The Montclair Township Council heard concerns about affordable housing and plaudits about the parks at its December 4 conference meeting. The meeting began half an hour earlier than usual to accommodate the annual requests for funds from the community block grant development (CDBG) program.
Mayor Robert Jackson and the council called the managers of Union Gardens at 50 Greenwood Avenue, the apartment complex near Lackawanna Plaza, after the death of a resident there a month before from domestic violence and other criminal incidents there. Tameeka Johnson had been stabbed to death by her live-in boyfriend Kenneth Jones on November 12 and remains at large. Given what has taken place there, Mayor Jackson and the council were concerned that too many individuals who get a housing voucher through the township’s Section 8 Rental Voucher Program and choose to live at Union Gardens are at risk from crime – not just the threat of murder but the drug offenses that have occurred on the property.
Bruce Morgan, the township’s housing officer, said the program is based on choice. Prospective home dwellers that get a voucher through the township are allowed to choose the apartment they want to live in, and many choose to live Union Gardens because it was designed from the start to provide affordable housing. He said that his office alerts them to the dangers of certain apartment complex, and he added that since he became the township’s housing officer in 2008, there have been no problems with residents in the program. Union Gardens includes 15 individuals who live there through the voucher program, five of whom are disabled and four of whom are elderly.
Captain James Carlucci explained to the council that crime had been rampant for some time both at Union Gardens and in the Mission Street area nearby, and he cited the department’s efforts at aggressive policing to turn things around. He said more diligent patrolling had decreased crime at Union Gardens dramatically.
“Unfortunately, in this one particular incident,” he said of the Johnson murder, “it really wouldn’t even have even benefited if an officer was stationed out there. Something that happens behind closed doors are really impossible to prevent.”
Responding to Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager’s questions about security and maintenance issues, Captain Carlucci said that lighting for the narrow alleyway at Union Gardens would work, and he also noted that work was done on maintaining and improving trees to improve sightlines for the police. He regretted to report that the security cameras there were not working, and there was a project underway to improve the camera systems. Captain Carlucci said police were working with building management to improve the security overall, and he also proposed a curfew for the courtyard, possibly at 11 P.M., to reduce incidents during the warmer months.
Dawn Walker, a representative of the Edgewood Management firm that runs Union Gardens, said her company was unaware of the various offenses the police had reported, and she would go through the proper procedures to remove any resident who violates his or her lease. Mayor Jackson said that Edgewood should be notified as a courtesy regarding criminal activity. Walker said she would work with the building’s owners on the lighting – which Mayor Jackson hoped, “God forbid,” wouldn’t be PSE&G’s responsibility – and the mayor pressed for the camera system to be improved, He added that there had to be a struggle to balance affordability and safety, because, he said, when there’s affordability without safety, “what’s it worth?”
Also, Adeola Whitney, chair of the Montclair Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, said her group has been continuously visiting all 18 of Montclair’s public parks to get feedback from residents and see what their parks need in terms of improvements – benches, lighting and the like. Whitney reported that the PRAC had given the Department of Community Services (DCS) a preliminary draft of the parks’ needs, and that the DCS is currently working on implementing the improvements.
Committee member Marcia Almeida told the council that 2000 daffodil and tulip bulbs have been planted for 2019, and she promised a beautiful spring for Montclair. She also thanked Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, a PRAC member since before the start of her council tenure in 2008, for her support. Dr. Baskerville said she appreciated the PRAC’s work and outreach.
Gary Obszarny, the township utilities director, also briefed the council on the technological innovations at both the water and parking departments. He said the water department was now using sophisticated computer systems to monitor water flow and quality, with several backups and redundancies engineered in to make the system fail-safe. With regard to parking, he said police were trying out a new device to write tickets, and he said he hoped he could make it user-friendly to meet the Montclair Public Utility’s needs. Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller opined that Obszarny needed to develop a forward-thinking plan for the next 12 years to phase in capital improvements to the parking infrastructure and adapt to changing technological standards. He said the town needed a vision for how it wanted the technology in the parking infrastructure to work.
Planning Director Janice Talley officiated over the requests for community development block grant funding. Seven different groups put in requests. They were; Interfaith Hospitality for funding to help the homeless; Succeed2gether for tutoring underprivileged children; the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation for helping residents get jobs; Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates (SOFIA), to help women overcome domestic abuse; COPE, to continue to treat those addicted to opioids and help them work their way back into the community; Brother 2 Brother, a tutoring program for young men involving the participation of former Township Councilor Roger Terry; and HomeCORP for its affordable-housing projects. No exact dollar amounts were requested by the community groups, although Talley did request $250,000 for two municipal projects – $200,000 for repairing the sewer line below Maple Avenue, with the rest for improvements to restroom and elevator access for people with disabilities at the firehouse. On the issue of the sewer line, Obszarny said camera equipment to determine the condition of the pipe could allow his department to line the pipe without having to dig up the pavement.