The future management of Bloomfield’s animal shelter, crime, speeding and other issues were addressed at a community forum held at Temple Ner Amid in Bloomfield on Thursday evening.
Mayor Michael Venezia and Councilmen Nick Joanow and Elias Chalet were present, as well as Police Director Sam DeMaio and newly-appointed Township Administrator, Matt Watkins.
The meeting opened with brief remarks by the Mayor, Township Administrator Watkins, and Police Director DeMaio, followed by a question-and-answer period.
Although it was one of the last topics brought up, the future of the animal shelter was discussed at length. As previously reported, after the shelter received a poor inspection report from the state and animal cruelty charges were filed against ACO Vincent Ascolese (who heads up both North Jersey Humane Society and Bergen County Humane Enforcement, which handle shelter management and animal control for the Township, respectively), the Mayor announced Monday evening that the Township intended to replace the management at the shelter, although Ascolese had not been convicted of the cruelty charges when the decision was made. He will appear in municipal court on October 14, 2015 in connection with the charges, and intends to plead not guilty, according to his attorney.
Responding to a question by Bloomfield resident Pat Gilleran, Mayor Venezia stated that the Township had sent out a letter officially terminating the contract with North Jersey Humane Society and Bergen County Humane Enforcement. The termination clause in the contract calls for a 90-day notification period.
Venezia said details of the termination still had to be worked out with NJHS/BCHE. He said the Township Administrator and health officers have been at the shelter every day to monitor the conditions there and ensure the health and welfare of the animals while the details of the transition are finalized.
The Mayor stated that they were working on an inter-local agreement with a neighboring town to take over the animal control function on a temporary basis until a permanent solution is identified. The agreement is still being worked on. Once it is finalized an official announcement with further details will be made.
Regarding the animal shelter, the Township will take it over on a temporary basis and an Animal Control Officer who recently left will be brought back to manage the shelter in the meantime until a long-term solution is chosen. The Mayor said they are “looking at all options.” He confirmed that they are “strongly considering” the establishment of an animal welfare advisory committee to oversee the operation of the shelter, whether it is ultimately run by an outside organization or the Township. “It is a top option,” he stated.
Gilleran asked whether the Township would close the shelter in order to perform construction and repairs needed to bring it up to code. Township Administrator Watkins said that he and the Director of Public Works were at the shelter that day and the intent is to fix it and finish up what was left to do. “The intent is to lay out options to the governing body and address those issues,” he said.
Gilleran also expressed concern about construction taking place while the animals, particularly the dogs, are being kept in the shelter. She suggested foster homes be found for them during the process. Watkins responded, “I’ve been in a lot of animal shelters – it’s a pretty nice animal shelter. A little elbow grease will go a long way.” He said he did not think it would be necessary to move the animals in order to do the work.
Shelter volunteer Jerry Blasi suggested the dogs could be outside in the outdoor runs during the day while construction took place inside; others could be moved to the annex section of the building.
Another Bloomfield resident, Cathy Carfagno, asked the Mayor for a guarantee that the shelter will remain as a no-kill shelter.
Venezia said that to his knowledge, no animals had been killed at the shelter since he’d been a member of the governing body. He also said that the council will be passing the no-kill ordinance known as the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA), which will be introduced at the conference meeting on October 19, 2015, and will be passed on first and second reading during November.
He said it was previously introduced in 2014, but then tabled when North Jersey Humane Society was hired, as the intent was for a volunteer committee to be formed to go over the legislation with the new management; unfortunately, “nothing got done,” he said.
Mayor Venezia introduced Matt Watkins at the beginning of the meeting. Watkins then spoke briefly about his priorities.
He said his chief priority is to increase revenue for the town, but not through taxes. “We’re all going to work together so the town runs properly, we don’t make mistakes… look at alternatives and be creative,” he said.
He later fielded questions from the public, particularly Mary Shaughnessy, who asked him several questions. She said that Bloomfield had “gotten into trouble in the past” due to not following procedures and through “sloppiness” that led to lawsuits.
