up on in the Master Plan. One of them is Pilgrim Plaza. There was a whole stack of recommendations related to the Regional Retail Zone which the only use in that is built from Plaza. That’s one that I have a very big concern about because it’s kind of an older shopping center which tends to have a lot of commercial vacancies on it and it’s also our own grocery store. So one of my big goals is to maintain the viability of Pilgrim Plaza. I don’t want that to be a redevelopment target. I don’t want us to lose our grocery store. I need to figure out some sort of balancing process by which that shopping center can remain commercially viable, but can be upgraded aesthetically, can be a good destination for the community without turning into a traffic problem and without getting turned into a redevelopment zone.
There are a lot of recommendations in the Master Plan that are specifically related to Pilgrim Plaza. Again, some of them we take with a grain of salt but they’re very worthy of reading. They proposed allowing pad sites within Pilgrim Plaza. Depending on what that is, that’s worthy of review, but now we only allow one building at the Plaza. That’s why you have the large building at the very back of it, and then a giant parking lot in front of it and then the street. So we could potentially make a change in that zone to allow for a building on Pompton Avenue on that parcel to hide the parking inside of the property and to put a more modern, much more attractive building in front of it. Now I don’t want giant chain restaurants, I don’t want uses that are negative to the neighborhood. But if you were able to have things with outdoor seating, places to eat, there’s a lot of creativity that can be done within that and to make sure that again, we both aesthetically upgrade that and maintain its viability. So it’s not a redevelopment park. I think that that’s something we need to very, very seriously look at.
The other big challenge is the C2 Zone, the professional office zones. That’s something where we look at what’s happened through COVID to work from home. That is a land use that I worry about because I don’t think that a lot of attorneys, tax preparers etc. are going to have a need for professional office space like they used to so what happens with that is kind of a question mark. Again, I want to avoid a situation where someone wants to come in and start redeveloping the C2 properties into apartment buildings. So the question is how do we maintain the viability of what we have- a lot of medical offices which are a very good use. We have a co-working space which is a good use. This is something that I honestly think needs a lot more research and discussion. I don’t have a magic answer to it, other than to say that I’m focusing on it and I would like to maintain a lot of the C2 uses as they are so that they are commercially viable and not temptations for redevelopment.
Q: The Water Treatment Plant is a vital utility in Verona. What can the Council do to ensure that this facility is secured from flooding while continuing to serve an ever-increasing population?
Alex Roman: We’ve looked specifically at flooding because this facility has flooded. It’s right next to the Peckman River and in hurricanes, the Peckman just flows over the entire plant, which causes a lot of problems because that starts causing sewage backups and causes an overflow of untreated sewage. It’s a worst case scenario whenever that happens. Unfortunately, I can remember it having happened at least twice. So we looked at a couple of things. We looked at the potential for a deployable flood barrier. In other words, essentially water bags that when a storm is coming up, we could just have that in our warehouse and deploy it. We have talked as part of the process of reviewing the Peckman with the Army Corps of Engineers to have the potential of doing a berm along that area, actually building the land up, which could potentially help as essentially a little bit of a levee for that area. It doesn’t need to be incredibly high, but any kind of barrier would help. When we had the Rutgers students do the flood control study, they came up with a very interesting idea about taking a trunk line and actually bypassing an area where they felt the piping was too small. I don’t remember the exact route of it off the top of my head right now, it might have gone down roads, might have gone down Fairview, but there was a way essentially to try and get stormwater to essentially bypass one of our one of our restriction areas. That’s worthy of some more study.
So the plant itself, there’s a couple of things– there is a flood barrier because that is a difficult event when it happens. And then there’s the general state of the plant itself, which is also a really big concern and this is something that I want to focus on a lot going forward because I’ve walked through this plant multiple times and it’s not in great shape. From having a look at it. I have to be perfectly honest about it. The staff there does the best that they can with it, but it’s been a very, very long time since that plant had significant upgrades. And the last round of upgrades is actually what’s starting to get worn out right now. So, the final stage of the process, the advanced treatment process at the very end where they use micro screens and biological contactors to do a final treatment stage, that system is very much at the end of its life. Everything at the wastewater treatment plant is constantly underwater and very, very caustic water. So everything that we have out there rusts, nonstop. Everything there has a useful life and at the end of its useful life, it needs to be replaced. So we’ve been repairing this micro screen system at the very end of the treatment plant, and it gets very, very expensive because we actually have to have parts custom made for it, the manufacturer doesn’t support it anymore.
So a big challenge is what are we going to do with this final stage of treatment? That’s probably going to need to be entirely replaced in the near future and we’re working on getting cost estimates on this. There are a lot of pumping stations within the plant that are also in poor condition and need a lot of rehab. We need to basically do the same sort of asset management plan that we did with the water system on the wastewater treatment plant by which every single asset in this plant is evaluated at its current condition, given a life expectancy from where it is right now, and a expected replacement date. For example, we did put wind filters in relatively recently, so they’re in good condition. We did do some updates to the emergency generator so it’s in better condition, but all the things that we haven’t done in the last 10 to 15 years are coming due. And it’s one of these things where we need to pace ourselves. We only have so much ability to finance projects without driving the rates up and we only have so much ability in-house to manage and execute projects.
So if we’re not breaking this up into manageable pieces and constantly getting it done piece by piece, it doesn’t get done. But ultimately, it’s having a knowledge of what’s going on at this facility and understanding how it works, understanding its needs and the needs around industrial plant maintenance. By which I think we can actually accomplish what we need to do. It’s not going away. You know, we have to have this facility. We have to use it. We have to take care of it.
