Hillside denied funds for drug and alcohol program

HILLSIDE, NJ — When Hillside Finance Chairperson Nancy Mondella found out that Union County had pulled the plug on funding for the Municipal Alliance Program for Hillside, she was quick to express her displeasure in a letter to the Hillside administration.

“It is so disconcerting that the township will be forced to end a program which provides funding to combat alcoholism and drug abuse,” she wrote in the letter. “My review reveals that the sole reason for the loss of this valuable program is the unjustified belief of the mayor that she alone should be able to appoint the coordinator of the program. That has historically not been the approach, and the appointing-authority ordinance preceded her participation in Hillside government.”

“The county funding has been long-standing and of benefit to Hillside,” Mondella continued. “The funding permits a coalition of local government, law enforcement officials, faith community and parents to battle alcoholism and drug abuse in Hillside. Through the years, including my past time on the Hillside School Board, I have always heard only good things about this program. It has worked successfully.

“The mayor’s refusal to permit the program to continue must be seen as pique resulting from her mistaken belief she has been slighted. Sadly, it is the community, through the loss of funds, which is suffering from her misplaced resentment. I hope the mayor relents, so that this program can continue.”

The Hillside administration addressed the loss of funding for the Municipal Alliance Program in a statement sent to Union County LocalSource on Sept. 14.

“As a result of this action, it became incumbent upon the administration to take action,” said Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese in the statement. “For years, the Municipal Alliance had quite frankly not been significantly visible for the Hillside community. Until the council is prepared to allow the coordinator to be appointed by the mayor with council’s advice and consent, I cannot sign off on these unaccountable unsupervised programs. The coordinator must work closely with township officials to promote drug awareness and not be an independent entity that functions without controls.”

The administration’s statement addressed the need to work together. “Although Mayor Vertreese appreciates and respects the necessity for drug awareness in Hillside, the Municipal Alliance’s administrative function must be a coordinated effort. As the mayor and the signer of checks on behalf of the township, it necessitates that the administration has some level of checks and balances with township-sponsored activities.

“In January of 2019, although the council refused to approve any of the mayor’s professional vendors,” the statement continued, “the council did appoint a new Municipal Alliance coordinator, although the grant operates on a fiscal calendar. As a result of this untimely appointment, confusion and conflict ensued, which resulted in dysfunction and inactivity.”

None of this satisfied Mondella, who explained her letter further on Thursday, Sept. 10.

“The mayor wants to be able to choose and handpick people,” said Mondella. “The people are picked through the council. It’s very sad that the children have to suffer. To turn down a grant no matter how big or small is so disheartening.

“I’m a nurse in my day job. The opioid crisis is big,” Mondella continued. “So many people are out of work, paired with the drug and opioid problem. It’s mentioned at every meeting, so she is well aware. To not accept money from a program because of a political ego, it just doesn’t make sense, especially at a different time. Dollars are scarce, especially at this time. It’s a shame. It may be too late to reconsider.”

This program was set up specifically to handle such concerns throughout the state. According to the Union County website, the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse administers the state’s $10 million Alliance to Prevent Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Program, which is the largest network of community-based antidrug coalitions in the nation, with thousands of stakeholders serving on nearly 400 alliances encompassing more than 530 municipalities throughout New Jersey.

The website explains that these alliances are established by municipal ordinance and engage residents, local government and law enforcement officials, and community organizations, in efforts to prevent alcoholism and drug abuse in communities throughout New Jersey. Further, the GCADA receives funding to administer the program from the Drug Enforcement Demand Reduction Fund, which was established to collect fines from individuals convicted of drug offenses. County and Municipal Alliance award recipients are required to match the GCADA grants with a cash-match of 25 percent of the award and an in-kind–services match of 75 percent of the award, a necessary component that doubles the impact of the GCADA grants to nearly $20 million per year in programs and activities.

This has proved to be a very important program for Union County. According to the website, in 2016, 18 Union County Municipal Alliances ran 139 activities within their communities, affecting more than 84,160 adults and children. More than 3,490 volunteers assisted with those activities and more than 263 Municipal Alliance Committee members volunteered their time on these worthwhile programs, which included Drug Abuse Resistance Education, Law Enforcement Against Drugs, National Night Out, Dream Makers, Red Ribbon Week, Dream Team, Peer Leadership, Safety Bug, Every 15 Minutes, Youth Task Force, Cops in Schools, Think Purple, AlcoholEDU, Project Graduation and many others.

Modella said losing funding for the Municipal Alliance Program for Hillside was only one instance where she thought the mayor was wrong, and there were others.

“Hillside put up Black Lives Matter Way as a gesture of solidarity,” she said. “They were ordered to take (the signs) down. You ask why they were taken down and, again, that’s a question for the mayor. This happened just yesterday. The children of Hillside are the ones that are really affected by that.”

“Mayor Vertreese, as a mother of three young sons, personally objects to all social inequalities that have burdened our country for years,” said the Hillside administration in a separate statement. “The mayor supports Black Lives Matter. In fact, the mayor encourages community-based organizations to advocate on behalf of their mission. An ill-placed sign in front of Town Hall or the stenciled words on Liberty Avenue does nothing to change these injustices.

“Mayor Vertreese wants to see real action that promotes systematic changes and not politically motivated signs without real action,” the statement continued. “Accordingly, Mayor Vertreese had the signs removed and remains hopeful that the council will sponsor meaningful legislation that fosters social justice for all Hillside residents.”