Watkins said, “It’s about habit, changing habit. You can’t fix everything all at once. My focus has been on certain areas where we’ve spent the most money. It’s going to take time, re-educating a lot of people.”
Shaughnessy also asked him the “toughest question” he was asked during his interview for the Adminstrator position, and how he responded. Watkins said the question was, “What do you see [in Bloomfield] that needs to be fixed first?” His response was that the foundation of anything “is the money.” He compared it to running a house: “If you’re earning $50,000 a year, and you buy a $100,000 car and a $500,000 house… you’re not going to survive very long. You have to get your financial house in order.”
Watkins said the Police and Fire Departments were “outstanding,” and that certain issues need to be addressed, including water issues and infrastructure improvements. He compared his job to acts with performers spinning plates. “My job is to make sure that those plates keep spinning and nobody drops one.”
Mayor Venezia introduced Director Sam DeMaio and spoke about the reduction of crime. “Crime is down -32%; there used to be 60-70 incidents a week – last week there were only nine,” he said. “Revenue is up, crime is down. We did a restructuring of the Police Department, and it’s working.”
DeMaio confirmed that big changes had taken place in the department. “We had to instill in everyone that it’s no longer business as usual… it’s about the community.” He said the department members meet three times a week and go over everything that happened during the past 48 hours. They are using “strategic deployment” of officers, he explained, which puts officers where crimes take place at the times they take place. He said a lot of the improvements are due to the new technology they are using, including GPS in each patrol car so that dispatchers know where each car is and can more efficiently deploy them to crime sites.
He said the 30+% crime reduction was in “Part I crimes,” which include murder, rape, robbery, theft, burglary, auto theft and theft from automobiles. DeMaio said there is a link on the Department website where crime statistics are posted every week, so people can look up the statistics themselves.
He also said they are conducting a pilot program for body cameras and plan to increase the availability of non-lethal weapons to put at officers’ disposal as an alternative to guns.
He said they are focusing on “good, strong community policing,” not an “us vs. them” mentality.
Several members of the public spoke about speeding taking place on various streets, including Spruce Street, Essex Avenue, North Spring Street and Broad Street. Various solutions were discussed, including speed bumps, interactive electronic speed signs, and targeting specific areas with radar.
DeMaio said they had contracted to do a branding campaign wherein they will use social media and other vehicles to show the police interacting with the public. He also said they have new radar guns and there are at least four officers on the road with radar at any given time. He said there had been 17,000 summons issued in 2015 vs. only 600-700 last year.
In order to alert the police to trouble spots, he said, the best way to report it is to email Lieutenant Frank Furfaro of the Traffic Division, and let him know where the problems are.
DeMaio also responded to a question about crime in neighboring towns, explaining that Bloomfield is part of the Corr-Stat system, which tracks crimes in real time and enables neighboring police departments to work more closely together, identify patterns, and more.
Mayor Venezia responded to a question about attracting new businesses to the downtown by saying there are already a number of new restaurants, an urgent care center, boutique stores, and more that are interested in coming to Bloomfield.
He also dispelled rumors of a Walmart coming to the site of the old Hartz Mountain building on the corner of Watsessing and Bloomfield Avenues. He explained the previous administration wanted a Walmart but that never moved forward. He said the site will be developed with a combination of residential apartments and retail stores, including an Aldi supermarket and a Modell’s Sporting Goods store. He also said Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizza is interested in the site.
He said that 150 out of 224 leases have already been signed in the new Avalon development across from the train station, which is ahead of schedule.
As for industry, most larger corporations, he said, are looking to move out of New Jersey rather than into the state. However, he said Broadacres office park in Bloomfield has improved their vacancy rate recently and is now up to 75-80% occupied.
In response to a question from Pat Gilleran regarding possible lead paint contamination and water damage in the Children’s Library, the Township Administrator said they are working with the Joint Insurance Fund to provide the Township with a list of qualified vendors who can assess/remediate the lead paint situation.
Mayor Venezia closed the meeting with an announcement that there will be another community meeting to be held at the Presbyterian Church on the Green’s Parish House on Monday night, October 12, at 7:00 p.m.