Hillside Council and administration at odds about COVID-19 grant

Hillside Municipal Building

HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside Township Council President Gerald “Pateesh” Freedman made it clear during a Township Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 14, that the denial of funds from the Union County Municipal CARES Act Grant to Hillside was not the fault of council but of the Hillside administration. He read part of a letter sent to him on Thursday, Aug. 19, from county manager Edward T. Oatman to support his claim.

“In an effort to help its constituent municipalities mitigate the effects of COVID-19, the county of Union established the UC Municipal CARES Act Grant in May 2020,” read the letter. “The grant and the parameters surrounding same was discussed during the Union County mayors’ conference call on May 12, 2020, and a follow-up email regarding the grant was sent to each municipal mayor and clerk on May 13, 2020.”

Freedman then detailed the efforts the county is said to have made in trying to reach representatives from Hillside, including an email sent to municipal administrator Hope Smith, with a copy to Mayor Dahlia Vertreese. The county then exchanged emails and spoke with the municipal chief financial officer and a representative from Millennium Strategies, Evan Covello, which provides grant writing and procurement services for Union County. Another email was sent by the county to Glynn Jones, municipal CFO, on Nov. 23, 2020, advising that the county had not yet received reimbursement requests. Finally, on Dec. 15, 2020, Covello, on behalf of the township, submitted two intake sheets for review and consideration. But on Dec. 23, 2020, an email was sent to each municipality advising that the grant program had been placed on hold. The county would honor all Notices of Awards previously issued, but, because of the township’s late submission, no Notice of Awards was issued to it under the grant.

“Mistakes happen, oversights happen and we have to give a pass when it happens, but I brought this up because it’s indicative of how this administration has been run for the last four years,” Freedman said in a phone interview with LocalSource on Wednesday, Sept. 15. “There’s grant money out there, we have a grant writer, we have an administration that preaches a good game, but every time they need something, it comes before the council as a bond request. So this was just indicative of how the last four years have been. I don’t know how much money we would’ve gotten and obviously we lost. It’s documented that the proper forms weren’t filled out correctly, that the administration had been apprised that they needed to do certain things and we lost out on a lot of money. That’s the essence of it.

“I think a lot of this could’ve been dealt with by a phone call. The business administrator tried to cover for the administration last night by saying it was the council’s fault because they didn’t approve the budget in time,” he continued. “To get this grant, you had to have a budget. We’ve been having temporary budgets. This council has been fighting with the administration constantly for the last four years, delaying the presentation of the budget.”

Although Smith did not respond to attempts by LocalSource to contact her, the Hillside administration responded with a statement on Saturday, Sept. 18, confirming that the township did take the necessary action to apply for this grant in a timely fashion.

“The township made a timely application under the CARES Act grant before the established deadline,” said the statement. “The administration received an email notification from the county of Union on Jan. 11, 2021, advising that the county of Union had suspended the issuance of new grant awards. To date, we have not received any further notification on the status of the grant application.”

The council president refused, however, to take the blame for what he said the administration was passing off as an oversight.

“This isn’t the council’s fault,” said Freedman. “We’ve presented this budget so that we can approve it no later than May. So, they tried to blame the council, because we didn’t pass the budget. I’m sure a phone call to the proper authorities would’ve straightened everything out. We were working off a temporary budget, now it was an oversight. But again, it happens, and, if it’s a rare occasion, you have to live with it. This was a big grant. It wasn’t just an oversight.

“I became aware of it back in August and I brought it up. I was asked by the business administrator where I got the information from, and, at that time, I didn’t have the permission of the county manager to divulge, and I said I can’t divulge my source, but I didn’t want it to die and make it look like what I said was false,” Freedman continued. “I reached out for permission to the county manager to use his information. The township lost an opportunity to get a lot of money from a grant. It’s not just this instance; it’s the fact that, for some reason, we haven’t been bringing in the grant money that I know is out there. The council isn’t responsible for going out and seeking grants. That’s an administrator function and it’s not being done. I’d hate to look into it further and find out how many other opportunities we’ve blown to apply for different grants. There’s money out there and other towns are getting it.”

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