When the Independent mayoral administration of Michael Gonnelli began a year ago, a handful of critics and naysayers doubted whether the former 2nd Ward town councilman was up to the job, and they questioned whether the Independent council would be able to deliver on its many campaign promises.
Within the administration’s first few months the naysayers circulated rumors that Gonnelli might even resign after his first year.
Those who doubted Gonnelli’s ability to lead and, by extension the administration’s ability to address a host of taxpayer concerns, largely came from the ranks of Democrats and municipal department heads who had been loyal supporters of former Mayor Dennis Elwell.
Twelve months into the administration’s four-year term, however, these early detractors have either been silenced or grudgingly state out loud that Gonnelli and his Independent allies on the Town Council – Gary Jeffas, Robert Costantino, John Bueckner, James Clancy, and William McKeever – have exceeded their expectations.
“I have to say, he is turning out to be a better mayor than I thought he would be,” said one Gonnelli skeptic in December who asked not to be identified.
And in at least two Reporter interviews within the past year former Town Administrator Anthony Iacono has “applauded” Gonnelli’s efforts as mayor. Gonnelli and Iacono, a strong Elwell supporter, have often been at odds with one another.
The administration has likely won over detractors and maintained its base of support by going down a checklist of 2009 campaign promises.
When running for office, Gonnelli, Costantino, Bueckner, and McKeever promised to run a transparent, open government that conserved taxpayer dollars. They further promised to cut professional service contracts and to end cronyism at Town Hall.
One of the administration’s early accomplishments was getting the biweekly public Town Council meetings televised on a local public access station and posted online. This had long been a goal of the Independents on the governing body who had previously been blocked by council Democrats from taping and airing public meetings.
Within months of taking office, the administration cut about $270,000 in professional service contracts, mostly to law firms that had done lobbying work for the town in Trenton. Since cutting these contracts the administration has relied more heavily on elected leaders who represent the town in the State Assembly and Legislature to be its voice in the state capital.
“I’ve said all along that we should be using our elected representatives, people like [Secaucus resident and State Assemblyman Vincent] Prieto to be our lobbyists,” Gonnelli said. “There is no need for us to pay lawyers to do that work for us.”
Another contract the town cut was the roughly $70,000 annual contract paid to Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center. Secaucus had been paying the hospital this contract to offer health screening services to residents who either had no access to health insurance, or limited access to insurance.
At the same time, Secaucus – like other Hudson County municipalities – also paid $10,000 annually to the North Hudson Community Action Corporation to provide similar health services, essentially paying for the same services twice. And despite paying for NHCAC services, Secaucus had never utilized them. So last winter the administration began a partnership with NHCAC, which now offers health screenings and other services in town, and ended the more expensive contract with Meadowlands Hospital.
Another $500,000in taxpayer dollars will be saved this year since the administration negotiated a deal with the hospital’s new owners, MHA, LLC, to take over ambulance service in town.
Ongoing scrutiny of the budget within the last year ultimately led to the discovery of at least $8 million in lost revenue from uncollected fines, fees and grants that could have been used to offset tax increases in the coming years.
The lost income includes a $194,000 impact fee from Baker Residential, the developer of Riverside Court; $750,000 in uncollected false alarm fines owed to the town by several businesses; $2.3 million in state and federal grants that were approved but never paid out because the town failed to submit the necessary paperwork to get the money; and $6 million in special assessments.
Still working on it
In an effort to save money the administration has implemented some changes that have not gone as smoothly as planned, and some unresolved issues remain.
Last summer, for example, the town did away with paper timesheets and implemented biometric “finger scanners” that are now used to track work hours for municipal employees. Ultimately, the change will help the town reap administrative cost savings. But the transition to the new system has hit several snags that the town’s payroll department is still trying to resolve.
The Secaucus Recreation Center, a harbinger of the Elwell administration that loses about $500,000 annually, has yet to break even. The Gonnelli administration has attempted to cut losses at the facility by leasing out the center to raise revenue. Membership, which had previously been limited to residents only, is now open to people who work in Secaucus but who live elsewhere. The administration, which vowed to give the facility a year to turn itself around, also seems prepared to lease out Rec Center space to the Secaucus Board of Education, a plan that had been originally proposed under Elwell.
Despite these changes, financial losses at the center continue.
If Gonnelli has made any missteps during his brief tenure as mayor it may be his early handling of calls to reinstate three controversial firefighters who resigned from the department in 2008.
Early on it looked as if Gonnelli, himself a longtime member of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department, would cave to pressure within the department, including a petition, to reinstate the men.
After protests, however, Gonnelli, backed off immediate reinstatement and instead commissioned an inquiry into the matter.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.