Year in review: a look back on 2019

Check out what happened locally this past year

Ira Weinstein and Lisa Newbold, the Assistant Director and Director of Greyhound Angels Adoption in Williamstown, stand with Sven, a Greyhound who was adopted because of The Sun’s story. The two have 15 years of experience in caretaking for the retired race dogs. (Anthony J. Mazziotti III/The Sun)It was a banner year for Monroe Township, and The Sun is here to recap some of the biggest headlines. From council meetings to charitable donations made, board of education meetings to interesting resident profiles, there was an abundance of newsworthy events in Williamstown through 2019. 

Without further ado, here is Williamstown’s year in review.

Township updates

The municipality had quite a few updates in 2019 here are some popular headlines from this past year.

High hopes

It was made clear in meetings throughout 2019 that Monroe Township was open to having cannabis facilities break ground in the municipality. At its Aug. 26 meeting, the township introduced an ordinance on first reading that would allow “alternative treatment centers,” specifically dispensary, cultivation and manufacturing of cannabis to come to town so long as the center has at least one acre of land and has at least 100 feet of buffer to residential zones.

Council Vice President Joe Marino said no applicant has come before council or any board in town. Councilman Cody Miller expanded on that point.

“We didn’t want to leave it up to chance for an applicant to come in and get a variance to do what they want to do,” he said. 

The ordinance would give the township the ability to control what goes where. If a company earned a certificate and is approved by the state, it still has to go through the local planning board that still has the right to decline it.

“The reason we did this is because we didn’t want to leave it up to chance. We didn’t want to leave it to the whim of the board for them to say ‘We permit this.’ We wanted to clearly spell it out,” Miller said.

The alternative treatment center ordinance was adopted on second reading at the Sept. 9 meeting. The ordinance is an amendment to an ordinance regarding land management. The ordinance has the following stipulations: If the center is located west of Malaga Road, the center must be on at least one acre of land as well as a minimum buffer of 100 feet to residential zones. If the property is east of Malaga Road, there are no stipulations.

The township received some pushback from residents at the Sept. 23 meeting, where residents of the Summerfields Friendly Village spoke against the possibility of an alternative treatment center coming to town, citing an increase of traffic on the Black Horse Pike, an increase in crime which would put a burden on the police department and a decrease in home values in the area.

Members of the cannabis committee, Councilwoman Katherine Falcone and Councilman Cody Miller reminded the residents nothing was set in stone – there was no guarantee a cannabis facility would come to town.

At the Oct. 14 council meeting, an ordinance was introduced on first reading which would repeal the alternative treatment center ordinance in its entirety. Council vice president and ordinance committee chairman Joe Marino said issues with the New Jersey Pinelands Commission were part of the reason to repeal the ordinance as well as council’s plan to re-do the Master Plan – something that hasn’t been updated in 10 years.

“We have an opportunity next year to revisit this area of cannabis in the Master Plan, maybe designate a medical treatment area in town in the business park,” he said.

Council President Ron Garbowski said there is still a lot pending with licensing in the state of New Jersey. 

Miller reminded council that if a license were to be approved and the alternative treatment center ordinance was not in place, the applicant would have to go through zoning and planning boards, which was the purpose of the original ordinance.

“Is the rest of council OK with that?” Miller asked.

Council was indeed “OK with it,” as the ordinance passed the first reading and was adopted on second reading at the Oct. 28 meeting.

Municipal taxes

One of the cornerstones of Mayor Rich DiLucia’s mayoral campaign last year was to hold the line on taxes.

“Happily, we’re going to have a zero municipal tax freeze. They usually say ‘tax increase,’ but zero is not an increase,” DiLucia said. “This is the third year in a row that we’ve kept it at zero. We changed a lot of things, a lot of hard decisions were made.”

One of the decisions DiLucia referenced was cutting overtime. He thanked the department heads for their cooperation in the budget process.

“I think we have good, solid, realistic budgets. I feel confident we’re going in the right direction,” he added. “I know we’re not going to be getting any more increases from the state, so we’re going to have to be self-sufficient moving forward.”

