During the pandemic, we’ve all spent much more time in Verona. What have you discovered about our town?
What I discovered about our town, which I think was more emphasized during this pandemic, was the willingness of the community to come together to welcome and thank our rescue services, our police or fire, and our ambulance and Rescue Squad. I thought that was very important. I think it was overlooked at times but we have a wonderful Rescue Squad, our Police Department’s phenomenal and our volunteer Fire Department is amazing, and we often sometimes overlook these things until we actually need them. But I thought the community came together extremely well to honor them to respect them, to have signs out to thank them and to donate to them. I also thought the community did a nice job. We could always do better at supporting the restaurants. I don’t think we lost any restaurants through this pandemic. Restaurants had to make a shift from sit down and some carry out to really full carry out, and I think the town really stepped up, the residents stepped up to support them, both financially and be there to order from them, and allow that transition to happen. And we’re looking forward to this reopening. I know Kim and I have been out to many restaurants over the last five or six months, physically in the restaurants. I think that’s important. We do have a great number of options in town, and a few more to come in the future with a better downtown.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]We have to make it more upscale, and we have to boost its image[/perfectpullquote]
What’s the biggest problem that Verona needs to solve in the next 4 years?
The greatest problem, I believe, is the lacking of our downtown. We have some wonderful anchor stores and families who’ve been downtown for years, whether it’s Jacks or Ariane’s or Eight Hills or Hillcrest or Miele’s, but we’ve lost a lot of businesses, and some of the quality of the businesses that are being attracted are at a lower scale. We need to invest in our downtown, and my platform is really based on bringing back downtown in Verona. And the only way to do that is really with creative ideas, which you’ve seen on my website: Walk/Roll Verona, Eat Verona, Shop Verona and Enjoy Verona. But it’s got to be fully inclusive, and we have to spend money and improve the flavor of the downtown. We have to make it more upscale, and we have to boost its image, but we also have to welcome our residents to want to come downtown and you only do that when you have clean sidewalks, weedless sidewalks, banners that are changed seasonally, and well-lit streets. Beautiful garbage cans, those Bigbelly garbage cans that I talk about that are solar powered. You change the look of our downtown, you change the look of the avenue. You turn heads and you welcome people because you turn it into a showcase. And a few years down the road, even someone like yourself, Virginia, may say I want to open up an office in a building downtown as restaurants decide to open up and we have more choices. When the township focuses on the downtown and makes an investment, others will follow. In the years to come so it really needs to be a significant investment to raise the level of our downtown to a level where we’re proud of it. And we walk it, we stroll it, we roll it and we enjoy it.
What could Verona do to be more sustainable?
I think Verona does a nice job. There is plenty of solar, we could convert a few more buildings. When I was on the Council we were still hoping to, at some point, turn the sewer plant into a self-powered facility based on solar. I think we could probably get there, based on the cost of solar, but I think we’ve done a nice job. We have solar on the Verona Community Center, and PSE&G has put a few of these charging stations in town. We do have recycling, up and down the avenue, but I always think you have to have a balance. People talk about being environmentally friendly. I know we have a Verona community garden. I think that’s great. We recycle. I’m talking about Bigbelly solar garbage cans, which compact garbage so it reduces the amount of pickups that have to be made each week. That’s all solar driven, but I think we’ve done a nice job. We can continue to evolve and add more solar, where it makes sense, but I would say the sewer plant probably makes the most sense because it does use up a lot of energy. But I think Verona does a nice job. We have a very forward thinking, responsible and educated community that I do believe we have a good balance, that are open to new ideas, as they evolve in partnerships, even with our electric company PSE&G, and possibly partnerships with other people, including the county, but to say we’re not green, we certainly are. We can get a little greener. But again, there always has to be a balance between green and financially responsible because we have noticed when we first started doing recycling we would get paid for a lot of the materials we were recycling glass, paper and cardboard. We actually don’t get paid anymore and in some cases we still recycle because it’s the right thing to do, but we actually pay to have the recycling picked up, rather than getting paid. So it’s just interesting how things evolve, but you have to really understand the finance of green for green to really work.
Verona’s municipal budget accounts for 26% of our tax bills and the Town Council’s recent budget workshops have given us a preview of what those might be in 2021. What concerns you about the new budget and why?
