The Bloomfield Council introduced the draft 2016 budget at Monday evening’s conference meeting.
The $78.4 million budget represents a less than 1% increase, resulting in a $16 property tax increase for the average homeowner, the lowest increase in the municipal portion of the budget in recent years, stated Mayor Venezia. He said he believed it was the lowest increase since 1998.
Venezia said he had asked the department heads to continue to look for cost savings. The budget will be formally presented at the regular council meeting on March 21, 2016.
Township Attorney Appointment
The council voted to appoint the firm of Bevan, Mosca and Giuditta for township attorney services after receiving five bids in response to an RFP that had been posted, according to Municipal Clerk Louise Palagano. She said the bids had been received on Monday afternoon.
The appointment was voted on to address the controversy that had erupted after a member of the Bevan, Mosca and Giuditta firm, Michael Parlavecchio, was appointed to the Township Attorney position on February 1, 2016.
Attorney Brian Aloia, who had been in the position until the appointment of Parlavecchio, then sued the town, alleging that the appointment process had been done improperly and violated pay-to-play laws. Parlavecchio then resigned from the position on March 1, 2016. Both his and Aloia’s firm submitted bids in response to the RFP.
Before the vote, Councilman Joe Lopez protested at length the haste with which the appointment was being made, stating that in past similar situations the mayor and council had reviewed resumes and and conducted interviews, and there was a longer process involved.
“What’s the rush?” he asked. “If the majority wants to make a change, go through the process. That’s why there have been these errors.”
Palagano then called the roll, and the appointment passed 4-2-1, with Councilmen Lopez and Bernard voting no, and Councilman Chalet abstaining.
During the public comment period that followed, David Tucker, who has declared his intention to run for Mayor, criticized the appointment process of the Township Attorney, asking how it is that the mayor “makes the decision on his own.” Mayor Venezia responded that the council had passed it by a 4-2-1 vote and it was a council decision.
Tucker also said that crowded meetings should be moved to Council Chambers to accommodate all members of the public, as some had to stand in the hallway outside the conference room.
Pat Gilleran spoke next. She also said that conference meetings should be held in Council Chambers to avoid violating the Open Public Meetings Act.
Gilleran stated the township ordinance from July of 2012 calls for the Director of Law be an attorney employed by the town, not a firm. Mayor Venezia said that the Township Administrator had noted that discrepancy and they are in the process of revising the ordinance. Gilleran then said that Parlavecchio is also the attorney for the Essex County Board of Freeholders, which she said is not allowed. Venezia countered, “That was overturned by the New Jersey Supreme Court 20 years ago.”
She also asked about the $500 donation that was given by Parlavecchio to Venezia’s campaign. The mayor said it was in his ELEC report – which she had posted on social media – and that it did not affect his votes. “I’ve gotten rid of people who’ve given me donations before,” he said.
Councilman Lopez moved that the council vote to eliminate health insurance and stipends for the mayor and council members. He said Councilman Chalet is receiving health benefits that cost the township $28k, and that Councilman Bernard and Mayor Venezia receive $5000 stipends, while some of the township employees are not receiving benefits.
Mayor Venezia said he did accept the stipend, but that he had totaled up all of the money he had given to various township organizations and found that he had given back substantially more than he had received, for a total of $6,275.
The conversation grew heated as Venezia added, “A month ago you asked to have the council pay for your attorney fees” for the assault charges that stemmed from the altercation in the parking lot that occurred on January 4, 2016 after the council meeting, when members of the Chalet family had clashed with Lopez after surrounding his car.
Venezia added that Lopez had previously suggested that the mayor and council become full-time paid positions, which Lopez denied. Venezia also stated that Lopez’s Chief of Staff, Gary Iacobacci, was suing the township.
Councilman Bernard confirmed the mayor’s assertion that Lopez had wanted the mayor and council to become full-time paid positions, as did Councilman Chalet.