The budget was adopted unanimously at the June 24 council meeting. DiLucia acknowledged there will be challenges ahead looking to the 2020 budget, specifically the cost of trash and recycling, snow removal, gas, electric and township employees’ salary as costs that can and will increase going into 2020.

“In this situation there’s no way to look for additional money unless we find a way to bring in revenue. That revenue under our tax system is pretty much contained to bringing in rateables,” DiLucia said.

With that in mind, DiLucia brought on an economic development specialist to put the township’s name out to businesses to let them know Monroe Township is open for business.

Recycling

This year, Monroe Township put an emphasis on the dos and don’ts of recycling. Heading the charge is Deb Bender, Williamstown’s certified recycling professional.

“When I got hired here as part-time, I was here to help (administrative assistant) Candy (Gooden) out,” Bender said. “When they approached me about it (the CRP position) I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. I’d love to do it.’ Once I started going to class, I realized how much I was doing wrong, we’re all doing it wrong.”

The only recyclable objects are plastic bottles made with No. 1 or No. 2 plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminum or steel food cans and glass bottles or jars. Each recycled item needs to be rinsed and dried, clean of any food debris.

One of the biggest issues with recycling is plastic bags. These are not recyclable and can prove problematic for the recycling process.

In September 2018, the public works department received a fee of $58 per town of recycled material from Omni Recycling LLC. Tonnage fees rose incrementally over the rest of 2018 and 2019, and the most recent reported fee per ton was $89.95 in September. The township recycled 4,108.5 tons of recyclables in 2018 and 4,081 in 2017, meaning roughly 342 tons are recycled each month. As of September, Omni instilled a $75 fee per load of contaminated recyclables in addition to the increasing tonnage fees.

To combat this, director of public works Nick Mercado and Bender are trying to educate residents to what is and is not recyclable. The duo is doing so in a variety of ways, most notably through a flier that was placed in Monroe Township’s MUA bills and sending letters to residents whose recycling carts have non-recyclable materials inside.

The issue is breaking the habit, in the opinion of Mercado and Bender, who say people have been doing things a certain way for years. Up until September 208, putting plastic items No. 3 through No. 7, grease-stained pizza boxes, ceramic dishes and plastic bags in single stream recycling carts was OK in theory. Now it isn’t.

Mayor DiLucia sent letters to Monroe Township residents outlining what is and is not recyclables and the ramifications of continuing to attempt to recycle non-recyclable materials. This story will surely flow into 2020. For more information, call the department of public works at (856) 728-9844 or visit the “Township of Monroe” Facebook page.

An ‘egg’-citing pilot program

At the May 28 meeting, the Monroe Township council adopted an ordinance on second reading to allow a backyard chicken pilot program. This pilot program will allow 25 residents to apply for licensure to keep up to six hens in their backyards at a given time. 

This program has been in the works since 2015, according to chair of Sustainable Monroe Township Patrick McDevitt. When the new members of council were sworn in this past January, he felt like it was time to try again.

“With their help and support, we were able to pass the ordinance which is a two-year pilot program,” he said. “Troy Sterling is one of the very active residents and he’ll be serving on the advisory board with a few other people.”

The first step to obtain a license is attending a class and paying a license fee of $10. 

From there, the chicken housing requirements are as follows: a coop shall be the appropriate size for the amount of chickens, at least three feet by three feet with a maximum of 10 feet by 10 feet. The coop must pass inspection from the backyard chicken advisory board before receiving a license. The coop needs to be enclosed and predator proof while being at least 20 feet from the habitable portion of neighboring residence and five feet from property lines. 

A maximum of 25 licenses were up for grabs. When hearing feedback from other towns, McDevitt said on average other towns were awarding 20 licenses. He expects Monroe Township to continue that trend.

The backyard chicken pilot program is only a two-year program, which means it will be evaluated in 2021. If there are no issues, it will become a permanent ordinance with the possibility of having more licenses. In the event of the program’s termination, current participants will be grandfathered in to keep their chickens under the same guidelines of the original pilot.

