SUMMIT, NJ – The Summit Common Council’s agenda for its virtual April 20 meeting looked fairly concise. But three big concerns — public safety, COVID, and the municipal budget and, correspondingly, a citizenry engaged by several of those issues — pushed the meeting to more than three-and-a-half-hours in length.
Police Chief Andrew Bartolotti discussed the police response to the abduction of a 19-year-old woman on April 10, acknowledging the community’s “anxiety and uncertainty,” saying, “As a parent, I fully understand your distress, and as the chief of police I work every day for the benefit and safety of the community.” Because the case is ongoing, he was limited in what he could share, emphasizing that information, misinformation, and speculation being shared on social media could adversely affect the case as well as hurt the victim and her family.
The perpetrator has been arrested and charged with first-degree kidnapping; he remains in custody at the Union County jail.
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Bartolotti explained the messaging from his department on April 10 was to advise residents of the increased police presence in the area; if their safety had been in question, an alert would have been immediately issued over all available channels. Critical video evidence, which will help build a solid case against the defendant, was collected from residents. Bartolotti thanked those who shared footage. He added that Summit has video surveillance equipment and license plate reader technology deployed throughout the City though, for security reasons, he would not reveal where, “and we always look to add more when the budget allows.”
In response to residents’ suggestions that the end of Fernwood Road be closed off, he explained that it is a state-designated artery to a major highway, Route 24. Permanent closure would require the permission of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT). He noted North Side residents are forming a digital Neighborhood Watch group to better stay in contact with one another. The police are updating Neighborhood Watch signs around the city to indicate the use of camera surveillance. He suggested citizens can further help by registering with the Summit Citizen Eye program, calling the list of home and residential camera locations an “essential resource.” Additionally, citizens should continue to lock their vehicles and their homes. Last year, 33 unlocked vehicles were stolen in the City; to date in 2021, there has only been one.
Bartolotti noted that the Summit Police continue to work with Summit schools to reinforce personal safety practices by children, and Detective Sergeant Ryan Peters, school liaison, just recorded a PSA on safe behaviors and how to avoid dangerous situations with strangers.
Saying he did not recollect a crime like this in Summit before but that violent crime does occur in neighboring areas, he reminded the audience that “it’s essential to remember we do not live in a bubble.” He urged parents to continue to talk to their children about personal safety, reminding them that they should “let a trusted grownup know immediately if someone they do not know tries to approach them.”
Delia Hamlet, Fernwood Road, has been working with fellow residents since the incident and has met with Mayor Nora Radest, Bartolotti, and Council President Marjorie Fox. She took exception with the police notification that said “no cause for alarm.” “I would like the information, and I would like to decide when my children need to be in their home. This was not a black bear, this was not an attempted abductor, this was an abductor.” Hamlet described details of the event as seen on home security cameras. She also objected that was no subsequent police communication and no communication from the school board. While a strong police supporter, she did point out that crime is up and the police force is down 10 to 15% from its peak size. She announced the formation of the Summit Safety Initiative Committee (email@example.com), run by and for residents. It is working on a new Neighborhood Watch app; a citizen has donated necessary resources. She asked the police chief to provide a liaison and weekly police blotter information.
Fox cautioned speakers not to rehash traumatic details of the abduction out of courtesy to the victim and her family and to avoid being prejudicial to any prosecution.
The abduction took place in front of Elissa Glasband’s Fernwood Road home “in broad daylight.” Less than an hour earlier, her young children had been playing outside there. “I implore this Council to take action” for the children who live and walk in the area. She said criminal activity in the area has escalated over the years as criminals have become increasingly aware of access to Route 24. “What’s next? A speeding car thief racing down Fernwood and, God forbid, hitting one of our children? The longer we fail to address this security issue, the more we become a target.” She urged the City to close Fernwood, at least temporarily, comparing it to the expeditious closure of Maple Street for outdoor dining. “Shame on us if we value our social lives more than we value the safety and security of our children.”
Aaron Schrager, Department of Community Services Director, pointed out that New Jersey laws covering road closures allow a municipality to do so for up to 48 hours, but that longer terms require NJDOT permission.
Beth Little, Council Member at large, noted the abduction happened in her neighborhood. Calling on her experience as a criminal prosecutor who dealt with many sexual assault and abuse cases, she said that while she sympathized with the citizens seeking more information, but that there are “competing interests in play that prevent the police from doing so.” Any communications have to consider the rights of the victim and the ability to successfully prosecute the case.
