With the May 9 Verona Township Council election looming, the six hopefuls met for a public forum Wednesday night, April 26, at Congregation Beth Ahm.
The candidates, Donna Cannizzaro, Carrie Ford, Ted Giblin, Jack McEvoy, Chris Piccuirro, and incumbent Mayor Kevin Ryan spent an hour-and-a-half introducing themselves to a packed crowd in the Grove Avenue synagogue and answering questions about the issues facing the township.
The six candidates will be vying for three spots.
Verona High School students from the broadcast journalism and AP government classes assisted in the forum.
Some of the questions included:
How do you keep up on town maintenance and making the town look nice with dwindling funds available?
Giblin said the maintenance and upkeep of the town is something he feels strongly about. The Department of Public Works “works tirelessly” to keep the town in tip-top shape, but the council needs to find other creative ways to pay for those expenses, he said.
“I think people in Verona receive and expect a high level of services from their community,” Giblin said, suggesting grants such as Green Acres or Open Space as ways to cover the costs.
McEvoy said it’s always good to find “commonsense ways” to go after the budget and try to keep expenditures low. For the past two years he’s been looking at the budget closely and said that’s where the money for road repair needs to come from, since it’s a yearly expense.
“We can’t go out and bond for this anymore,” McEvoy said. “You bond for road repair, you’re spreading it over 20 years. You’re paying interest rates on that money.”
McEvoy also suggested using money from the $2.8 million surplus the township accrued.
Piccuirro said that road maintenance needs to be budgeted for every year. In order to find the money, he suggested taking a step back from the budget and seeing “where else can we save” and where else there could be an excess that can be cut without impacting services to the residents. Piccuirro wanted to evaluate all the technology in Verona as an area to reduce costs.
“Poorly maintained roads is just something that’s unacceptable,” he said.
Ryan said he hasn’t given up on Community Development Block Grants, a program used by Verona frequently in the past but facing cuts in President Donald Trump’s budget. The council recently sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen about their concerns regarding cuts to the CDBG program, he said.
Verona has used $7.5 million since that program started on paving roads, fixing buildings and other projects, Ryan said.
“I do have to compliment [Township Engineer Jim] Helb in seeking out grant money,” he said, noting they’ll have to prioritize going forward.
Cannizzaro identified Claremont Avenue as one area that needs work, but not the only one.
“I am concerned about Claremont, but I also see other streets,” she said. “Where do you start, where do you really start?”
Weather, storms, and construction projects can tear up roads, and Cannizzaro said they “need to be conscious of all these different areas.” She suggested searching for uncollected funds from the state to pay for roads, and that future councils need to approach road maintenance with long-term planning.
Ford thanked the DPW for their work around the township.
“They might do it so well we don’t often notice it, so we have to make sure we’re appreciating the work that they’re doing,” she said.
They still need to focus on strategic planning and the future, Ford said, and look at planning how to save for repeat expenses rather than paying for them on “tomorrow’s money.” Working closely with the township manager is one option, noted Ford.
How can the council help small businesses in Verona?
Piccurrio said he’s seen many restaurants come to Verona. The council can look into incentive programs to keep and bring businesses to the township, but he said the main issue is parking.
“Parking on Bloomfield [Avenue] is very difficult, and we have one tiny lot and one not even medium lot. That’s the biggest concern,” he said.
Ryan gave credit to McEvoy for recently suggesting making a deal with religious groups in town to allow parking in their lots at night when they mostly go unused. In addition to parking, he also thought some of the rules for businesses in township ordinances needed work.
“We have some very outdated, antiquated ordinances on the books in Verona,” Ryan said.
Cannizzaro said she’s seen conflicting ordinances in town. She said she recently went to a local restaurant and asked the owner about her experience moving in, and she said the restaurateur “struggled a bit to get up and running.”
“There didn’t seem to be a place for her to go,”said Cannizzaro, suggesting a more direct place to lead residents. She said the business owner she spoke with had trouble connecting with the Chamber of Commerce.
Ford said downtown is important as the center of the town. They’ve had exciting activity with new restaurants and need to build on that momentum, she said. Ford said some businesses find neighboring towns too expensive, so why not have Verona as their alternative? To do that they need to remove meaningless obstacles and “unenforceable” ordinances, she said.
“That’s a problem from a management perspective, and we need to address that,” Ford said.
Giblin said he intends to work with the business community, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the township manager to “establish Verona as a downtown and pedestrian-friendly” place. Businesses help support various organizations in Verona, and empty storefronts aren’t good for the community or the tax base, he said.
“We need to make it much easier for them to stay in town and be profitable as well,” he said.
McEvoy said there are less vacant businesses than a few years ago, but still too many. He said he sees a disconnect between the Chamber of Commerce and the community. McEvoy suggested creating a liaison for the council and the chamber to fix that.
“I’ve been to council meetings for the past five years,” he said, “and I’ve yet to see anybody from the chamber come before the council with any questions.”