School Updates

The Monroe Township school district was active as always. Here are some highlights from the 2018-19 school year as well as the first half of the 2019-20 school year.

Holly Glen Elementary School

Holly Glen dominated headlines in 2018, and that trend flowed into 2019, too. At the first meeting of the new year, Superintendent Richard Perry picked up where he left off by outlining the board’s plan for Holly Glen.

The board approved Federici & Akin, an engineering firm, to go out to bid for the Holly Glen site, an exterior envelope project using capital outlay funds and capital reserve funds.

“We go out to bid tomorrow,” he said. “Close the bid in three weeks, start the work in March with the envelope needs, at the same time address the mechanical issues. A few months after that, bring back All Risk to start cleaning.”

At the following meeting, a contract was awarded for the first two phases of the Holly Glen project. Dandrea Construction, Inc. won the bid with a base bid of $1,00,529, and alternate number one of $260,000, alternate number two of $40,000 and alternate number three of $230,000, for a total bid of $1,829,000.

“We identified what the causes were in regard to the Holly Glen mold issues,” Perry said. “We broke it down into three phases: We gave tier one that deals with building envelope, roofing and exterior drainage needs. Tier two deals with underground drainage and site needs. Tier three is coming, which deals with mechanical issues, creating a positive airflow in the building, reversing the negative airflow in which moisture was created in the building.”

At the June 27 BOE meeting, Perry said “it will be on time” when pressed about the opening of Holly Glen Elementary School.

The next update came at the July 18 meeting, when Perry said the rooms were being painted and the floors were waxed in an effort to open in September. From there, the school could earn a continuance of a certificate of occupancy, then the staff will be allowed back in the classrooms to prepare for the upcoming year. 

Board Vice President Jeff Simpler questioned the application process for the CCO, district facilities manager Butch Berglund said the process is short enough that they can receive the certification before the school year. Simpler reminded Berglund they only have six weeks.

At the Aug. 15 meeting, the board introduced a certified industrial hygienist, Dr. Richard Lynch, who reported no concern with the building.

The doors opened in September as planned. At the Sept. 19 meeting, an update was given by Mary Lee Morinelli, a representative from Coastal Environmental. Morinelli said she has been in Holly Glen six times since February and recent;y sampled seven complaint areas.

“We’ve been doing testing, air sampling all this time,” she said. “The only time we had any elevated levels was before the school was worked on, before we had remediation. Every time I’ve tested, it’s been very low and below outdoor limits. In my eyes, there’s no big concern left. Obviously, we’ll investigate any concerns anyone has, but every time we test, it’s been coming up perfectly acceptable.”

Lynch, the aforementioned certified industrial hygienist, added, “I do like to see the condition it’s in right now with the use of operable windows. That was widespread throughout the building, which is a good thing.”

As it stands at the end of 2019, the issues at Holly Glen have been put to bed.

School taxes

The Monroe Township Board of Education passed the 2019-2020 budget at its meeting on May 2. 

A 2 percent tax levy was agreed upon by the board. The average homeowner with a house assessed at $203,000 would see a school tax increase of $77 over the course of one year, or just under $6 per month.

Almost 40 percent of the budget goes to funding teachers and staff in the form of salaries; close to 17 percent goes to benefits; special education receives 9.5 percent of the budget; and transportation receives almost 9 percent. Just over 8 percent goes to plant services; 8 percent goes to programs; tuition accounts for almost 5.5 percent; capital outlay is more than 2 percent. Extracurricular activities and the capital reserve combine for less than 1 percent.

Quite possibly the most important part of the budget was replenishing the capital reserve and capital outlay accounts to restock some of the funds lost from the Holly Glen mold remediation. The board also created a maintenance reserve account, which is essentially a savings account for future projects.

MTEA Contract

The teachers in the Monroe Township school district worked without a contract for an entire school year. That changed after a special board of education meeting held on June 13 to recommend a memorandum of agreement between the board and the Monroe Township Education Association from July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2021. The terms of the contract were not disclosed at the meeting.