Radest expressed gratitude to helpful residents and the police, and to the “bright and brave” victim. Applauding the safety initiatives described by Hamlet, she promised to investigate blocking off Fernwood.
Ward 1 Council Member David Naidu said that as a dad, he understands that people want to be able to do something to make a difference. While pleased that people are talking to the police department, who “have earned the trust of the community,” he warned that conversations on social media are not helpful, and that isn’t the place for sharing detailed information. “If you know something, call the police rather than posting on social media.”
Susan Hairston, Ward One Council Member, described being “lulled into a sense of security knowing the police’s decisions are really excellent here.” She asked Bartolotti if the increase in crime is real or only a perception. “I want to make sure that we manage fear in a way that doesn’t put others at harm; making our children afraid to walk down the street when these things aren’t as common as they can appear.” She also warned against people calling police on people they “don’t think belong in their neighborhood; that kind of fear is also doing harm.”
In response, Bartolotti said car thefts and car burglaries have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic in the Union-Essex-Morris region, and is still increasing. But, as residents heed warnings to lock their cars, those crimes are decreasing in Summit. He warned residents not to get lax as summer approaches to avoid a repeat of last year’s car theft spike. Regarding other crimes, the force is looking to enhance its use of GPS to map crime in the City and neighboring towns. There has been a regional increase in suspects entering unlocked garages to look for keys. He vowed to provide increased notification, including increasing its blotter from monthly to perhaps biweekly.
“I want to reassure the public, you are safe.” He added that vigilance will deter crime, and that it’s not possible to know just how many car thefts or burglaries were averted because the suspect found the doors locked and moved on. To Hairston’s second point, he said, “When emotions are high and fears are high, there is a tendency to look at everything.. as suspicious.” Assuring the public the police will respond to every call, he asked them to tell the dispatcher as much as possible as to support why they have suspicions. “We don’t want to be calling on individuals that are visiting our City.”
In other public comments, Jim Bennett, Fairview Avenue, thanked Schrager for his attention to vegetation encroaching on utility poles, and invited Summit to join, at no cost, a coalition of a dozen municipalities dealing with JCP&L. He quoted BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso calling the utility’s performance after Tropical Storm Isaias “reasonable,” despite much of Summit being without power for a week afterwards. Bennet cited JCP&L’s poor performance parameters in a number of areas and said the coalition can better look out for its members’ best interests. Ideas being considered for the groups’ action plan include increasing the fine the BPU can impose on utilities for noncompliance with orders, currently $100/day, and periodically requiring utilities to earn the right to continue their monopoly franchises. Bennett provided a copy of legislation currently in the state assembly to accomplish those objectives and contact information for the coalition.
City Clerk Rosemary Licatese received a number of emails, mostly on the school district’s quarantine policy. Nearly all of them for a shorter quarantine period and the ability to test out of quarantine. Many pointed out the mental and emotional toll quarantine takes on young people. Of the 16 emails read into the record, only Eric Yu, Colony Drive, “support[s] the public school’s efforts related to COVID-19 restrictions, citing the continuity of curriculum during the pandemic.”
Several writers contrasted the amount of attention given by council to the quarantine issue to that given to the leaf-blower ban.
Rob McCeney, Colt Road, asked when Council will hold town hall meetings about the quarantine policy and support reducing the 14-day duration. He said he’s “tired of Council inaction.” Citing Summit’s “moderate risk,” he said, “Council deferring to the Board of Ed is not acceptable. There are two negative impacts, kids not getting tested when contact-traced and kids are suffering metal health issues as a result.” He also observed that students under quarantine are out in the community while still not in school and co-curricular activities.
Paul Groce, Sweetbrier Road, referred to a Council member’s comment that children’s emotional health is better served by mindful[ness] and meditation than outdoor team sports participation, asking if council and the mayor agree with this assessment.
Laronda Gumm, Hillview Terrace, shared that in the past six months she’s attended two funerals for teenage boys who took their own lives, while a friend was able to avert her son’s suicide.
Joe Gawronski, Oak Ridge Avenue, admitted to “being at a loss” as to why Summit’s rules are stricter than the CDC’s recommendations and why students can’t test out.
Hal Dillon, Ashland Road, described how his quarantined ninth-grader went 38 days with no in-person instruction or activities. At a community meeting, “I advocated for the Board of Ed to refile their reopening plans to follow CDC guidelines which have evolved over time, versus the Westfield Board of Health guidelines which have not evolved.” He asked Council to share data which had been referenced at that meeting by Council members Vartan and Hairston. He further asked if, like for the leaf blower issue, a commission had been created to study the effect of quarantines on children’s mental health. He described the difficulty of determining who among the many bodies involved is accountable for answering these questions as a “Who’s on first?” scenario.
