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Mayor: State of Middle Township ‘Steady’

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By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – Mayor Timothy Donohue Feb. 25 delivered his annual State of the Township Address to the Middle Township Chamber of Commerce. 
He called the state of the township “steady” and spoke of beginning to emerge from an unprecedented year of trials.
“We have a set of principles we try to live by,” Donohue said, and “they helped us get through this.” 
He noted the crisis is not over, but “we are beginning to come out the other side.” 
The formal title for his presentation, “Ready to Rebound,” emphasized his point.
Donohue said the municipality’sgoal to make this “a uniquely desirable place to live” has not changed. The local government’s task, he argued, is to focus on  local needs. 
Knowing that he was speaking to the municipality’s business elite, Donohue said that a “well-run town will attract and retain well-run businesses.” To that end, he spoke of several core principles of local government.
Sound financial management and a stable tax rate headed his list. Next on his list was an expanding ratable base and policies that facilitate responsible business development. 
He ended his list with a focus on the need for seeking savings and efficiency in municipal operations, with the common end of improving the quality of life in the municipality.
One challenge in that effort is the size of the task compared with the size of the tax base. Donohue pointed to the fact that the municipality has 20% of the county’s population, with only 6% of the total ratables. 
The local government must provide services that range from police and public safety to trash pickup to snow removal and animal control. The municipality is the largest in the county by land area, complicating the tasks of road construction and environmental stewardship.
One key to success, Donohue stressed, is a steady tax rate. Although he used his address in the past to announce the rate included in the coming year’s budget, Donohue couldn’t this year. 
There are still too many variables, too many balls in the air, he said. He cited the example of new legislation that will mean new revenue from local hospitals to their host municipalities, as one example. The 2021 budget remains a work in progress.
Donohue pointed to a ratable increase of just over $15 million between 2020 and 2021. He also cited municipal actions to increase the bank rate on deposits, as well as a large, recent land sale as moves that would help support a steady tax rate.
Part of the address was devoted to the recently completed master plan reexamination report. Donohue spoke of the several areas of recommendations that have come forward from the Planning Board exercise. 
They included areas of short-term rentals, accessory apartments, differentiation of marinas, the reestablishment of light industrial zones, reduced setbacks for townhome developments, and attention to public electric charging infrastructure.
A major part of the reexamination report was the recommendations for zoning changes in nine specific areas of the municipality. One of the more controversial of those is a proposed zoning change that would facilitate the construction of a Hilton hotel on the access road to the Garden State Parkway, at Exit 10, in Court House. 
“I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I favor that project,” Donohue said.
He spoke of the many new businesses that opened in the municipality in the last year. 
He also discussed the potential impact of new cannabis legislation recently signed into law. The municipality supported a potential medical marijuana dispensary, at the former La Monica Plant, on Indian Trail Road.
In support of quality-of-life improvements, Donohue cited the Del Haven water project, where, he said, residents could expect shovels in the ground possibly by the end of April. 
He spoke of the success in retaining a Whitesboro Post Office branch, maintaining the area’s historic zip code. 
He called attention to the municipality’s sewer upgrade program and the ability of the Public Works Department to maintain services through innovative strategies in staff organization.
Donohue also spoke of completed projects that contribute to the quality-of-life improvements, including the Avalon Fishing Pier,  Rio Grande Park, and improvements to  the Goshen Complex’s playing field.
He reminded his audience of traffic calming efforts in Whitesboro, the 2020 special events that the municipality held, and the work to create an emergency center at the Whitesboro recreation complex, equipped with a pet van for safe housing for the municipality’s pets in an emergency.
Donohue praised the peaceful resolution of protests at the time of George Floyd’s death, at the hands of police last summer, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Police Chief Christopher Leusner spoke on public safety issues. The key element in his presentation was the continued drop in uniform crime,reporting 294 offenses in 2020, a record low. As recently as 2012, that number stood at greater than 900 yearly incidents.
Leusner also spoke about the strategies employed to maintain appropriate coverage of the municipality by patrol officers while battling Covid’ spread. 
He spoke of daily calls with state and county officials and special disinfection routines for police vehicles. 
The chief cited the establishment of online incident reporting systems for the public and adjustments made to investigation routines.
Through it all, Leusner said, the focus remained on community policing measures wherever they could be carried out safely. 
Leusner, like Donohue, praised the peaceful resolution of summer protests. He called attention to the proactive policing strategies and community outreach the department practiced before the events of summer 2020.
Leusner said the new marijuana legislation will present challenges, which his department will work through.
One new announcement that came out of the address was the governing body is considering a pandemic recovery tax incentive program that would encourage property owners to make improvements to some of the municipality’s older properties in return for five years of tax abatements on increased assessments. 
“This program is in the early stages of discussion,” Donohue said. He promised to bring the issue to the chamber audience for more focused discussion soon.  
A video recording of the address is available here: http://bit.ly/3bC6xvG.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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