For Mayor Dennis Elwell, last year saw many fulfilled promises of the past. And 2004 will bring even more prosperity to Secaucus residents.
“2003 was a very productive year,” Elwell said. “We not only opened a new library, but the library has seen expanded uses and increased use by the public. With new computer facilities and literacy service, it has become the center of our community.”
Although a controversial move at the time, the town also changed its health care insurance for employees last year, switching from the problematic and expensive Blue Cross and Blue Shield to a more economic Oxford Insurance. “We not only saved money for the taxpayers,” Elwell said. “We also got the same or even better benefits for our employees.”
Elwell said that one sign of the increasing prosperity of Secaucus was the initial sales of new townhouses in the North End. While he acknowledged some complaints about possible reverberations through the existing neighborhood, Elwell also noted that first sales were for over $400,000.
“Those are for the inner units,” he said. “The waterside units will sell for even more. This shows that Secaucus is a place where people want to live. Housing values are exploding, and people are often getting as much as $150,000 more than they anticipated. This is due directly to our stable tax rate and the fact that our schools are now ranked high in the state. Even people who do not intend to raise children here look at the schools to show what kind of investment we make in our own community.”
In 2003, Secaucus was instrumental in pushing through the hotel tax, something Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto had been seeking for more than a decade. With more than 2,000 hotel rooms in Secaucus, this revenue may become a windfall and will help the town offset the costs of police, fire and ambulance services, Elwell said.
Because of Secaucus’ proximity to Manhattan and the Meadowlands, Secaucus hotels fared better than most others around the area after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Now with the economy on the rebound, Elwell sees increased tourism and local prosperity for the upcoming year.
As in most communities, services are as important to most people as low taxes, and Elwell said the town has maintained the high level of services local resident expect.
The annual street paving program continued in 2003 and will move ahead in 2004, partly due to significant state aid. In 2004, Secaucus may see repairs made to a problematic area on Paterson Plank Road near the exits to the Harmon Meadow Mall and Best Buy store near Park Drive, thanks to a cooperative agreement with the county and developer associated with the construction of the new Wal-Mart store in that area. Wal-Mart is expected to open its doors by late 2004 or early 2005, providing a whole new shopping attraction at that part of town.
Elwell said Secaucus government will seek ways to protect its ratable base and to control its growth so as to keep up with constantly increasing costs that expanded services require.
“Some people are critical of new development,” Elwell said. “But if we do not get some new development, we will grow stagnant and not be able to maintain the level of services and the quality of life people living in Secaucus expect.”
The upcoming year will likely see some of the most significant potential changes in the appearance of the south end of Secaucus. Elwell said the town will likely establish a redevelopment agency.
This would give Secaucus control over some of the changes that may be implemented as a result of the new Meadowlands zoning master plan and the recommendations made under the New Jersey Transit Village Study. In 2003, a study paid for by New Jersey Transit, but overseen by the Meadowlands Commission came up with a concept for redevelopment of the south end of Secaucus near and around the Secaucus Transfer Rail station. Among the suggestions was the construction of an Exchange Place (Jersey City)-like setting for the entrance of the facility, new retail and housing elements for other parts, and a large townhouse development. In some cases, this will require the condemning of land and the relocation of existing businesses.
Elwell said discussions are already underway with representatives from Hudson County government for the possible relocation to the Coppers Coke site in Kearny, a parcel of property slated for redevelopment as an industrial site.
Financial situation key to success
Elwell noted that Secaucus currently has an AAA rating, giving it the ability to borrow money at a rate lower than many communities currently borrowing money through the Hudson County Improvement Authority. He said this also is a sign of the community’s good health, and something he is both proud of an anxious to protect.
Elwell said it was still too early to make predictions about the town’s 2004 budget, but he said because the town operates on a five-year plan, looking ahead to see if there will be future impacts, the budget is generally stable.
“We work at this all year around,” he said. “We don’t scramble at the last minute.”
This solid financial foundation will allow the town to continue to increase services, large and small, from providing an ambulance-like van to bring wheelchair users to medical appointments, to the completion of the town’s riverfront walkway.
“We have received almost $5 million in grants in 2003,” Elwell said. “That is up from $1 million a year during the pervious administration.”
To continue this high level, the town will likely take on the services of a second grant writing firm in 2004. Krivit and Krivit, the current firm, has a good record at obtaining federal grants. Elwell hopes the new firm will gain state grants at a comparable level.
Along with the river walk, Elwell said new ballfields will be constructed in 2004 in the Millridge Road area – part of an agreement with New Jersey Transit to relocate those displaced by rail construction along Meadowlands Parkway. An area near Farm Road will also likely see several sporting practice fields.
One of the critical issues for 2004 will be the repair of the Meadowlands Parkway bridge, Elwell said. Secaucus – because of a 1998 court ruling that required the town to take possession of roads owned by the Hartz development company – is the only municipality in the state that owns and maintains a bridge. Most bridges are owned by the state, county or some federal entity.
For Secaucus, the bridge will serve as the sole means for vehicular traffic – cars and buses – to access the Secaucus Transfer station until the proposed new bridge on County Avenue is constructed.
The state has allocated money for the repair, which should begin in the spring.
Old library, new school?
The new year could also see the town rededicating the former library building to some new public use. Elwell said the town will install an elevator in the structure to make it handicapped-assessable. But the use of the structure will depend upon state approvals, which the town is currently investigating. The fire department shares part of the buildings, and he said there will be some provisions made for the turnover of the meeting room, which had been taken over partly when the library still was located there.
One of the most promising ventures for the new year may be the relocation of the North Bergen Campus of the County High School to Secaucus.
“North Bergen would like for that to happen, because town officials there could return that property to the tax rolls,” Elwell said. “But we could see the facility here without losing any ratables because the county has land down there that it can construct the new school on.”
Elwell said the site would be ideal because of its proximity to the transfer station, so that kids could get there by public transportation.
For Elwell, this would be the first step towards getting a Secaucus campus for the community college as well.
These facilities, along with the proposals included in the NJ Transit Study, would require changing the texture of the neighborhood and relocating many of the warehouses elsewhere.
“The older warehouses no longer fit with that area,” Elwell said. “This is not to say that business won’t have a place. When you look at the newly constructed warehouses for Corporate Express and Lantis eyewear, you can see how well these fit with a more modern concept.”
Another project that could see its beginning in 2004 is the new recreation center, although after discussions with the Board of Education and other school administrators, the location may not be at the high school as formerly thought.
One resident suggested the recreation center might be located on the town’s swimming pool property, a concept that Elwell said is being looked at very seriously.
Elwell said the town also wants to take a more active role in helping reduce school costs. He said the town is currently working on fundraising that would help pay for the construction of new science labs at the high school. He said a fundraiser featuring players from the 1986 and the 1990 New York Giants Super Bowl teams is planned for June.