Dear Mountain Lakes Neighbors,
We would like to set the record straight regarding some of the misleading statements being made during this Borough Council campaign cycle.
It is NOT TRUE that Town Maintenance has been neglected.
Our Department of Public Works (DPW) employees are committed to taking care of the Borough, and recent infrastructure projects improve our quality of life. We support our Borough employees and these improvements.
Our DPW employees are a hard-working crew. Just this week we spotted them wading into our canals to clear out storm debris. They respond 24/7 when there’s an emergency event; fix water leaks; clean and maintain our heavily used parks & beach facilities; plow our roads; patch potholes; clean our streets; maintain our recycling center; and respond to a variety of resident concerns. We know they do these things and many more – and we appreciate their hard work on behalf of the town.
Significantly more road paving and sidewalk projects have been completed over the last 4 years than in prior years. The Morris Avenue project will be another major improvement, with a $499,000 State grant covering 2/3 of the project cost. In total, the Borough has received over $1.2M in NJ Department of Transportation grants since 2017.
Our new Birchwood Lake facilities were completed in 2019 and the new Island Beach pavilion and beach house were completed this summer. These are beautiful upgrades to our community and the projects came in significantly under-budget. It is also worth noting that there has been a significant increase in Borough tree work (pruning, dead tree removal, and planting), as well as additional lakes maintenance to keep our lakes healthy.
It is NOT TRUE that Spending Decisions are being made behind closed doors.
The Borough has a very thorough budgeting process that includes input from our committees and department heads, 3 public stand-alone budget workshops, and many public discussions at Council meetings. Every quarter there is a thorough public budget review, and at each meeting Council approves all spending (take a look at the “bills list”). There is opportunity for public review and comment at each meeting. In addition, there is rigorous oversight by the Borough Manager, CFO, and Finance Advisory Committee, which includes 4 public members and makes policy recommendations to Borough management and Council. Over the past 4 years, every budget has been unanimously approved by a bipartisan Council.
Since 2017, communications and transparency have improved, providing residents information and the opportunity to engage with Borough issues. There are weekly e-mails, Nixle text alerts, and Borough social media posts that inform and connect residents. The agendas for Council, Planning Board and Zoning Board meetings – as well as a link to the meeting materials – are pushed out to residents in advance of meetings. And when a developer expresses interest in doing a project in Mountain Lakes, they are invited to present at a Borough Council meeting before submitting a Planning Board application, so Council and the public get an opportunity to learn the details at the same time.
It is NOT TRUE that Borough Spending has increased 16% over the last 4 years.
Spending did increase over the past 4 years, as it did during the 4 years prior, but not by 16%. That calculation leaves out 2017, a year when Borough spending decreased.
The real spending increase over this 4-year period was 13.7%, spending that was unanimously approved by a bipartisan Council. This increase was driven by: infrastructure spending, commercial tax appeal settlements that had accrued for up to a decade, posing a threat to Borough finances, a new 5-year solid waste contract, a new 5-year police contract, legally-mandated pension increases, cash reserves for storm recovery and tax appeals, tree work, and lakes maintenance.
But municipal spending is not the same as taxes - the # that actually hits your bottom line. Over the past 4 years, municipal tax increases (the portion that Borough Council controls) have been REDUCED by more than 50% compared to the prior 4 years.
Mountain Lakes taxes are high. But the big driver for our high taxes is not Borough spending (the portion that Council controls). It is our School District spending, which Borough Council has NO control over. Mountain Lakes ranks #1 in NJ for average school taxes. By comparison, Mountain Lakes ranks #44 in NJ for average municipal spending.
A significant thing that Council can do to provide meaningful taxpayer relief is to continue focusing on thoughtful commercial redevelopment along on our Rt. 46 corridor, and that is where efforts have been focused. One example: The new Sunrise Assisted Living development, currently under construction, will provide an estimated $500,000 in tax revenue annually once it is completed. We intend to continue prioritizing and encouraging thoughtful development.
It is NOT TRUE that public review of the Borough Hall Project was less than thorough... and it is NOT TRUE that the impact of other Borough & School projects and COVID was not discussed.
The Borough Hall project has been through a 3.5-year planning process with an 11- member Borough Hall & Public Safety Infrastructure Advisory Committee, which included 3 public members. Public engagement has been welcomed at every step.
You can review project presentations and Council meeting minutes related to the project dating back to January 2017 on the Borough website.
A brief timeline: In January 2017, the proposed project was discussed at a joint Council and BOE meeting to ensure that needed Borough improvements were considered in conjunction with the proposed School referendum project. A few weeks later, the Advisory Committee started working on project planning with key Borough stakeholders. The project architect was selected in 2018. There have been at least 12 public discussions, presentations, and project updates over that time, as well as public tours of the facility. The Advisory Committee, sensitive to the COVID environment, postponed its presentation recommending authorization of project funding (originally planned for March/April 2020) to June 2020 to ensure that residents had time to adjust to the new remote Council meeting format. The impact of COVID on taxpayers was discussed as well. Project funding was approved by a bipartisan Council in July 2020
It is NOT TRUE that the Borough Hall Project involves "blank check" spending.
Borough Council tasked the Borough Hall & Public Safety Infrastructure Advisory Committee and project architect with meeting the core requirements of our ML Police, Fire, Administration, and Citizens at the lowest cost possible.
This was the intense focus of project planning. The result? In June 2020, the Advisory Committee unanimously recommended authorizing project funding, stating that the project:
Is fiscally responsible
Creates a more efficient, productive, and safe environment for residents and employees
Positions the Borough well for future operation
Frees up administration, employees, volunteers, and Council to focus on other issues
The project was supported by our first responders in public meetings, and it is the #1 way that the Borough can support our police and fire departments. In July 2020, a bipartisan Borough Council authorized spending up to $4.5M for the project to cover all costs: site work, building costs, furnishings/IT, etc. and a 10% contingency.
The project will be bonded over 20 years and will cost the average taxpayer $190/year or $16/month at the estimated “bid-out” cost of $4.5M.
The Borough will bring management of the project in-house to try to bring the project in under- budget. This is the same approach that was used successfully for the Island Beach and Birchwood Lake projects.
If you have any questions about these issues, please do not hesitate to reach out. Our campaign is built around a positive vision for our community and a deep appreciation for all voices. That includes an appreciation for the employees and volunteers who work so hard for Mountain Lakes. We are proud of what has been accomplished over the past 4 years, and our commitment is to continue tackling the challenges facing our community openly and honestly.