UNION COUNTY, NJ — Last week, the Union County Freeholder Board handed out $1.5 million in much-needed grants to towns that will match this windfall, in order to make improvements that usually end up at the end of a very long “to do” list.
The funding for these awards came directly from selling Runnells Specialized Hospital last year for $26 million to a private New York company.
While the county has said it fully intends to use the proceeds from the sale to payoff the millions in debt it incurred as a result of subsidizing the hospital for the last 10 years, it also wanted to help municipalities tackle some of the projects that fall by the wayside, due to budget constraints.
In January, the freeholder board invited all 21 municipalities to apply for the matching grants, which were aimed at spurring economic development growth and other infrastructure improvements.
“Our goal is to provide an economic boost to our municipalities in an area where state and federal assistance has been lapsing,” said Freeholder Chairman Mohamed Jalloh, adding that the end result would be “quality-of-life improvements that continue to make Union County one of the highest rated places to live in the nation.”
The infrastructure program was developed through the county freeholder Fiscal Committee, with Freeholder Chris Hudak of Linden serving as its chairman. Members of the committee include freeholders Alexander Mirabella of Fanwood, Sergio Granados of Elizabeth and Angel Estrada of Elizabeth.
The county expects the grant program will stimulate job growth and help towns build toward important development projects that involve short- or long-term government, social or transportation issues.
Some of the projects the county was willing to fund included property clearing and demolition; redevelopment studies; streetscape improvements, including curbing and sidewalk repairs and improvements; road resurfacing; municipal building improvements and repairs; funding for various revitalization and master plan studies; downtown and business district improvements; and sanitary sewer or flood mitigation improvements.
The awards were handed out at the freeholder board meeting on Thursday, June 18, where the majority of elected officials were more than willing to be on hand to accept checks that will allow them to move forward with projects that had been put on hold for a long time.
Prior to handing out the checks, Hudak explained he knew how important it was to each municipality in the county to receive this windfall.
“Every time you talk to a mayor or council member and ask what they would do with an extra $25,000 if they had it, every good mayor has a laundry list of things they could use it for,” the fiscal committee chairman said, adding “this is just an appropriate use of money.”
Although every municipality in the county received a grant, some towns received larger awards than others. The highest grant, $150,000, was handed out to Elizabeth.
This city of more than 120,000 will match the money so they can tear down the Bayway Polish home.
“This will open up some space for a soccer field,” said Elizabeth Recreation Director Paul Adessa, admitting the windfall would go far in helping the city realize a dream.
Elizabeth actually requested a $200,000 grant, in order to accomplish this task, explaining in its application that this would free up two underutilized parcels of land for revitalization.
The former Bayway Polish home is adjacent to Drotar Field and the Erxleben Recreation Center, which makes the proximity of the land perfect for a youth recreation field, officials said.
Several other towns also received awards of more than $100,000, including Linden, Union, Plainfield and Summit.
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said there were various projects they intended to tackle with the matching grant, including city roads which were “in desperate need of repair.”
The projects the city plans to undertake include replacement of deteriorated manhole and inlet castings, sidewalk and curbing, construction of handicap curb ramps and milling and paving of East Blancke Street from Wood Avenue to Roselle Street, a distance of 2,600 feet.
The heavily traveled roadway begins in the city’s central business district on Wood Avenue, then traverses a municipal parking lot, park, church and residential areas, ending at Roselle Street, a county road.
Armstead quipped it didn’t hurt that Hudak, chairman of the fiscal committee, hailed from Linden, which he said might have helped the municipality get the high grant award it received.
Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo admitted, although matching the $115,000 grant his town received and using the money for micro-paving roadways may not show the most beautiful use, it was sorely needed.
“Believe me, when you are driving on a smooth surface, it will be worth it,” the mayor said. The miro-paving would extend the life of roadways that were re-constructed 6 to 7 years ago.
The township initially requested a $150,000 grant, which it proposed using for a preliminary study to determine the viability of an economic development project in the area from Vauxhall Road East to the intersection of Millburn Avenue.
