Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller’s State of the Township address
Following is a transcript, as recorded by Montclair Local, of Mayor Sean Spiller's State of the Township address, which was delivered on Tuesday, Feb. 7.
My fellow Montclair residents, the simple fact that we're able to meet together, face to face, is a true testament to how far we've come since 2020, and I sit here today with a renewed sense of optimism for the future of Montclair.
Montclair continues to move forward. The results of our efforts are clear. And I am proud to report that the state of our township is strong.
We’ve built a strong, sustainable foundation for our future. We've strategically managed our finances, invested in our infrastructure, supported our diverse and vibrant communities and stayed true to our community values.
Montclair continues to lead the way. But our work is not done.
We face challenges, but I am confident that together we will overcome them, as we always have.
Together we will continue to act on the values that define Montclair.
These values make Montclair a destination for people looking for a great place to live, and our values are reflected in all that we have to offer.
Our vibrant downtown, world class arts, diverse culinary scene, improved parks, famous festivals, magnet schools, unique local businesses are just some of the reasons why people choose Montclair. There's something here for everyone.
And it’s a priority to ensure that all those who want to live here can do so. Affordable housing is a cornerstone of our community values. We know rising housing costs can diminish the diversity that defines our township. In particular, for our renters, unchecked rising rents could have forced out longtime residents who are an important part of the fabric of Montclair.
That's why I'm proud that we crafted a fair and equitable rent control ordinance this past year. It wasn't easy to get done, but it was the right thing to do, and well worth the effort.
The Tenants Association of Montclair, along with many resident advocates, worked tirelessly to help make this happen. I'm grateful to all involved, who came together at the table to reach an agreement that strengthens our community.
Rent control is just one piece of affordability that we must work to ensure we live up to our values. We continue to live up to those values as we continue to push for affordability with our recent work on accessory dwelling units and the continued work we do in other areas.
I recognize as elected officials, we are responsible for so many of Montclair’s resources. The decisions we make today will continue to impact our community for generations. And that is a responsibility I do not take lightly.
At the core of the resources that we must responsibly care for are our finances. Financial stability is a foundation for everything else that we want to do.
Our decisions are based on making sure we have a balance, both short and long term, in our investments. And with our bottom line of balancing our books and controlling costs, we must have a budget guided by our values and our priorities.
I'm very proud of the work we've done to secure sound financial footing for Montclair. At a time when many municipalities are seeing their debt rise year after year, we have successfully reduced our debt by more than $77 million.
This reduction has helped us earn a triple-A bond rating, the highest and most favorable, which translates into a savings for Montclair taxpayers and allows us to continue making meaningful investments in our township.
Together with my colleagues on the council, we are making strategic investments across Montclair.
For example, we are improving the quality and safety of our roads and walkways for our drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and all others who choose to walk and move through our township.
We have sustainably increased the pace at which we are repaving our roads, making sure the funds are there. But we're also making sure that we move forward in the installation of new curbs and paving throughout town.
Since I have been elected in Montclair, we have paved 71 of the 83 miles of road throughout the township, more than 85%. And we’re keeping paving as a priority as we finally catch up and we're able to maintain that work.
We installed new stop signs at key intersections to improve traffic flow and promote pedestrian safety. Working together with residents and transit officials and advocates, we ratified the creation of Montclair’s first-ever dedicated bike lane because you've got to start somewhere.
This year we're going to continue making our roads safer for our cyclists and pedestrians. Even one traffic fatality is one too many. In order to reduce and ultimately eliminate accidents, we're evaluating Vision Zero as a program for our community. I, along with members of the council, recently met with county officials and others and advocates, including Deb Kagan, and others, who were so instrumental by the way in the Greenway project, to discuss the potential that this program has for Montclair.
We are grateful for the collaboration and the collaboration at the county level with County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Commissioner Brendan Gill, who have been instrumental partners in our efforts to improve traffic safety along our county roads.
We all see that as we look at Bloomfield Avenue and the increased safety around pedestrian only phases and other improvements.
We will continue to look at additional measures to protect the walkability of our town, prioritizing the safety of those walking, biking, and creating equitable mobility for motorists and those using public transportation. And I want to thank everyone who has raised areas of concern and contributed to these efforts.