Meg Beatty, Rotary Drive, said “Council leadership should advocate for children.”
Jenny Groce, Sweetbrier Road, noted the “exploding” teen suicide rates due to isolation and has been told ”numerous times that Council’s solution is to increase funding for mental health programs with no mention of the scientific fact that physical activity and socializing with peers produces endorphins which help maintain positive metal health. How does the Council justify shutdown of youth and high school extracurricular activities when science proves participation is healthy and extremely low risk?”
On the phone, Dr, Carol Pak-Teng, Summit Avenue, said “our Council has led us to the forefront of keeping our community safe, with significant vigilance on COVID-19. We are under an incredible amount of stress, including our children. She called the school’s initial hybrid format plan a “privilege,” noting that many students in the state haven’t been in school at all since last March. She stressed we are still in a pandemic, with variants rising and affecting children more. “I’m terrified to hear that so many community members want to loosen restrictions that have been keeping Summit, NJ, safe.”
Dr William Thar, Tulip Street, a retired epidemiologist and public health specialist, seconded Pak-Teng’s comments, but added, “it’s important to view this as a community issue” and suggested that it should be dealt with as a unified public. “It would behoove the Council and the school board to begin to sit down … to discuss how we can deal with this issue as a community and work out some of the conflicts that may be occurring between what the school board is doing and what the community may be feeling is appropriate.”
Jodi Campbell, Ashland Road, referred the school district’s new COVID dashboard indicating that 3,373 students were attending in-person classes as of that day, with seven positive cases in the entire district. She said the September return-to-school plan has worked, and parents have been doing their best to follow all the guidelines. But Summit should look at the virtually non-existent transmission rates in outdoor sports and follow the science that shows children can safely return to school and sports with a ten days’ quarantine and a negative test, as has been demonstrated in neighboring towns.
Fox pointed out that the CDC still says the safest option is 14 days, but that local health officers make final determinations. Summit agreed to follow the State Department of Health’s school matrix as part of its reopening plan. While Summit remains part of a high (orange) transmission zone, the state guidance remains at a 14-day quarantine. This could change if the rate drops to the yellow level. She noted mental health questions are for the Board of Education to answer, not the council. Regarding comments that students are going out about town after seven days, Fox made the analogy that just because people exceed the speed limit, there’s no reason to eliminate speeding laws. She urged listeners to follow the recommendation to “get out of this sooner.”
Little noted many of the Council members are also parents and well aware of the mental health impact of the past year. “My opinion is the best way to get out of this is to follow the public health guidelines, and to follow the experts” like Summit’s regional health officer, Megan Avallone. She also took exception to allegations that the Council cares more about leaf blowers than its children, explaining that the length of the discussion is based on the number of citizens wishing to be heard.
Naidu described last August, when as a member of the Board of School Estimate, “I supported [in-person learning] and was attacked for it.” Professing to be “offended” by accusations that the Council doesn’t care about Summit’s children, he related the lack of attendance by members of Summit United Parents for Extracurricular Return to Routine (SUPERR) at BSE meetings. Addressing the many emails received for tonight’s meeting, he said, “There’s very little dialogue one can have with an email.” He asked people to “pick up the phone and reach out to people” to figure out a solution, or to schedule a real meeting going through the “proper procedures.”
As reported by TAPinto Summit, Summit Board of Education President Donna Miller, speaking at the last Board meeting held April 15, said that the health and safety guidelines are “frustrating but necessary,” and said the District has been able to take positive steps forward within them. She cited examples including the recently-increased school capacity, jazz band, hopes for the FLASH program this summer, sports, and even in-person Board of Education meetings.
“We are impervious to political pressure,” Miller said, and accept full responsibility for decisions past and future
Also received was an email from Bennett on the school budget. He noted that the Board of Education and Board of School Estimate passed a “cap-busting budget with little fanfare,” and urged Council to “send the budget back” to those boards with a request that they find a way to come in under the cap before it is approved by Council.
With the quarantine issue put to bed for the night, attention turned to the 2021 municipal, Parking Utility, and Sewer Utility budgets. City Administrator Michael Rogers expressed his gratitude to everyone involved in creating the budget during the second challenging budget year in a row. This year’s budget has been in the works since August of 2020.
Rogers emphasized three of the budget’s chief goals: to operate a safe, responsive, and healthy city government during and after the pandemic; to manage the Broad Street West redevelopment process; and to demonstrate fiscal responsibility and sound fiscal management, including keeping the tax rate change under 2%, maintaining the city’s AAA credit bond rating, and securing federal recovery funds.