What concerns me, just in general, is Verona has never created a reserve, I’ve always talked about reserving for future expenses. We always know there’s a problem that’s going to happen, whether it’s a field that has to be repaired or a roof. You have to reserve for every item, and those reserves should continue to reserve, year after year. We need to reserve for fields, knowing that fields will only last 12 to 15 years and Centennial has to be replaced. We know roads need to be replaced. I’m not sure why we bond for roads, when we can actually begin to save for roads in each budget cycle, we can save for buildings and grounds. Any responsible homeowner always has a reserve available for them. Running a building, which I do, on the West Coast, we do have reserves for taxes, we have reserves for extraordinary expenses, we have reserves for vacancies. These are just responsible things to do so you never have a cash call to a partner. You always have money available and the cash call with a municipality is higher taxes, or, you know, requesting a referendum to raise money, because you’re short of dollars. But, whether it’s the Rescue Squad or the Fire Department we know we need to get a new fire truck every eight to 10 years. We know the Rescue Squad needs a new ambulance every three to five years, because they’re constantly on the road. Why aren’t we reserving $50,000 to $100,000 each year in preparation for this expense. It’s responsible budgeting, it’s responsible reserving for future expenses that we’re fully aware of. And by the way we have a wonderful Rescue Squad, wonderful Fire Department and wonderful Police Department. We’re getting a new police car every year, we should be reserving you know, $30,000, $40,000 a year for a police car so we don’t have to say, all of a sudden, we need another police car. We’re prepared for it. And that should all be within the budget, that should be understood. And the same thing I’ve talked about the downtown. We should be reserving monies for the downtown, each and every year so we can constantly renew and rebuild and refurbish and maintain what we have, because an asset is only good if it’s useful, and it’s maintained, and it’s beautiful. Just like we would do at home, we have to treat the taxpayer’s money, and the town’s assets, the same way. We purchase things that are useful and we maintain them, and we keep them beautiful. And the only way to do that is maintenance and reserves, so we don’t have to basically say we’re short money, we don’t have money, we’re not prepared. It’s responsible budgeting, one on one, and I understand that well.
In February, Gov. Phil Murphy signed bills legalizing recreational marijuana use among adults. What should Verona do about legal marijuana?
I was totally against the dispensary. I know the people who own that property very well, and we’re trying to get something in there that’s going to be very beneficial to Verona, you know. Unfortunately Rolex USA was looking to go in there, Starbucks was looking to go in there, but we couldn’t get a left turn into there and we’re working on getting a left turn onto Claremont, and we’re working with the DOT [Department of Transportation], and we’re working with the county, and Verona. We have a wonderful partnership because we just got approved 30 days ago for a light to make that left onto Claremont and from Claremont onto Pompton. So we can get a Class A business there if we get through this last hurdle. But I am against the recreational use of marijuana in a storefront in Verona, or for medicinal purposes in Verona. I don’t think it’s the right spot, it can be in someone else’s town. I’m fine with that but Verona is not the right spot. I know people like to reach for revenues, and dollars that’ll help the township but I think you sell your soul out because it’s not the clientele we want trafficking through the town. I would prefer another town to have it so, regardless of what the governor chose or approved, I’m not sure that Verona is the place for it, and I’m happy that they found other places to open.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]I am against the recreational use of marijuana in a storefront in Verona, or for medicinal purposes in Verona.[/perfectpullquote]
What has the Council done in the last two years that you would have done differently had you been serving?
Well, in the last two years. I’m not sure, other than designating Green Acres land as unbuildable and preserving that as a park or green acre space, that to me was the highlight of the last two years of the Council. We did that about four years ago, we were beginning to look at that, and then with the help of the county and the Green Acres dollars in acquiring those properties along with some township dollars. That really is preserving Verona for the future, and reducing building in town. Unfortunately, we have too much building going on now we have this affordable housing obligation, which never seems to end. But I don’t think anyone has ever visited the town, and realized that we have plenty of affordable housing here, we have too much building, and our sewers and our roads and our schools can’t handle the population expanding anymore. But other than that, I’m not sure what the council’s really done over the last two years. I can see the downtown continuing to slip, and I feel bad for a lot of the businesses there because they’re not getting any help from the township, other than, you know, parking, during the pandemic. But again, we really need to rehab the downtown, we need to boost it, we need to improve it, we need to enhance it. The only way to do that is with creativity with dollars, and with spending, and it needs to be consistent spending, and the maintenance of the downtown but we can really bring some charm to the downtown. I have some wonderful ideas for the town square, an activation program to really excite people to get people out of their homes, to be walking, spending time in restaurants and time down in the evenings in our downtown. But outside of the Green Acres dollars and preserving some of these Green Acres pockets of land. I think that’s the highlight of the Council outside of that the budgeting is mediocre at best. We’ve really not acquired. Anything to name, you know, sadly we still haven’t replaced the fields and the maintenance on some of the fields, as I think has been neglected, unfortunately.
