LINDEN — In his state of the city address, Mayor Rich Gerbounka had only one hope — that mother nature did not have another surprise up her sleeve for Linden in 2013.
“Think about it. In 2010 we had a record 32 inches of snowfall. In 2011 we had Hurricane Irene plus the Halloween storm,” said the mayor, adding that Superstorm Sandy was a lot to handle for the city.
Gerbounka said Sandy “punished Linden, devastated the shore and Staten Island.”
“Through it all we survived and persevered. Our police, fire, public works and Office of Emergency Management removed the hazards, protected property, putting themselves in harms way many times,” the mayor said, adding that the calls the city received during and after the storm were not always pleasant.
“Central dispatch and the police desk fielded volumes of calls, many from irate and demanding residents who did not realize the gravity of the situation,” he said, but pointed out that all city office workers served the residents the best they could even though they were also without power at their home.
Although the mayor initially focused on how the city handled Superstorm Sandy, he quickly turned to what lay ahead for Linden in 2013, including welcoming aboard new 9th Ward council member Armando Medina.
Gerbounka graciously acknowledged that Medina worked hard to get elected, but pointed out, “I’m sure you will work just as hard for the people of the 9th Ward.”
It was a bittersweet moment for the mayor as he watched Medina sworn in to a seat that once belonged to Bob Frazier, who decided not to seek re-election.
“Both Bob and I have gone through the political arena together. I don’t think the city will ever find a better representative. He is a diplomat, a gentleman and an individual I always turn to for advice,” the mayor said.
“Bob, I want you to know I’m going to miss you, but enjoy your family and retirement, you earned it and can rest assured that you left the 9th Ward in great shape and its future in good hands,” Gerbounka told his old friend who was in the audience.
The new year marked the start of Gerbounka’s seventh year as mayor, one that found him feeling more optimistic about Linden’s future than ever before.
“Time and time again you have heard me state there are only two ways to stabilize taxes. One way is to reduce spending and the other is to increase revenue by increasing our industrial base,” the mayor said, adding that only then will the tax burden shift from homeowner to business.
Gerbounka explained that since he was elected he has worked to achieve that goal, but it has not been an easy task. Especially given the economy, he said, but the mayor was not discouraged by any means.
“The city council and I have made great strides in stabilizing our taxes which will reap major benefits in Linden’s future, especially when the national economy picks up,” he said.
Gerbounka also reported that the city workforce had been reduced by 86 full-time and 15 part-time positions since he became mayor. This saved the city $7.9 million in salary, benefits and pensions, he added.
The mayor said the city recently purchased seven Ford Focus vehicles to replace vehicles in various departments. Although each of these vehicle will cost the city $13,500 each, the mayor said it was a good investment overall.
“Since they get 35 miles per gallon and come with three-year warranties, it didn’t make sense to re-assign old police cars to other departments, as was our tradition,” the mayor said.
“Besides, these police cars were eight-cylinder gas guzzlers that had at least 250,000 miles on them or more and were constantly breaking down because of the rough mileage put on them by 24/7 police work,” Gerbounka said.
Recently the city converted an old water truck into a “brine spreader,” something the mayor felt could save money because this piece of equipment can go out on the road during normal working hours and spread a liquid salt solution on roadways before icing or snowfall begins, saving overtime costs.
On the forefront, the mayor said, is a new sanitation collection system pilot program that will take place in the 9th and 10th wards.
“We are waiting on the delivery of this new sanitation truck that mechanically lifts a city supplied garbage container into the hopper,” Gerbounka explained, adding that this will reduce a three-man sanitation team to just a driver.
“Our public works department studied other municipalities that collected their garbage in this manner and are convinced it will be a successful cost saver to taxpayers,” he added.
On another front, the mayor said that previously the city had a hybrid ambulance service composed of the Linden Volunteer Ambulance Service, Linden Emergency Medical Services and Linden Fire Department, and although the mayor said it was an extremely hard decision terminating the Linden Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Linden Emergency Medical Services that have provided excellent ambulance service to residents, he said it was the right decision for Linden.
“Having three agencies providing the same service is not a cost effective way to provide life saving services to a community,” Gerbounka said, adding that although a simple “thank you” is not enough for everything these organizations did for the community, but “it is all I am able to offer.”
Gerbounka also filled residents in on a seven-day economic journey he took this year to Tong Chaum China that was completely paid for by the Chinese government.
“My objective was to introduce Linden to this city of 750,000 residents and show them what we have to offer to Chinese businesses,” the mayor explained.
“I’m confident a strong relationship developed between myself and these Chinese leaders that will be built upon for future development between both cities,” he said.
Gerbounka also reported the city has continued to work toward breaking ground at the old General Motors property on Route 1, but the road has not been easy.
“This could have been accomplished two years ago except ShopRite of Aviation Plaza continues to file nuisance lawsuit after nuisance lawsuit to stall this development because a Super Walmart will provide them with competition,” he said, adding that this has been extremely frustrating for everyone involved.
“Why? Because our city can’t reap the real estate taxes that would be significant when the two anchor stores and approximately ten smaller stores become operational,” the mayor explained.
Meanwhile, he said, efforts to enhance the train station are in the works. The city received a $100,000 grant from the Department of Transportation and has applied for another $250,000 grant.
“So as you can see we have a lot of positive developments coming to fruition in the near future,” the mayor said, pointing out that there is one that is “in our pocket.”
The city recently negotiated a host community benefit agreement with Spectra Energy, a major energy transmission corporation that is burying a 42-inch natural gas line down Lower Road, under the New Jersey Turnpike and Arthur Kill to Manhattan.
“This is a major east coast energy pro-ject that is a tax ratable homerun for Linden” Gerbounka said, explaining that by 2014 Spectra Energy will start paying the city $2.5 million a year in lieu of taxes.
“That will go a long way in helping us reach our goal of tax stabilization,” the mayor said.