LINDEN – When Mayor Rich Gerbounka stepped to the podium to deliver his state of the city address, he described 2013 as “the best of times and the worst of times.”
Money woes caused problems over the last year, but on the bright side the city began to see a light at the end of the dark tunnel involving redevelopment efforts.
“The worst of times continued with our financial woes,” the mayor said, explaining Linden lost $7.1 million in actual tax dollars since 2008. State law, he explained, requires all municipalities not to exceed their previous year’s budget by more than 2 percent, which became a problem for the city when it came time to draft the 2013 budget.
“This mandated budget cap was a 50 percent reduction from the 2012 mandatory cap of 4 percent,” Gerbounka said, adding that state law does not allow pension, health costs and debt to be “outside the cap,” but when all was said and done Linden’s 2013 budget was $5.2 million above the 2 percent cap.
“Needless to say this scenario required drastic measures be implemented to conform to state law,” he said.
The mayor, among these drastic measures, included stopping all spending unless it was approved by the city council. Then, on top of these budget woes, Gerbounka said he and the city council “commenced strenuous negotiations” with eight labor unions in order to get salary concessions for 2013. Not that this solved all of the city’s financial problems.
“But even after that was successfully negotiated we still found ourselves $1.2 million above the 2 percent cap law,” the mayor said.
For three months, Gerbounka said, the city used every avenue to reduce spending, exploring each, but no alternative was found.
“The only way to offset the $1.2 million short fall was further reduction in services or to circumvent the cap law by including a separate garbage tax. We chose the latter. Although this was an unpopular decision and a bitter pill for everyone to swallow, including elected officials, it was the right decision,” the mayor said, adding that “the tax was the lesser of evils.”
When it came to “the best of times,” Gerbounka said one of the highlights was the fact the city earned Transit Village status.
“The Department of Transportation has awarded our city a million dollars to be used only for beautification around our train station. A project team has been formed on how to spend this money wisely,” he said, noting that it was unanimously agreed by all elected officials that this beautification project had to start at the train trestle and work towards Wood Avenue.
So far the inside of the train station has new benches, rest rooms, landscaping and a fresh coat of paint inside and out. In addition, Kean University art students painted murals on the walls around the station.
The mayor also brought up that the city will be seeing improvements to the intersection where Rt. 278 and Rts. 1 and 9 meet. Gerbounka gave considerable credit to Gov. Chris Christie for moving this project along, referring directly to when he visited Drumthwacket last year and brought the matter to Christie’s attention.
Gerbounka also thanked Union County Manager Al Faella and Freeholder Chris Hudak for their quick response to a request for a traffic study on Wood Avenue from Gibbons Street to Morris Avenue.
“Union County will conduct this study at no cost to the city of Linden,” the mayor said, adding that the study will include statistics on traffic flow, signal optimization, pedestrian safety and infrastructure improvements. The survey also can be used to complete the city’s streets program which will open up more grant money for Linden.
Gerbounka said last month the city approved an ordinance for electric aggregation, which will allow Linden to contract with a third party provider to lower electrical costs to all residents who want to participate.
“They will buy electricity in bulk on the open market and by law cannot charge more than PSE&G’s regular rate,” he said, pointing out that 21 municipalities have signed contracts with this state-approved vendor.
Electric bills in Toms River, he added, were reduced 12 percent as a result of a third party vendor handling this venue.
On the economic front, Gerbounka had several promising projects on the front burner, including announcing that after seven frustrating years the city finally cleared all the legal hurdles on the South Wood Avenue development project between Linden and Morris avenues and within a year there will be a 176-unit apartment building built.
“This will be the spark that ignites an explosion on Wood Avenue. Why? Because young professionals will inhabit this complex and use the train station to commute to New York,” the mayor explained, mentioning that when these professionals return home to Linden, they will want quality restaurants and stores in their neighborhood.
“This will stimulate further growth and I predict in five years a dramatic change to the entire Wood Avenue area around our train station,” he said, adding that the city will also receive $350,000 a year in taxes as an added incentive to complete this project.