You say that you will provide new solutions to the “unrealistic affordable housing mandates.” Given that these mandates are coming from the courts, what realistically can a municipal government do to affect them?
Well, Virginia, it’s important to recognize the acquisition of Annin*, was really one of my ideas and my relationship with the Perl family. We acquired that property at almost a 10% discount because Jerry and his brother really, they grew up in town that we had a relationship with them, and they really wanted to go to the town for the right reasons, the affordable housing on the Annin property, combined with Poekel is allowing for 100% affordable, that means you’re going to have basically 100 units of affordable. If you had to get 100 units of affordable anywhere else in town, you would have had to build 500 units times the 20% affordability component, and you would have gotten your 100 units. So we’ve reduced building in Verona by 400 units by acquiring and building 100% affordable and it’s unheard of in the state. It was creative. Most of that idea was myself, and certainly the relationship, without a doubt, was me. I know the town manager relied on me to facilitate that. I was heavily involved in negotiations. And so that saved the town 400 units. The other creative idea I had from the very beginning was reaching out to existing apartment building owners and asking them to convert their units into affordable housing units, and the only way to do that because you ultimately cap their ability to charge a certain rent–so you go from a market rent to basically and affordability, or affordable rent–is you have to pay them money upfront for them to designate their property as affordable. And so it was my idea instead of building, reaching out to owners of apartment buildings, and I know a lot of them, and converting their apartments into affordable housing. And that would have a cost to it, but again that cost was for the greater good of the community. So you pay up front, you re-designate the apartment to affordable. The apartment owner now has an affordable housing complex, he gets an upfront payment, and ultimately his rents get reduced to whatever the state designates affordable to be, whether it’s a single, whether it’s a double, or whether it’s a three bedroom. I definitely was pushing for that. I’m on record with discussing that many times, and we have enough housing units in town that we could have probably created another 20 or 30 affordable housing units without having to build a single thing. So it’s converting what we have, spending some money, but we certainly rather spend some money for the greater good of the community. That might not have solved all the problems but it would have left us with a small obligation. And that small obligation would have made the building in the Afterglow section, or this Spectrum360, a much smaller facility. And on record, I don’t think that facility or that building should be anything larger than 125 units, and in a perfect world, maybe 100 units or less, protecting the Afterglow community and not allowing any of that traffic flow through that neighborhood.
*After he answered, MyVeronaNJ asked Nochimson if he meant Cameco, the food processing plant that was owned by the Perl family near the Verona Community Center, and he confirmed that he did.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]It’s a program to promote expanding your house[/perfectpullquote]
On your platform, you call for Verona to suspend tax assessment increases on home improvements for two years. How could Verona’s municipal budget afford that?
It’s easy, because it’s a moratorium for two years. If a homeowner makes an investment into their home, whether it’s a bathroom, a kitchen, an addition, and has no increased assessment. There’s nothing wrong with that, because the tax, the dollars still collected are the same, it’s just the taxpayer is not penalized for those two years, so it’s very easy. It’s a program to promote expanding your house, staying in Verona and beautifying your home. It’s a simple two-year moratorium, it’s responsible, it’s reasonable, it’s fair and it promotes instead of penalizes a homeowner to add on or improve their home. And luckily we have a lot of builders and plumbers and electricians in town, and a lot of times, like we did here in our house, we used a local Verona builder to do an addition in our house. So not only are you promoting business in town, but you’re not being penalized right out of the gate, so it’s a small concession. And keep in mind it’s only temporary. The town can easily afford it, because the town is never really relying on it until the assessment kicks in, so they’ll just have to wait for two years and after two years everything just rolls, so you’re never really missing anything. It’s just you’re giving the homeowner a chance to catch their breath. The town can easily afford it.