The preliminary study would have addressed the feasibility of facade improvements, considering infrastructure that is more than 50 years old.
Summit also received a $115,000 grant, which it will apply to a downtown roads and beautification project.
The city’s downtown was last upgraded in 2001 and the roadway, officials said, “has exceeded its usable life.”
This city has completed extensive review of resources, visited numerous other downtown sites; met with stakeholders; held public meetings; completed a comprehensive survey and developed a complete scope of the work that needs to be done.
The upgrade will include road resurfacing; sidewalk replacements; construction of curb turnouts and decorative crosswalks; LED light conversions; decorative concrete or pavement; new signage; sitting walls and planting of trees and shrubs.
Funding for this project was also included in the city’s 2015 capital improvement budget.
Rahway received a $75,000 award city Councilman James Baker said would go toward three projects that have been on the back-burner.
“Our first priority is investigation of the Rahway River flood control problem in our town,” he said, also noting the municipality would also be resurfacing 10 roads, putting in new curbing and sidewalks.
The city will also be looking into the sewer system, in order to prevent tidal floodwaters from backing up into the sewer system. The award will be combined with other grants to ensure these projects are accomplished.
Cranford Mayor Andy Kalnins was very happy to receive a $55,000 grant, which the township will match and put towards an important safety project.
“This will help us with a pedestrian safety program outside our train station, so things are safer for commuters,” he said.
Clark, which received $30,000 grant, will be matching that amount to work on a updated streetscape plan for Westfield Avenue.
The township’s application noted a number of Westfield Avenue business owners expressed interest in forming an improvement advisory committee. The goal, officials said, is to develop a strategy to improve the downtown village concept as a means to promote and increase business commerce in the area.
This would include approximately 130 properties that are mixed-use business and residential. The goal is to not only improve the streetscape, but also possibly bring aboard a downtown manager and property maintenance person.
Springfield, which received a $65,000 grant, will be putting this money toward downtown development efforts, including decorative containers and demolition of a bus shelter at Mountain and Morris avenues that is in serious disrepair.
The bus shelter, said township administrator Anthony Cancro, is highly visible and used heavily. The funding will be used to design the new shelter, demolish and replace the existing shelter, and replacement damaged sidewalk and curbing. The estimated cost of this project was approximately $45,000.
The township will also be applying some of the grant money, along with other grants it received, for a community enhancement project involving the Riverwalk Rain Garden Improvement project.
Springfield has plans to purchase 30 decorative garbage and recycling containers for along Morris and Mountain avenues, replacing “old and unsightly containers.”
Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson said the $50,000 grant Hillside received will be applied to infrastructure repairs, including replacement of a municipal building boiler that failed and is in need of replacement before the winter season.
This municipality is ahead of the game, noting it already has bid documents in order, including construction drawings and an estimate of what this will cost, ready and waiting to go out for public bid.
Roselle Park will take the $75,000 it received and, after matching it, intends to undertake a master plan update and a sewer hydraulic feasibility study of Charles Street that will enhance water-quality standards.
With the $35,000 grant Kenilworth received, the governing body plans to complete some much-needed Borough Hall rehabilitation.
Specifically, the roof overhang on the front of the building has been compromised for the years, due to exposure to the elements and wildlife. Officials said, if this issue is not corrected soon, it will result in a safety hazard.
Public restrooms in Borough Hall also are in need of renovation, including replacement of stall dividers that have cracked and peeled through the years, posing difficulty in cleaning.
There are conditions to the grants the county handed out, including that all towns post signs “acknowledging the county of Union’s participation.” This was discussed with each town, prior to receiving the grant.
Towns also will be subjected to monitoring visits by members of the freeholder board and had to enter into an agreement prepared by the county law department, which binds the towns to use the money for the projects they indicated.
Should the county decide, at a future date, the money was not used for the projects approved, it will require full reimbursement by the municipality in violation of the agreement.