It didn’t take long for David Delle Donna to realize that his responsibilities to the people of Guttenberg dramatically changed after New Year’s Day.
The 43-year-old Delle Donna, who was sworn into office Jan. 1 as the new mayor of the township, was enjoying a relaxing evening at home last week when the doorbell rang. It was a neighbor who had a problem with a few of her tenants. She was looking for help from the new mayor by calling upon him at home.
“I know practically everyone by name,” Delle Donna said. “That’s what happens when you serve a small town. People have been coming to my house for a long time, looking for help. I’ve always been one to answer calls at my home. These are my neighbors. But now, I have to handle the problems as the mayor.”
Delle Donna presided over his first Township Council meeting as mayor last Monday night, and it was a departure from serving the last two years as a member of former Mayor Robert Sabello’s council.
“It was a different feeling, sitting in the middle now, having all the questions directed at me,” Delle Donna said. “But this is what I wanted. It was a sigh of relief that I won on Election Night. About two days later, it hit me that I now have a tough job to do and the job was just beginning.”
Delle Donna has inherited a municipality that has been in dire financial straits over the last two years, so bad that it has requested emergency assistance of $650,000 from the state to balance the budget. The council formally adopted the 2001-2002 municipal budget last Monday that calls for yet another tax increase.
“I don’t think any taxpayer wants to accept a tax increase,” said Delle Donna of the increase that will ask homeowners to pay an additional $1.75 per $1,000 of assessed property value. “But we’re a small town without a base of business taxes. We used to have a strong embroidery business in town, but that business has fallen on tough times. Our tax base isn’t where we’d want it to be, but I can’t see many changes in the future.”
In the new tax bills, owners of property assessed at the average of $170,000 will pay nearly $250 more per year in taxes.
Delle Donna said that of the proposed $11 million budget, approximately $4.4 million is raised through taxes to pay for township costs. Of those funds, $3.2 million goes toward the Police Department and participation in the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue.
“That leaves $1.2 million for everything else,” Delle Donna said. “Are we going to make cutbacks in the Department of Public Works or recreation? Of course not. But it leaves us very little room. I think our residents understand that.”
Delle Donna said that he has already established some new guidelines and programs that will make him more accessible to the residents. First, he asked that the Township Council meetings be moved from Monday nights to Thursday nights to accommodate the council members. The first Thursday of every month will be the executive session and the third Thursday is reserved for the regular meeting.
With that, Delle Donna has designated Monday nights from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for his open door policy, to meet the residents and hear their concerns. “When I said that this was going to be an open administration, I wasn’t kidding,” he said. “I’m going to need everyone’s input. Sometimes, the people come up with better ideas than the elected officials.”
He will also have informal meetings once a month at the township’s community center to discuss other concerns. The first meeting next month will discuss the township’s parking problems.
“Our resident parking ordinance is not working as well as it could be,” said Delle Donna, who believes that parking is not only a concern in Guttenberg, but throughout Hudson County. “Our visitor parking passes are also not working well. We have people who live in New York who have visitor parking passes. People want to be able to come home from work and have a parking spot when they come home. Right now, they don’t have one.”
Delle Donna said that he is looking into the possibility of forming a township parking authority that will enable a separate organization to receive federal funding for municipal lots while collecting parking fees and coordinating violations.
“It makes a lot of fiscal sense,” Delle Donna said.
He is also examining the possibility of current homeowners who are willing to sell their homes to build municipal parking lots. “One or two homeowners have already come forward,” Delle Donna said. “At this point, I’ll take anything that will help the problem.”
After Delle Donna addresses the parking situation, he will center his attention to the township’s housing difficulties and the overcrowding in Anna L. Klein School.
Delle Donna said that another way to fight fiscal woes would be to do a better job in collecting property taxes. Right now, the township’s collection rate stands at 88 percent. “If we could get the rate up to 92 percent, then it would help other areas,” he said. “We have a lot of tough decisions to be made. I do have the support of all the council members. We’re all here to do what has to be done.”
Delle Donna made a request at the last meeting. “I asked anyone who was with us during the election to remain with us,” he said. “I also said that we need the help of anyone that was against us, that they should drop all opposition and work together. I assured that there will be no wasteful spending and that I will never put forward a budget that is not fiscally sound. We’re going to pay our bills and move forward.”
He added, “I knew this was not going to be easy. But I want to be as accessible as possible. I’ve seen it work for Brian Stack in Union City and I like to see it work for me.”