In addition to our traffic-calming measures, we responded to the need for more parking throughout town. The newly opened midtown deck, with 300 additional spaces, has already increased parking capacity with access for all of our residents.
Many of these projects are visible for those to see. But sometimes infrastructure improvements happen deep underground and out of sight.
For example, critical improvements in our water infrastructure has been absolutely a necessary priority. More than once in the last year Montclair has been at risk of experiencing water loss. In these cases, our township staff, including our Utilities Department, Department of Emergency Management, Department of Public Works and Montclair Fire Department, worked together to keep our water flowing, and I thank them for their tremendous efforts.
In October, throughout the crisis caused by the water main break in Nutley, I also was able to speak with Governor Murphy regularly. And the governor and his staff took every phone call and took every issue seriously. And they were able to provide the support we needed to work through the issues. I again extend my gratitude to the governor and his staff.
Most importantly, I want to thank all the residents of Montclair for how we responded during the state of emergency. Residents throughout Montclair responded to our call to action with reduced water consumption and helping us prevent loss for our community.
While we avoided the worst-case scenario, the water emergency serves as an important reminder that our essential infrastructure must be upgraded and maintained. We are working with government partners at the county, state and federal levels to leverage additional funding for these much-needed improvements.
As part of the fiscal year 2023 federal budget, Montclair is receiving more than $2 million to rehabilitate Rand Well. This investment, along with many other improvements in our water delivery systems, will help Montclair’s water infrastructure meet our needs for today and for decades to come.
I'd like to thank Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, who was instrumental in securing these federal funds for our water projects, alongside Congressman Payne, Senator Booker and Senator Menendez, part of our team serving Montclair.
Montclair is fortunate to have a strong federal delegation advocating for the needs of our community in Washington. Their advocacy and support has enabled us to make significant progress in town, and certainly, and including with our parks and our water and our other infrastructure.
Using federal funds, we've nearly completed the upgrades at Nishuane, Edgemont, Essex Parks and enhance accessibility, and we've provided new equipment and updates to our pools and beyond. Not only our pools we now see we have a skatepark in Rand Park with more to come at that site. Right, Councilwoman Schlager? You’ve been working on that a lot. Investing in our outdoor spaces supports the health and wellbeing of our community.
But our work is far from complete. I plan to continue advocating at all levels of government for increased funding for infrastructure. Our need is great, but our efforts are greater. And through hard work and diligence, we will continue to look forward to the next projects that will benefit residents.
One of those projects that we all are looking to discuss as a community is Lackawanna Plaza. For nearly eight years Lackawanna Plaza has remained virtually vacant, depriving residents of easy access to a quality, affordable supermarket, among many other lost opportunities.
After several start-and-stop efforts to revitalize the site, Montclair now has an opportunity to realize a new vision for Lackawanna Plaza, and meet the needs of our community.
Throughout the process, we are engaging with and listening to the community because your input matters and is impactful.
I want to thank all my colleagues on the council for their hard work on this issue. We have had a number of community meetings on the project, including ones hosted by Councillor Cummings, another I hosted with Councilor Yacobellis and Councilwoman Price Abrams. And the discussions have been robust, substantive and cordial.
We continue to listen with care to residents’ concerns and questions at our public meetings and those submitted by email. Taking the time to engage with all interested parties improves the process and final plans. The developer, a Montclair resident, is equally as committed to listening to community input.
I'm confident that while we may not all agree on everything and get everything everyone wants, in the end Lackawanna Plaza will provide access to a quality supermarket locally, include much-needed affordable housing and be a vibrant hub for our community.
As I'm sure you will agree, vibrancy continues to define Montclair.
The arts are an example of that vibrancy and it was great to see our diverse art scene roaring back after COVID put so much of it on a long intermission.
Our township continues to earn its reputation as the cultural center of New Jersey.
The Montclair Film Festival has blossomed into world-renowned event, attracting some of Hollywood's biggest stars, shining a spotlight on our township and bringing businesses here and customers to the businesses. One of my personal favorites, the Montclair Jazz Festival, is the highlight of the summer, bringing together our community with people from across the state and region for some of the best music anywhere.
Along with the festivals, we have programs for our youth, such as JazzKids, and classes at Vanguard Theater, and we're nurturing the next generation of creativity and artists.