“It’s nice to feel validated finally by our school board and our district administrators,” negotiations chairperson of the MTEA Stacy Zentz said. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been working without a contract since July 1, 2018, so I’m glad to see that we were able to get it done.”

“Hopefully, moving forward, we can have similar resolutions with all the bargaining units,” Perry said. “I know working collegially with people, having support, it really benefits the school district and ultimately the students. That’s why we’re here. I think if we keep that in mind, things tend to work out.”

Radix Elementary School

Radix Elementary School hadn’t been a National Blue Ribbon School for one minute when Principal Jill DelConte made a school-wide decree to meet in the all purpose room for an important announcement. That she wanted to share the good news with everyone from the faculty to staff, students, support staff and paraprofessionals speaks volumes to the type of school culture developed at Radix.

The National Blue Ribbon School Program was founded in 1982 by the U.S. Department of Education to recognize public and private elementary, middle and high schools based on overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups, according to the department’s website. This year, 362 schools nationwide received the honor.

“It’s certainly wonderful, but I have to say the credit goes to the staff,” DelConte said of the new feather in Radix’s cap. “They continued work that’s been done for years. Hopefully I helped them focus on their mission and make sure our kids have the best potential for success.”

While DelConte believes there is room for improvement, specifically in some testing areas, she is living in the moment and enjoying the recognition.

“I’m so proud to be part of this school community, it’s very humbling to have a little stake in it,” she said. “Part of the application has us reflect on parents and the community at large. We have a very active and supportive PTA and group of parent volunteers, for which without their help, we wouldn’t be the school community we are either. It really is an award for all stakeholders. I’m so proud of the work everybody has done – it’s all for our kids. I’m just tickled by the fact we’re being recognized. I knew what was happening here. Now the world can know what a great school we are.”

Fresh faces

Monroe Township had its fair share of turnover in important areas this year. Here we look at two of the new dignitaries about town.

James DeHart

James DeHart was sworn in as the new Monroe Township Chief of Police earlier this year when former Chief John McKeown retired. DeHart is a tried and true product of Williamstown. He went through the public school system where he met his wife, Beth. The two graduated from Williamstown High School in 1990. Beth, like her husband, works in the community she calls home as an employee of the school district. The two have a son, LJ. Like his father, LJ is a first responder – he works as a full-time fireman at the Atlantic City Airport.

In 1993, DeHart was hired as a dispatcher and court bailiff in Monroe Township and he’s been here ever since. Getting into law enforcement is in his blood – his father is a retired lieutenant in the State Police, while his uncle is a retired sergeant in Glassboro.

Before being sworn in as chief, DeHart previously held the rank of lieutenant, where he was the emergency management coordinator.

“There’s a lot of pride for this community for me. Playing sports here, it’s just my home. It’s where I want to be,” he said. “I was excited for the opportunity. I’m dedicated to making this town vetter, dedicated to running this police department to the best of our ability.”

Angelo DeStefano

DeStefano was named the new principal at Williamstown High School this past summer. He is a 17-year veteran of the educational world, with ventures in math education and counseling, as well as stints as director of guidance, assistant principal and a one-time principal. He brings a fresh approach to the role of principal at WHS.

DeStefano stressed he doesn’t have an ego and wishes to remove as many obstacles as he can.

“My job as a leader is to remove obstacles and let the smart people I’m working with flourish,” he added.

As a family man who cherishes his bond with those who share his last name as well as accepting neighborhood kids as adopted family, he is ready to embrace his new family – the Williamstown Braves family.

“I’m hoping to be a lifer here,” he said.

Elections

There were two big local elections in Monroe Township this year. In the race for three seats on the board of education Jennifer Lewis-Gallagher, Jeff Simpler and Mike D’Andrea defeated Tiffany Grandison, James Henderson, Theresa Terzian, Summer Merakian and Joseph Rumpf. In the race for the open Ward 2 council seat, Cody Miller edged Jay Reed.