The City incurred more than a million dollars in expenses related to the pandemic in 2020 and has so far received $848,414 in CARES Act reimbursements, leaving a $246,241 shortfall in realized revenue. The Parking Utility experienced a $1.1 million operating deficit, which will be financed and paid back over five years beginning in 2022.
For 2021, there is a projected $1.71M revenue reduction, partially offset by an anticipated $1.07 in American Recovery Act funds, leaving $700,000 in additional surplus needed to balance the budget. The Parking Utility is predicted to bring in $1.21M less than in 2020.
The general fund has a $51,787,747 operating budget and a $3,998,000 capital budget, for a total of $55,785,747, down 0.28% from 2020. The Sewer Utility operating budget is $4,763,737 and the capital budget is $1,495,573 (more than twice last year’s because of the city’s required periodic maintenance contribution to the Joint Meeting) for a total of $6,259,310, an increase of 27.76%. The Parking Utility operating budget is $2,218,602 but its capital budget is $0, representing deferred projects, for a total that’s down 36.3% from 2020.
The municipal tax rate is up 1.05%, and the municipal tax levy is up $548,127. Summit’s tax base is up $27.8 million from 2020, for a total of $3,200,766,106.
Rogers’s big news is that the estimated property tax rate is anticipated to be 0.36% lower than in 2020. The estimated total tax bill amount is $18, 376.33 (versus $18,418.99 last year), a decrease of 0.23% on the average Summit home assessed at $423,028. The city’s effective tax rate is the lowest in Union County – Roselle tops the ranking.
General fund revenues are expected to be $51,757,747, aided by the ARP funds. The 2% property tax levy is under the maximum by more than a million dollars. 2021 appropriations are $51,787,747, with pensions and debt service “the big cost drivers this year,” according to Rogers. Appropriations are more than $3,000,000 under the cap.
The city is down one employee from last year at 198; salaries and wages are up 1.47%.
Debt service on Summit’s AAA bond rating will be $5.09M in 2021, up 9.2%. from last year.
Little, a former Finance Committee chair, called it “remarkable” that after the challenges of the last year, “Summit households would be experiencing a decrease in their taxes.”
Danny O’Sullivan, Ward One Council Member, is in his first year on the Finance Committee, said of the capital budget, “We exhaust the life out of our assets – our vehicles, our computers, our equipment, our Showmobile.” With interest rates currently low, he asked Rogers why the debt service was up. Rogers explained that it’s based on past debt incurred in previous capital budgets. Short-term debt in the 2019 and 2020 budgets has low rates, while the rates on longer term debt is locked in until there is a call option. The city will be looking to see if there are refinancing opportunities, and well as seeking long-term financing opportunities for the new firehouse.
In response to Naidu’s request for clarification about the ARP funds, Rogers explained the money will be received in two equal tranches, this year and next. Naidu asked for a ballpark figure of that money’s impact on taxes. Rogers explained that when you look at the tax rate, “one cent is the equivalent to a little over $320,000 this year. When you do the math” on the ARP money, it’s over 3 cents, a “significant” amount.
Rogers’s full presentation and other materials can be viewed at Budgets | Summit, NJ (cityofsummit.org).
Moving to the business portion of the agenda, a hearing and final vote was taken on Ward Two Council Member Lisa Allen’s Law & Labor ordinance. Introduced at the April 6 meeting, it extends the City’s lease agreement with the Reeves-Reed Arboretum through September 6, 2046. The Arboretum has applied for a state Green Acres grant to improve accessibility for public recreation and the grant requires the grantee to have a 25-year lease. The ordinance passed on a unanimous roll call vote.
Little introduced two Capital Projects & Community Services ordinances. The first would amend the pilot gas-powered leaf blower ban, passed at the April 6 meeting, to include a hardship waiver. Little explained that if, for example, a specific use was required during the ban, a resident or business could apply for a waiver by explaining the necessity of an exemption, and a waiver could be “crafted to narrowly” address that hardship for a limited time. That ordinance will be heard and voted on May 4.
Her second introduction would amend the Development Regulations Ordinance, reducing the required side yard setbacks for air conditioner units in certain zones. When the revised DRO was approved last year, the setback for A/C equipment was changed from five feet to 10 feet to make it uniform with generators. That inadvertently created many hardships; there have been 15 requests for variances so far, and more expected. Since the DRO won’t receive its regularly scheduled quarterly review until after the summer, the Council is proposing that the setback revert to its original five feet, as recommended by the zoning officer and the City planner. This will be heard at the May 18 meeting.