The creative scene is one that prides itself on being inclusive as well. In 2022, we hosted for the first time ever the Montclair Pride Festival. Thank you to Out Montclair and Councilmember Peter Yacobellis for the work to make this event a reality. It was a tremendous success and we're looking forward to the festival again this year.
And the AAPI celebrations, including during AAPI Heritage Month and the Lunar New Year festivities, are helping us to note and be a destination, an event where people come from across New Jersey to learn about how we celebrate diversity.
From local authors, painters. photographers and musicians, Montclair boasts an arts and entertainment scene that rivals major cities many times our size. As a municipal government we recognize the value of arts and appreciate the rich culture that grows from supporting our arts. We will continue to invest support and honor arts as a core part of our community.
All of this is possible because of our engaged and generous residents, along with the hard work of municipal employees. And I want to take a moment and make sure we take a moment to recognize our municipal employees who did so much and do so much for us every day.
The past two years have presented unique challenges in governing at all levels. Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, I think it's an appropriate time for us to evaluate and improve our operations as well.
Last October, I called for a full review of our township operations to identify areas where we can be more effective, efficient and responsive to our residents. As we do that work, let me be clear on one thing, public employees and all who represent and serve our community must be held to the highest professional standards that reflect the values of our township. We must provide an environment in which employees can confidentially report any behavior that is not acceptable, and we take every single complaint seriously.
That is why I moved to hire experts to ensure a strong and healthy workplace culture with clear expectations of professional behavior, appropriate training for all employees, and establish better protocols moving forward. I'm looking forward to prioritizing Culturupt’s recommendations and toward seeing these goals come to fruition.
As always, we will follow the guidance of our town attorney and others in order to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the residents and members of our team and independent investigations that need to move forward. I'm confident that together we will live up to our values.
Montclair residents are never shy about standing up for our values. In our activism, we don't just talk the talk, we walk the walk. Our community speaks out on issues of conscience and values, whether it's at the local, state, national or international level. And for that, I am thankful.
Last year when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, we came together in solidarity and protest. We gathered in front of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey with advocates from across the state to reaffirm our commitment to reproductive freedom and the fundamental right to access abortion care. And in November, we turned out in force using our votes and our voice to show our values and resoundingly sent our congressional representatives back to Washington. You and all of us played their part yet again.
Last March, nearly one year ago, when we watched in horror, as Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Montclair came together to stand on the side of democracy. We repeatedly have come together to support Ukrainian communities in New Jersey as they care for their families and loved ones. We've severed our symbolic sister-city relationship with a Russian town and we see our solidarity across this town with Ukraine flags flying proudly. As we come to the one-year mark of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I know you join me in our continued prayers for the people of Ukraine and for peace.
But sadly, we're not just witnesses to hate and others on the other side of the world. Unfortunately, we see hate and acts of injustice not only here but across the nation and here at home, too.
We have watched and continue to watch in horror of the unprovoked beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. I know that many of us, many of us have marched yet again in protests. As we celebrate Black History Month, I want to honor the memory of Tyre Nichols, as I do for George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and so many others. I'm sure you join me in prayer that we do not have to add more names to that list.
We must continue to acknowledge that here in Montclair, we're not immune to hate crimes and threats of violence either.
In the past few months, we've seen any antisemitic graffiti scrawled on playground equipment, a statewide threat and a warning to synagogues, and just last week at Temple Ner Tamid in the neighboring town of Bloomfield, the terrifying incident of a firebomb being thrown at the synagogue in the middle of the night. It is a relief that no one was physically injured in these attacks. But they unquestionably and intentionally are there to stoke fear and anxiety.
Once again, though, Montclair rises to the moment and shows our support for our Jewish neighbors and friends, and for our family.
Let me be clear: Hate, in any form, has no home in Montclair. And I am proud to live in a community that shares those values and lives by those words, every single day. We will continue to work on every front to keep our residents safe in our homes and our places of worship and in our community.
Our shared values bring us together. We embrace our diversity as a strength. And that does mean that we don't always have to agree. But we face our challenges head on. And together, we do the hard work. We stand up for what is right. And together we will be successful.
I want to thank you all for joining in this important work, because it is a work that the whole community engages in. It is my privilege to work alongside you as mayor. And I thank you, and I thank God. And I hope God continues to bless Montclair and the United States of America. Thank you very much.