Mayor Venezia said the reason Lopez wanted to make the council position full-time was because he is in violation of the Hatch Act and wanted to be able to quit his job and get full pay for being a council representative. Lopez is employed by the Essex County Division of Welfare. Lopez denied the allegations.
No members of the council seconded his motion so it did not move forward.
Water Quality Update
Township Engineer Paul Lasek reported that for the first quarter of the year, trihalomethane levels were below the allowed limit of 80 parts per billion in all tested locations. He said the reading at the Bukowski Place location, where a dead-end water main has been eliminated, is the lowest it has been in two years. As part of the effort to reduce the levels of the contaminant, which is a byproduct of chlorine that is used for disinfection, his department has been working to eliminate dead ends in the township’s water system, such as the one at Bukowski Place.
Lasek said that although the news was good for the first quarter, unfortunately the reports that are issued have to average in the latest quarter with previous quarters, which will result in yet another notification being sent out to Bloomfield residents saying trihalomethane levels are unacceptably high. He said as the rolling average drops off, by the 2nd quarter report the levels should drop down below the limit.
Mayor Venezia said, “We really need to concentrate on what we need to do to fix this situation.” He asked what it would take to completely overhaul the whole system.
Lasek said it would cost upwards of $50 to $60 million to replace all of the old piping. The mayor said the state has an infrastructure fund that may be able to help fund the overhaul of the system. Lasek said he would like to talk to the township grants coordinator about it.
During the public comment period, Stephen St. Hilaire spoke in support of rent control, connecting it with the need to provide affordable housing. He also recommended that an expert rent control attorney be hired to assess the legality of any rent control ordinance prior to its passage.
Ron Simoncini, representing the Bloomfield Property Owners’ Association, countered that rent control is a separate issue from affordable housing, and said that over the many meetings they had had with former Township Attorney Brian Aloia, Aloia had essentially become an expert in the matter, and had concluded that the ordinance as it was being framed would be unconstitutional.
Two apartment owners also spoke during public comment, pointing out that they maintain their buildings and provide upgrades as needed, and do not gouge their renters or raise their rents unreasonably. They asked why they should be penalized when their properties are not a problem.
Later in the meeting, Councilwoman Wartyna Davis reported on the progress of the Rent Control Ordinance. She and Councilmen Joanow and Lopez had served on a subcommittee that was created to finalize a recommendation for an ordinance that would address the needs of both renters and landlords.
She said the proposed ordinance would apply only to multi-family residences of six or more units, and would allow rent increases based on CPI with a percentage cap. As renters leave the residence, the landlord would be allowed to raise the rent to market rates in between rentals. There would be a Rent Control Board where complaints could be brought, and the Secretary of the Board would be available to respond to any questions and point people in the right direction when they had issues.
She also added that renters who were still under the old rent control ordinance would not be affected by the new ordinance and are grandfathered in under the previous regulations.
She asked the council to move forward with the subcommittee’s recommendation, so that the rent control stipulations could be included in some larger ordinance.
Councilman Joanow proposed that the township post an RFP to get an expert rent ordinance attorney to look over the proposed ordinance and return a template for the council’s review and then move to the next level.
Mayor Venezia said the first step would be to have their attorney look it over and then, if needed, Township Administrator Matt Watkins could send out an RFP for an expert rent control attorney.
Councilman Lopez said that he wanted to hear directly from the representatives for both the renters and the landlords to ensure both sides are treated fairly before moving forward.
Joanow countered that they had already done this and that they had made the effort from the beginning to be fair and balanced. “We are not going to redo the hours we have already spent. We have listened, we have proposed, and then created an ordinance, which is only a first draft.” He went on to say that Lopez had missed four meetings, and said, “We’re past that stage. Our role has been met.”
Lopez also said he wanted to know how the ordinance would affect veterans, seniors and the disabled. Davis responded that there would be no detrimental effect at all, as they would be receiving the benefit of rent control just like everyone else.