You speak about strengthening zoning laws and empowering code enforcement. What are the gaps in those two areas now?
Well, when we look at our downtown, we don’t see any uniformity with buildings and what we have to do is when a new business comes in town or a new owner it’s nice to have some uniformity to our downtown, and a lot of that surrounds your building codes and what we allow. And so, cleaning those building codes up is important. We have dumpsters that people have in their yards or in the street for extended periods of time, and there should be a limit on having dumpsters just sitting in roads or on yards, or in front lawns. There should be a limited charge or a minimal charge for a dumpster. You know when someone has a project but they shouldn’t be there. I know across the street from us, we’ve had a dumpster for two years on someone’s front lawn. To me, that’s all part of zoning, that’s all part of regulation, that’s part of building codes. And I think Verona, we want to encourage building, but we want to encourage a start and completion, we don’t want a job to be perpetual and forever. So, and then we have other codes that we can help promote. We can allow signage for businesses on the avenue, we can allow for seating on the avenue, as we transform the town we want to make the sidewalks much more visible, accessible, clean. We want to do things in the downtown square, so we want to make sure that all our building codes and zoning codes are all in line with promoting and boosting and enhancing the experience downtown.
On your website, you say that you “promoted downtown business development by creating a downtown special improvement district and establishing a vacant building tax.” Neither of those things happened, so why are they on your website?
We promoted it is what I said. So, promoting it is we’ve been talking about it, just like we’re talking about downtown Verona now and bringing back our downtown. So that’s promoting it. That’s talking about it. And the goal is to basically bring back Verona’s downtown. And in doing that we’ve created a program, which no one has done, it’s a marketing program, and it talks about Walk and Roll Verona. It talks about Eat Verona. It embraces Shop Verona, which Verona talks about but I’m not sure what kind of shopping we do, and it talks about Enjoy Verona, that’s unique to the Nochimson campaign, no one’s ever thought about anything like that. We also have a hashtag #LiVerona. And so what it does is creates a vibe about Verona. We’re trying to create an experience, so that people show up in Verona. We’re talking about lighting the town square of Verona at night, highlighting with LED lights, and accenting our buildings: the pillars, the middle school, the library, the trees, the statues, and making it a magnet, a place that people want to show up to in the evening. Sit, stroll, after dinner, and visit. When people drive the avenue, they can see that it’s a different town, that it’s special. There’s an attraction, and that maybe someday they would decide to open a restaurant in downtown. But I do talk about vacant buildings. We’ve had Gemmell’s, which has now been vacant probably for six plus years. It just sits there and that blight on the avenue is not good for anyone. And we all know it. Some people said there was someone living there, some people said there was a business.We all know that was nonsense. No one lives there. No one’s operated in Gemmell’s for over six years, if not longer. I actually brought Starbucks into Verona, and they did look at that property. Unfortunately, when you have ownership that is not willing to rent it doesn’t do the township any good. So in the end, there should be a penalty for owners who just refuse to rent their building because in the end, it does not benefit places like Ariane’s, AKB, which has done a wonderful job, and other buildings and other restaurants like Avenue Bistro, like Bagelwich, like Miele’s, like Eight Hills, like Jack’s, that continue to invest and try to develop the downtown, and you got places like Gemmell’s, or the owner of Gemmell’s who just doesn’t care. So my goal was to be forward thinking and provide or apply a penalty for people who just don’t seem to care. They don’t live in Verona, they’ve acquired a property, whether through inheritance or through parents, but don’t seem to care. They don’t want to rent it. We’ve had people look at it, they don’t want to lower rents, they don’t want to work with renters. And so, I disagreed with what you said, we have one of the most forward-looking platforms, we understand business, we understand what the downtown needs to look like. We have a real plan, we have real ideas, we have creativity that we’ve designed, we have we’re not just talking about it. We’ve actually done it. So to me, I always say may our deeds exceed our speech. It’s our deeds that we look at, it’s our actions, not our words and we’ve always been about deeds and action. And you know that better than anyone.