Vartan moved a number of Finance resolutions. The first introduced the 2021 municipal, parking, and sewer operating budgets and capital improvement plan and established a May 18 hearing date. After recognizing the staff and Rogers and CFO Tammy Baldwin for their work in two consecutive complex budget years, he explained the budget would be shared with residents in numerous ways, including a budget snapshot mailed to every home, via the City website and social media, and a Facebook Live discussion. “There is no clearer statement of the values of a government than how it spends money.” And he reiterated that residents’ total tax bills will decrease. His next resolution authorized emergency temporary appropriations of $649,000 to the municipal operating budget until the new budget is approved. That was followed by a similar resolution authorizing emergency temporary appropriations to the uniform construction code operating budget. These resolutions passed on unanimous roll call votes.
There were two additional Finance resolutions. The first authorized using a three-year average calculation for Family Aquatic Center revenue in the 2021 budget. The State Division of Local Government Services has allowed municipalities to use a three-year average for revenues affected by the pandemic. In 2018, the FAC brought in $489,000; in 2019, $521,000; and in 2020, $282,000, making the average revenue figure $415,000. Vartan’s final resolution certified the availability of $31,170.20 to the Summit Free Public Library, allowing it to submit a matching-funds grant application for a generator. The amount comes from a capital budget appropriation previously earmarked for the Library. The Library will contribute $152,402.80 from 2018 and 2019 budget reserves.
Little had a number of Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions. The first supported the ‘Hometown Heroes’ banner program, now in its fourth year. Thirty-two additional banners, honoring Summit service members, will be hung adjacent to the central business district between Memorial Day and August 15. The program is funded by the Hometown Heroes Trust Account with installation support from the Department of Public Works. She recognized Mike Arlein’s work in establishing and continuing the program.
Aaron Schrager was named director, DCS; he’d been acting in that position since last year. Little said she couldn’t have imagined someone filling the shoes of Paul Cascais, who retired from that position last year, so ably. Similarly, Rick Mattais was named City Engineer; he too had been in that acting title since last year. Both appointees received an enthusiastic round of silent Zoom applause. Keith Kinard, interim director of the Housing Authority, was named representative to the Affordable Housing Committee and the Union County Community Development Revue Sharing Committee.
A fifth CP&CS resolution was moved from the floor by Fox when its text failed to appear in Little’s materials. It authorized the Park Line Foundation to hold an event on April 24, including planting a butterfly garden and other activities.
Hairston moved three Safety & Health resolutions. The first accepted a $5,000 donation from the Summit Police Athletic League to the Summit Police Department to fund the trading card community outreach program. The second authorized applying for a New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety ‘Click It or Ticket’ grant to fund officer overtime costs for a seat belt enforcement campaign. Her last resolution authorized applying for a New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety Body-Worn Camera grant to purchase body-worn cameras, storage, and ancillary equipment. Bartolotti explained that the statewide multimillion-dollar grant allows departments to purchase or replace equipment. Summit has used body cams since 2017 and is applying for replacement equipment with the anticipation of funding availability for 2023. He noted all uniformed personnel wear body-worn cameras, non-uniformed personnel have access to cameras, and police vehicles are equipped with cameras as well.
All resolutions passed.
The mayor announced her appointments to the Board of Education. Dr. Peggy Wong and Josh Weinreich are leaving the board after five and three years of service, respectively. Michael Colon has been reappointed for another three-year term. Filling the vacancies with three-year terms are Walidah Justice, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kent Place School, and Melanie Cohn, executive director of the Visual Arts Center. Radest praised the added dimensions the new members will bring to the board’s composition. These changes will be effective at the Board’s May reorganization meeting.
Noting it’s been “an eventful few weeks for us as a community,” Radest reported hearing from many citizens on many topics – the abduction, quarantine rules, leaf blowers – and professed appreciating hearing from everyone “including those who have directed their anger, vitriol, and accusations toward the governing body and the police and health departments. My decision-making and support is not, and never will be, rooted in politics… I work every day with council, staff, and city agencies to make Summit a healthy and safe community. … I will not make health and safety decisions political… and I will follow the expert advice.”
The Free Market will be open May 9 from 8 to 3. Due to COVID restrictions, drop-offs and shopping are by appointment only, with 30-minute slots available by signing up online beginning Monday, May 3. The Free Market will be open the second Saturday of each month; residents can also take advantage of the Virtual Summit Free Market group on Facebook.