Q: You’re asking for voters to give you a third term. What would you have liked to accomplish in your first two terms that you haven’t gotten done, and why didn’t it get done?
Alex Roman: It’s a good one. I have been around for two terms. I’m proud of what I’ve gotten done in the last eight years. I think that if you look at the current state of our operation, I’m really happy with a lot of what we’ve gotten done and I am happy to feel like I’ve made a lot of positive change. But you’re right, otherwise I wouldn’t be running for a third term. I feel like I would like to have been further on downtown. Pay attention to vacancies in downtown and try to battle retail vacancy because that is sort of a self perpetuating problem– every time you have little vacant retail space, you’re at risk of having another vacant retail space and so on and so on.
But again, I sort of focused on the building stock. I really want to see the owners of the commercial buildings revitalize their buildings. Why haven’t we gotten there? So much of this ties into the Master Plan that we had to get through that before we launched any really significant efforts around that. My goal is to go essentially building by building by building and look at each building and say what is the state of this building? Who owns it? What’s in it? How much of it is vacant? Is it in its optimal condition? And if not, how do we nudge the owner of this building in the right direction? To get it to where it needs to be that we really haven’t gotten to. We know some of that is also a function of a township, manager changeover. That was something that I was working on with Matt Cavallo, a lot of these projects. When he moved on, we’ve gone through another reorganizational process. So that’s affected essentially our ability to get some of these longer term projects done. A lot of things are getting back on the table right now, but I really do feel like this is one that can get done. And I’d really like to see it get done. That’s probably the biggie as far as what I feel, did not get accomplished. Other than that, I feel like the financial improvements that I’ve been working on, have very much been done. A lot of the capital projects have continued. We’ve continued to invest capital into infrastructure. I think we’ve done a lot more with succession planning and internal management improvements. So I’ve been happy with a lot of what we have gotten done, but that is the big one where I still really want to deliver on that. The other big thing is making sure that we execute what’s already in progress. It’s one reason why I’m asking voters for a third term. I feel like we have so much on the table right now that needs to be carried through to completion. We need to execute everything that’s going on with affordable housing, and we need the continuity of perspective in order to prepare for the next route of affordable housing. Since I’ve sat there through all the meetings, which I can tell you were just night after night after night until 11 o’clock, midnight discussing affordable housing. I have the volume of knowledge and I really want to make sure that we don’t lose that institutional knowledge going forward. And we’re able to bear this, 2025 is right around the corner. We’re going to have to deal with it. And I want to make sure that we put Verona in the right place so that that’s not at risk.
Q: No one disputes that the police department, fire department and rescue squad need new buildings. If re-elected, how are you going to get them done and how will you balance spending and borrowing to do it?
Alex Roman: Very good question. I agree with you. First off, we all know the need and we’ve known that for a long time. And I’m very, very appreciative of the fact that our first responders have continued to serve Verona from facilities that we know are not what they need and what they deserve. So there’s a couple of things about how we approach this. One of my big goals, particularly for my two years that I’ve spent as mayor has been creating what I call inevitability. I wanted us to organize ourselves in such a manner that these projects get on a road to getting done. If you remember very early in my term, I pushed for us to form essentially subcommittees or working groups for each of us to work on a set of projects. And the whole idea behind that was that two years flies by in an instant. I’m not going to be Mayor of this town forever. I may not even be back on the Council, who knows. But I wanted to make sure that we started work on things in such a manner that they were going to get delivered, regardless of changeover in people. So you look at for example, the Shared Services Subcommittee that Chris Tamburro and I sit on,and we just did a shared court service. The same way that we built an Emergency Services Subcommittee, we started the process of doing the needs assessment, bringing in an architect to start looking at what our possibilities are actually searching for land. It creates a process that actually got kicked off, and it hopefully gets carried forward to actually get the specific project done.
The other big thing that I push for is what I call incremental progress. Even if I am not at the ribbon cutting for new police, fire, and rescue facilities, even four years from now, as long as they get done, the town wins. So it may take longer than that for the completion of land acquisition, the completion of design, contracting and closing out of a project to commissioning. I’m okay with that. I don’t have to be at the ribbon cutting as long as it gets done and we’re on a road to Verona getting the wind here.
That being said, I think it actually is going to get done. If you listen, we are actively looking for a location for these. And I think there’ll be some news in the very near future that will be positive and then after that it’s a matter of going through the process of actually developing the project, costing it out and finding a time when we can execute it. You asked about costs. We can look at our bonding schedule and schedule things so that when one bond rolls off, we’re ready to go on another one so that there’s not a substantial net effect to the taxpayer.
It’s a matter of thinking in the long term. These are projects that are going to affect Verona for 50 to 100 years going forward. All I want is someone in 2030, 2040, 2050, saying that there were people on the town council in the 2020s who were really thinking ahead, and they made some good long term decisions. They took opportunities when they came up. And they did the right thing for the future.
I think we’re in a good spot. I do think we’re going to have some good news to share in the very near future. And I think we have the right team together. I think that everybody here is on the same page. We want to get this done. We have the ability to do large projects in this town. We remodeled the library to the tune of I think it was four plus million dollars. And we have a beautiful asset that has revitalized that organization. You look at how much they’re doing with it. It was worth the investment. We built the fields up on the Hilltop. It was worth the investment. Those get used constantly. We’re able to do these things. We just need to pace ourselves. So I think that it is going to get done. I really I’d like to be there to make sure that it gets done. But I’m very proud of the team. I’m proud of the work that’s happened and I do think it’s very possible. I think that we’ll be able to do it in a manner that keeps our finances stable and doesn’t weigh on the taxpayers.