Mayor Alberto G. Santos
Members of the Town Council, Father Reilly, distinguished guests, family and friends, as we start the new year and as the Council and I begin our new terms of office, we come together in our shared commitment to making a better Kearny.
For most of us on this stage, there is an air of familiarity to this ceremony. Although ten years have passed since the first time I swore to justly, impartially and faithfully perform the duties of Mayor, my reverence for that oath is no less today than it was that first day; those words still humble and inspire me. I pledge to you that I will serve with integrity and the courage to do what is right.
As we begin a new year and a new decade, today is a day of promise. Our challenge is to seize that promise by rededicating ourselves to the common good and to a shared vision for our community’s future.
That future must be one in which Kearny remains affordable to live and work. The downturn in the economy and the dire financial condition of State government means all New Jersey municipalities will have to manage with decreased revenues in 2010. Kearny’s residents have repeatedly told me that they have no more to give. With property taxes in Kearny at a little less than $9,000 a year for an average-assessed home in a community that is predominantly working class and fixed-income households, there really isn’t more to give.
The Council and I must do our part in meeting the challenge of tax affordability in a fiscally responsible manner. During my past term, the Council and I undertook measures to manage costs within municipal control, such as phasing in employee contributions for health insurance coverage and gradually reducing the non-uniformed municipal workforce through attrition. We also implemented policies that generated new revenue such as the redevelopment of industrial properties and the capping of the former Keegan landfill on Bergen Avenue. Just last month, Moody’s Investors Service recognized these efforts by upgrading Kearny’s credit rating and assigning a positive outlook to the town’s financial position. But we know the challenge of maintaining our town’s fiscal health will be even greater in 2010. We must avoid the tendency to compartmentalize financial decisions to discrete times such as at the adoption of the municipal budget or the setting of the tax levy. The reality is that most of the matters we vote on throughout the year have a financial impact, which means we must be cognizant of the financial cost of every action.
We must also continue our policy to generate new tax revenue through redevelopment of industrial sites in South Kearny, the Kearny Meadows and in our redevelopment zones on Passaic and Schuyler Avenues. During my last term, our efforts resulted in over $46 million of new private investment in our tax base. We must build on our recent successes and continue growing our tax ratable base.
But doing our part at Town Hall is not enough. All levels of local government must work harder to find ways to ease the property tax burden while maintaining necessary services. With the school district tax taking 46% of a Kearny homeowner’s bill and County government at 17% of the bill, there will be no tax relief without school and County cooperation.
Because the property tax burden is a serious issue throughout the State of New Jersey, it also needs to be dealt with on a statewide basis. In my ten years in office, Kearny’s contribution to the government employee State pension systems has gone up by 172%, our employee health insurance costs under State Health Benefits have increased by 100% and our bill to Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission has also doubled. Those increases alone add up to about $10,000,000 more a year today than ten years ago, which translates into $1,000 more a year in taxes for a homeowner. They are startling numbers. They are not sustainable.
There is an urgent need for property tax reform. But residents also understand there is a need for government to provide services that are important to the quality of life, such as well-run recreational programs, senior transportation services and library programs, and to undertake public improvements. The Council and I will continue to improve our infrastructure such as additional street repavings and the replacement of aged water transmission lines. It means that we will continue improvements to our parks and recreational areas, with the renovation of the Tappan Street and Manor Park playgrounds, the construction of an outdoor reading area at the main public library, a new field house at Veteran’s Field and the resurfacing of Harvey Field with all-season synthetic turf slated for 2010. It also means that we will continue to invest in public safety, such as the installation of surveillance cameras at critical entry points to our town that will provide our police department an additional law enforcement tool.
We will also build our community’s future by working to restore commuter rail access. Restoration of commuter rail service will provide better access to jobs, increase the attractiveness of owning a home in Kearny and will lead to the revitalization of areas in the vicinity of stations. In 2009, NJ Transit and town officials prepared a Vision Plan for the construction of a new heavy rail station in Kearny on the dormant Kingsland branch, which runs parallel to Schuyler Avenue. If realized, this would make direct service into Manhattan available to Kearny residents. Another important mass transit-related component of our community’s future is working with our County and Federal representatives to expand the Hudson Bergen Light Rail to Kearny and the communities of West Hudson so that our residents are linked to the County’s impressive commuter rail network and have better access to jobs on the County’s gold coast.
Our community’s future should also be one that is environmentally sustainable. As one of the original signatories of the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement 5 years ago, I believe that steps taken at the local level can make a difference in reducing global warming pollution. Steps we have taken and will continue to implement include the purchasing of efficient hybrid vehicles for the town’s motor fleet; planting over 100 trees each year; cleaning contaminated brownfield sites and converting them into publicly beneficial uses; and providing incentives for the use of green design and construction of buildings that use less energy.
That is my vision. Some may say this vision is too ambitious. I disagree. It was Robert Kennedy who said,
“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather the future will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals of American society.”
To the Members of the Town Council, to the Town’s Department heads and professionals, to the many citizens who volunteer their time to serve on the boards and commissions that local government depends on, and to all our residents, I ask you to blend passion, reason and courage to better Kearny. I ask you to join me in committing ourselves fully to the common good and our shared vision, and to believe in a brighter future for our community.
Believe in this town and its residents. Believe in the vitality of our neighborhoods, our businesses, our schools and houses of worship. Believe in the strength of our families, our diversity, our young people and our senior citizens. Believe that when Kearny works together, we can overcome the challenges we face. Join me in believing that our town’s future is bright and that the best is yet to come.
May the New Year be healthy, happy and prosperous for our residents. May God bless Kearny and the United States of America.