Mayor Venezia said Township Administrator Watkins would take it from that point forward.
Bloomfield Center Alliance
Ollyn Lettman, Executive Director of the BCA, presented the 2016 BCA budget, which he said had been approved by the BCA Board of Directors and submitted to the council in December.
The $513k annual budget represented a slight decrease in the Special Improvement District (SID) assessment. He said the BCA had requested $70k in CDBG funding in February. Lettman said there was an increase in personnel costs that reflected his hiring as a full-time Executive Director. The BCA previously had a part-time Director.
Plans for 2016, he said, include additional marketing and promotional activities, comprising “Welcome to Bloomfield” street banners, expansion of the Facade Grant Program, additional planters and trash receptacles, and securing of a “Greensweeper” machine that will enable better cleanup of the curbs and sidewalks.
Lettman said they would be expanding these programs to the area of the SID to the East, beyond the Garden State Parkway.
Other priorities include the completion of the Six Points project (targeted for May), adding new way-finding signs, and a focus on the gateway areas of Bloomfield, particularly the exit ramp at Exit 148 of the Parkway. The BCA will also continue to work toward the renovation of the Bloomfield Train Station.
He said the BCA plans to hold a “Dinner and Show” promotion in conjunction with Bloomfield College, encouraging new customers to enjoy a show at Westminster Theatre and a meal in local participating restaurants. They are also planning a Spring Block Party on Washington Street to showcase local restaurants. The street will be closed off and restaurants will have tables and tents. “It will be like a Food Truck Festival without the trucks,” he said. There will be craft beers and a DJ as well.
Recent activities included a “Welcome to the Neighborhood” event at Jack’s Super Foodtown in February. Lettman also said the BCA has approved six facade grant applications totaling $11,395. Three have been implemented to date.
Mayor Venezia commended the BCA Board for recognizing the need for a full-time Executive Director and agreed with the importance of the gateway project. He also urged the BCA to concentrate on keeping the Center clean, repairing broken bricks in the sidewalk and killing weeds, as well as ensuring flower baskets or planters are kept watered and fresh.
Venezia also brought up the sign advertising the new businesses in the Center, which he said is too big. He conceded the council had approved the sign, but said he hoped if there is an opportunity to make a change that the sign could be reduced in size.
The council voted to issue two proclamations at the beginning of the meeting: one declaring March as Women’s History Month, and another declaring February as Black History Month.
The council voted unanimously to approve Franklin Development Group LLC as the redeveloper of a block that spans Bloomfield Avenue and Farrand Street, where the Bloomfield Electric Company is located. Community Development Director Glenn Domenick explained the Bloomfield Electric Company was in foreclosure and the development group has purchased the property. He said the property is within Phase II of the Center Redevelopment so the use would be mixed use retail and residential, as designated by the Redevelopment Plan for the area.
IT Director Jean-guy Lauture announced the transition from the Code Red reverse 911 system to a new system, Swift911. He said residents with computers could sign up on the township website, and those with smartphones could register by texting SWIFT911 to 99538. Anyone who does not have access to a computer or a smartphone can call him at 973-680-4670 to register or ask for help in signing up.
Councilman Lopez introduced an ordinance to forbid tethering animals outside or leaving them outdoors for more than a half hour in inclement weather. Assistant Township Attorney Steve Martino said that the new Township Attorney would need to look into it and integrate it into existing ordinances pertaining to animals.
Councilman Carlos Pomares reported that the township had received a $24k DEP grant for way-finding signs and informational kiosks for the Morris Canal Greenway, to connect the historic path of the old Morris Canal.
Councilwoman Davis reported that the Civil Rights Commission met recently and said they are in the process of reorganizing under new leadership. They are focused on refining their mission and creating by-laws.
The next meeting will be a Regular Council Meeting to be held in the Council Chambers on Monday, March 21, 2016, at 7 p.m.