2019 State of the Town Address
January 3, 2019
I now have the privilege of delivering the State of the Town address, reflecting a bit on what we accomplished in 2018, and sharing key priorities for 2019 and beyond.
When I took office last January, I committed to focusing on four key priorities:
- Increase resident engagement by improving transparency and communication
- Maintain strong fiscal oversight, identify new sources of revenue, and improve operating efficiencies
- Chart a vision for Westfield's future that embraces growth and innovation, improves the downtown business climate, and effectively manages redevelopment
- Champion quality of life issues that impact all residents
I'm very proud of how much progress we made on these priorities and would like to share a few highlights:
- To improve communication, transparency and engagement, we began live streaming Council meetings, initiated a town wide volunteer open application process, introduced an RFP/RFQ process for town professional services for the first time, hired a part-time Public Information Officer, and formed many new committees such as the Senior Advisory Council, Youth and Family Mental Health Commission, Technology Advisory Council and Media Council, to name a few.
- On the budget and operating front, we maintained a robust $10mm budget surplus while delivering the lowest municipal tax rate increase in decades. We prioritized capital improvements, which included a 50% increase in road paving, a robust tree planting program, and improvements to our DPWcapabilities by accelerating the purchase of new equipment such as trucks, plows and street sweepers.
- Additionally, we expect to generate substantial unanticipated revenue by introducing a new cash management plan that was initiated and led by Finance Chair Linda Habgood.
- With a focus on efficiencies, I initiated a collaboration with the Scotch Plains and Fanwood Mayors to identify potential shared service DPW opportunities, with support from the Governor's office, which should bear fruit this year.
- And as part of my commitment to improve services to residents without using taxpayer dollars, we initiated our first significant public/private partnership with the installation of a temporary outdoor ice rink at Gumbert Park, converting an underutilized town asset into one with broad community benefit paid for by a private operator.
- On the third priority, we made progress on charting a collective vision for Westfield, having initiated the Master Plan reexamination and first ever Parks and Recreation strategic plan processes, consistent with my commitment to long-range planning,
- In the meantime, I remain focused on improving the business climate in Town through short-term solutions, while a longer-term vision is established through the Master Plan process. I don't get caught up in the ever changing downtown vacancy rate as a reliable indicator of progress. There are too many factors out of our control that determine whether a store stays open or closes. I choose to focus on improving the fundamentals within our control that will make it easier for businesses to be successful, such as strategies to increase foot traffic or policies that will entice new business to set up shop here.
- To that end, in 2018 we significantly streamlined how parking is enforced, expanded free parking, and added capacity; we passed ordinances allowing rooftop dining and craft breweries in town, and introduced a variety of new events to increase foot traffic.
- While our downtown remains in a transitional phase, and it's tempting to focus on the stores that have closed, I find it more promising to focus on the 29 new business that opened last year, with 8 more scheduled so far this year.
- And very importantly, a renewed focus on establishing a personal relationship with Lord and Taylor at the local and corporate level paid off, resulting in their commitment to stay and grow in Westfield.
- We made progress on other initiatives around transit, preservation, and safety in an effort to address other quality of life priorities, which was my fourth main objective when I took office.
There is nothing more potentially transformative than obtaining a faster and more reliable commute into Manhattan. As Co-Founder and now Co-Chair of the Raritan Valley Line Mayors Alliance, the 23 Mayors that form the Mayors Alliance have successfully partnered with key legislators to lobby NJT for a Raritan Valley Line peak one seat ride, which is now gradually gaining traction.
I'm also proud of the significant strides made in other areas, including a revitalized and more proactive Historic Preservation Commission, stepped up enforcement and fines for developers who don't properly maintain worksites, a review of zoning ordinances to mitigate prolific subdividing, improvements in pedestrian safety, and a renewed focus on conservation initiatives by a refortified Green Team.
There were also several initiatives that we were fortunate to bring to completion because of the efforts of my predecessor, Mayor Andy Skibitsky, and the previous Council. These include the finalization of our Affordable Housing settlement, a process that began years ago thereby avoiding the lawsuits facing many neighboring towns today. The new inclusive Mindowaskin playground is also a product of their efforts, as is the recently expanded parking lot 7.
While 2018 was very productive, it was primarily laying groundwork for the work that lies ahead.
The most significant priorities for 2019 will be:
- Continuation of responsible fiscal management while ensuring that we invest in the Town's growth through automation and infrastructure to drive efficiencies and improve services. I remain committed to taking a long term approach to support a vision of responsible growth, and will not be tempted by a "penny wise pound foolish" short-term philosophy.
- Completion of our Master Plan reexamination which will address development, transportation, infrastructure, downtown revitalization, and parking. Yes, parking. It's time that we investigate new solutions to address our parking shortage as a means to attract employers, to not only provide daytime foot traffic to sustain a vibrant downtown, but also to diversify our tax base to reduce our reliance on property taxes as a primary source of revenue.
- Completion of our Parks strategic plan, which will assess and make recommendations for Recreation programs and services, Memorial Pool membership, recreation facilities, and the common goal of desperately needed new fields.
- Focus on improving congestion and walkability by declaring 2019 the "Year of the Pedestrian", with a focused effort on fixing our sidewalks, stepping up traffic enforcement, increasing pedestrian safety measures, and trialing microtransit alternatives to reduce congestion.
- Commitment to continue progress on community policing, historic preservation, environmental initiatives, and advocacy for a peak one seat ride.
I also remain committed to creating a more open and inclusive government:
- This begins with tonight's establishment of an Investment Advisory Council of community volunteers to advise on investment management strategies for 2019 and beyond.
- We will also be holding the Town's first open and public budget forum later this month to get input and feedback from the community before the budget process begins, which will be a new and critical first step.
- Additionally, we will be hosting a series of public meetings to solicit input from residents for our Master Plan reexamination and Parks Strategic Plan. Please participate in this opportunity for your voice to be heard to shape the long term vision for our community.
In closing, as I reflect back on 2018, there was one singular event that seemed to encapsulate my vision for our community, and that was AddamsFest. It wasn't the weekend itself, per se, but rather everything that led up to it - from celebrating one of our own historic icons as a community, to the enthusiastic participation of over 300 volunteers, to the ongoing and close collaboration between the police, fire, DPW professionals and the unpaid volunteers, to ultimately, experiencing the connectedness that the festival created among our residents.
This inclusive spirit is what I aspire to instill in our community every day as your full time volunteer mayor. I am all in. I only ask that you do your part too. Participate. Engage. Volunteer when you can. Be heard. And please...give everyone the benefit of the doubt and consider having all the facts before putting it on Facebook. Or follow the example of the mom who posted in the Westfield moms site yesterday about her 4 year old daughter's awesome experience at the playground with the older boys who befriended her instead of casting her aside. It got over 500 likes! These are the stories we want to share because these are the ones that reflect who we are as a community. We are all neighbors with the common goal of improving the town we choose to call home.
In summary, the State of our Town by all measures is strong. And with your participation, we will usher in a new era to make Westfield a leader in responsible growth, environmental practices, accessibility, parks and recreation, mobility and so much more. Thank you for giving me the privilege to serve.