SUMMIT — When Mayor Ellen Dickson looked back on the past year, there was little doubt in her mind that Superstorm Sandy presented the greatest challenge to the city.
During her State of the City address this year, the mayor said Sandy was a harsh test for the city when Summit lost power for the third time in 18 months. It was, Dickson said, a great source of stress and destruction for many, and a physical hardship for others. But, the mayor did not hesitate to point out that most community members thought of others before themselves.
“When they could, they provided shelter, food, money or a helping hand,” she said, adding this effort came from many Summit citizens, local charities, churches and employees of the city.
“Regardless the organization, that helping hand was provided by many citizens who just wanted to help,” Dickson said.
In looking forward, Dickson said the city is focusing on ensuring Summit remains a very desirable place to do business and live. She noted, for instance, that Merck’s decision to relocate its global headquarters to the city, the second major company to do so, said a lot about the city.
Dickson did focus some on the city budget, mentioning that Summit is rated AAA. She also noted that the while the combined budget for the schools and city increased by less than 1 percent in 2012, the county continues to spend money.
The mayor said Summit taxpayers paid $33 million to the county in taxes last year, an 11 percent increase over the previous year.
“Obviously the 2 percent spending cap does not work with the county. This is frustrating since the value provided by these taxes is not apparent and they give us much less financial flexibility and make it harder to afford new programs,” Dickson said.
“I ran for freeholder and while many of us have attended the Union County Freeholder meetings we know our voice seems to have been ignored,” the mayor added.
Dickson said the needs of citizens are hard enough to meet and although median incomes are much lower than they were five years ago, the county continues to spend. She cited, for example, the fact the county “built a $10 million golf club house, approved the construction of a multimillion dollar ice skating rink and runs a hospital that is losing millions of dollars a year,” suggesting this faction of government become “more accountable.”
The mayor also suggested county government could be eliminated altogether, noting states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have taken those steps and life for its citizens is more affordable.
Dickson recognized Police Chief Robert Weck for doing a “fine job during his first year,” mentioning that community policing in the downtown was “revived this year.”
The mayor also suggested the city fire department might undergo some reconfiguring in the future.
“Parts of our firehouse are 100-years-old and reaching the end of their useful life,” the mayor said, adding that there are plans being developed for a new firehouse.
“This may involve reconfiguring that part of Broad Street but it will offer many opportunities, such as combining it with a parking garage,” she added.
Dickson praised the schools for being ranked 11 by New Jersey Monthly Magazine, but expressed some concern that the infrastructure of school buildings were “old and need updating.”
“While school population is down by 2 percent in Union county, our student population in Summit is up by 1,000 students in 10 years and up 2 percent from last year,” she said, mentioning that 12 years ago when Summit High School was renovated, a demographer told city officials there would be no more than 330 students per graduating class but the latest class moving from middle school to the high school is 370 students,” she explained.
Dickson said in many ways Summit is what other cities want to be, “home to great restaurants, great places to shop and easy access to transportation.” But she would like to see Summit strive to be at the forefront of technology.
The mayor ended her speech telling an anecdote about growing up, pointing out that as she has grown older, she realized even more that “life is full of imperfect things and imperfect people.”
“What I have learned over the years is that learning to accept each other’s faults and choosing to celebrate each other’s differences is one of the most important keys to creating healthy, growing and lasting relationships,” the mayor said.
She urged all residents to be kinder than necessary because “everyone you meet is fighting some kind of a battle.”