Montclair Council: Budget Concerns, Dog-Park Issues on Mount Vernon and Waiting on Lackawanna

The Montclair Township Council

The Montclair Township Council did not have any major issues at its March 7 conference meeting to deal with on the scope of the “welcoming city “resolution it passed in February, but it did have some spirited discussions about redevelopment, parking and even the budget.

The township budget was scheduled to be introduced – but not passed – at the conference meeting.  It will not get a hearing until April 25, but Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville said she had been asking for discussions with directors and chiefs of different departments on their line-item requests.  Mayor Robert Jackson replied that the Council Finance Committee had already reviewed the budget, which anticipates $85.8 million in appropriations and $1.9 million surplus, but Dr. Baskerville reminded the mayor and the council that, in years prior, the various department heads had come before the council, in public, one by one to give presentations, answer questions and go into details about the appropriations for their respective departments.

“In terms of best practices, in my mind,” Dr. Baskerville said, “the best practice would be for me to have an opportunity to go through it and asks questions to the heads of departments and be very clear about where the dollars are going.”  She called the current process a form of being “hoodwinked.”  Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller agreed that the prior approach would be preferential.

Mayor Jackson said the budget had not really changed since the council last held hearing for department heads on a one-by-one basis, and department salaries were the only lines to be reviewed.  Dr. Baskerville appreciated his comments but expressed frustration about not having been able to review the budget before being asked to vote on even introducing it.

The hearing for the 2017 budget, scheduled for April 25, is slated to feature testimony from Bob Benecke, a financial analyst who has advised the township on fiscal matters.   Township Financial Officer Padmaja Rao told the council that the budget will be up on the town’s Web site.  In the end, Dr. Baskerville went along with the rest of the council and voted to introduce it, but it remains to be seen whether her wish for more substantial hearings will be fulfilled.

Mount Vernon Road Residents Impacted by Dog Park Visitors

About 45 minutes of the meeting was devoted to parking problems on a dead-end street due to canine issues.  Residents of Mount Vernon Road, a side street between Grove Street and the western edge of Brookdale Park, complained that dog owners were speeding down Mount Vernon Road to access the nearby dog park in Brookdale and parking along both sides of the street despite ample parking elsewhere.  The residents cited the danger to children in the neighborhood, as they might run after a ball out into the street when a car is approaching, as well as the unsanitary conditions of dogs exercising their bodily functions and the possibility of loose dogs that could harm children.

The chief appeal of Mount Vernon Road to dog owners using the dog park in Brookdale, it seemed, is the direct entrance into the dog park from the street.  No one, the homeowners said, wants to use the park’s circuit drive and be required to enter the park from Bellevue Avenue and exit onto Watchung Avenue, or vice versa.  Mayor Jackson said that there would have to be numerous ways to discourage non-residential use of Mount Vernon Road, such as speed bumps, marking the curbs to prevent people form parking too close to the driveways, and improved enforcement, among other ideas.  Another idea discussed was building a fenced-in area with gardens and re-orient the entrance.  Essex County Freeholder Cynthia Toro, who represents the neighborhood on the county freeholders’ board, appeared at the meeting, and she said she has been engaged with the mayor and council over the issue.  She said she talked to County Executive Joe DiVincenzo to look into it.  A fence has been considered, but she said that other dead-end streets may want fencing.  She added that signage to alert dog owners has also been under consideration.

Mayor Jackson and the council generally agreed that a multi-pronged approach was more likely to work than a single action, and the matter is expected to be brought up at the next Montclair Traffic and Parking Advisory Committee meeting on March 15.

Seymour Street and Lackawanna Plaza Redevelopment Plans

Mayor Jackson also had members of the Montclair Planning Board at the conference meeting to address questions about the Seymour Street and Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plans.  He said that the Seymour Street plan appeared to be being “re-invented” based on what the Planning Board was reviewing. Planning Board Chairman John Wynn said that plan had been approved as the council had passed it, but the applicant hasn’t submitted all of the elements of the proposal.  The mayor asked about a dedicated left-turn lane on South Willow Street onto Bloomfield Avenue, proposed at a time when the county has already planned to improve every intersection along Bloomfield Avenue from the art museum to South Willow.

Board member Martin Schwartz said it wasn’t clear whether the consultant involved with the redevelopment has interfaced with the county and whether such issues can be dovetailed.  The board hasn’t addressed the traffic report at the planning board level and still needs to see if the competing interests can be reconciled.   Chairman Wynn said the consultant’s traffic report is merely provided to the board to make informed decisions, and the board has already received a good deal of comment from the public on traffic circulation.  He framed the process of approving the application for Seymour Street as trying to get a handle on the “big picture.”

Mayor Jackson was also concerned about the number of meetings on Lackawanna Plaza when it has been two years since the council approved a redevelopment plan designated it an Area in Need of Redevelopment.  The Planning Board members defended their interest in looking at more meetings with the developer and residents as a form of “flexibility” in going forward, and they said they were aiming to expedite the process as much as possible.  They explained that the slow pace was largely due to the uncertainty of the feasibility of a new municipal complex in the area – an issue that had just recently been resolved, with such a complex being rejected.

Board Vice Chair Jason De Salvo said the board has been working with the same architect on both Seymour Street and Lackawanna Plaza, and the work done on Seymour Street so far will facilitate the process with Lackawanna Plaza.  Aware of the need for a new supermarket, De Salvo said that they want to go as quickly as possible without rushing into it to make sure they don’t approve buildings people won’t be happy with.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Baskerville proposed an ordinance prohibiting overnight parking of commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailers.    The ordinance would set overnight parking between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., with a distinction between a commercial vehicle that is parked and one that is being unloaded.  The ordinance, which is likely to be modified, will come up for first reading on March 28.

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