East Brunswick mayor talks ‘hope and unity’ in annual State of the Township address

EAST BRUNSWICK–With the year 2020 in the rearview mirror, Mayor Brad Cohen updated East Brunswick residents about the status of the municipality in his annual State of the Township address.

“I do not think that it a stretch to say that 2020, for most of us living through a pandemic and the massive toll it has taken on our health, economy, way of life, has been an annus horribilis [disaster],” Cohen said during his Feb. 22 address. “We should be encouraged by the fact that after every storm comes a rainbow. … With the advent of vaccines and modern science, I believe that we have every reason to be hopeful. With that, we here in East Brunswick must reconcile the year 2020 and look to our future with hope and vigor.”

With that as a backdrop, Cohen updated residents about the township’s departments, financial status, redevelopment projects, and his hopes for the new year.

Despite the pandemic, Cohen said the Parks and Recreation Department managed to put on 337 traditional and new programs in a virtual format.

Cohen said the department hosted its COVID-19 information center, providing information on local restaurants, with links for menus and takeout; links for business support; healthcare links for medical information and testing sites; and up-to-date executive orders.

“Despite our efforts at normalcy, the fact remains that revenue for the department was down due to the fact that many of our traditional in-person programs had to be cancelled. With that also comes a decrease in corporate sponsorships,” Cohen said.

Having to close some of the township’s sport programs and day camps this summer, Cohen said the township did open Crystal Springs Water Park, while most other swim clubs in nearby towns were closed.

“Due to the limits on attendance and the costs to provide COVID-19 personal protective equipment and ticketing systems, revenue was down for 2020. The $380,000 loss represents a 78% decrease from 2019,” Cohen said. “Thankfully the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has allowed townships to write this loss, along with parking utility losses, off over a five-year period.”

Cohen said the Youth Council logged in a record number of hours and saw an increase in membership.

The Shade Tree program planted and root pruned 200 trees, mostly as a result of [Superstorm] Isaias in August.

“We anxiously look to 2021 as a year to return to normal and a return of many of the programs that drew East Brunswick residents together as a community,” Cohen said.

Fortunately, Cohen said construction was considered an essential service during the pandemic and the Department of Planning/Engineering/Construction continued to work even during the lockdown.

Working under restrictions, Cohen said the department still achieved significant milestones that included:

  • A record-breaking 39 roads were repaved and repaired, equating to over 9 miles of township roads. This came at a cost of $4.2 million. This level of investment had not been made in decades;
  • A large section of Old Stage Road was repaired and repaved with county assistance and PSEG commitment;
  • The bike lane project continued with lanes added to parts of Cranbury Road and Rues Lane;
  • Security and COVID-19 upgrades were applied to all municipal buildings; and
  • Starting improvements at the Harts Lane Department of Public Works (DPW) site prepared for the entire Department of Planning/Engineering/Construction to move to the second floor sometime this year.

Cohen said the economy has caused a slowdown in the market and a reallocation of projects. Projects lined up for 2021 include:

  • Road repair and repaving on Riva Road; possible start on Fern, Edgeboro Road and 25-30 township roads;
  • New light on Church Road/Fresh Ponds Road;
  • Move of the department to Harts Lane;
  • Fried site, new park;
  • Seeking to achieve silver Sustainable New Jersey’s silver status;
  • Master plan re-examination; and
  • Site/architectural plans for ice rink at 110 Tices Lane township parcel.

With the Department On Aging and Senior Center being the first to close and probably the last to reopen, Cohen said the township has not forgotten about its seniors, as the department simply needed to figure out other ways to keep them engaged and involved.

“The center did manage to sign up 60 new members during the year. There were many virtual programs for those with internet and technology skills. Many programs were taped and played on EBTV for those who preferred that medium,” Cohen said. “There were 11,000 Meals on Wheels delivered in 2020, the highest in the program’s history. There were 19,000 social service contacts during 2020, compared to 600 the year before, responding to the overwhelming needs during the pandemic.”

One project on the horizon, Cohen said, is a new name for the Senior Center, since the facility is simply too vibrant, innovative, lively and spirited to be strapped with the name “senior center,” he said.

Cohen said the DPW has added several services, one of which is the demolition of the former David’s Bridal and other properties at the township-owned area at the corner of Ruth Street and Route 18 south.

One significant accomplishment the Water and Sewer Utility has achieved, Cohen said, involves the new aeration systems placed in the township’s sewer collection systems, which has caused a significant decrease in fats, oils and grease. As a result, biochemical oxygen demand and suspended solid loading was reduced below historical estimates. As a result, the township utility saved over $100,000 in treatment costs, the mayor said.

“2020 was a year where we learned how important it is to stay connected and informed. EBTV played a critical role in keeping the community updated in the ever-changing world of the pandemic. Information was provided on the TV station along with YouTube and Facebook Live formats,” Cohen said. “In addition to the regularly scheduled programming, this past year included my regular COVID-19 updates, census information, virtual Parks/Rec programs, 2020 election debates, Human Relations Council programs addressing the Black Lives Matter/social injustice issues over the summer, as well as their Coffee and Conversation series.”

While so many things changed as a result of the pandemic, Cohen said one thing that remained constant is the high quality of the Department of Public Safety.

“I am going to save most of my comments on finance for the introduction of the budget scheduled a few weeks from now,” Cohen said. “Suffice to say that the economic fallout of the pandemic has left most townships in the state and the nation in a financial straight jacket with dwindling revenues.”

Cohen said the Finance Office spent countless hours this year trying to capture CARES Act money approved in the first federal financial package this past spring. This act only provided for COVID-19 related expenses, not lost revenue. Fortunately, the township has been able to capture $1.8 million in expenses for the township with another $800,000 expected in 2021, Cohen said.

“When it comes to debt, the public should be aware that due to our credit rating, we are able to borrow at historical low interest rates. The largest portion of our township debt comes from the BOE and fire districts,” Cohen said.

When considering township debt only, Cohen said the annual debt ratio, which is the township debt as a percentage of the equalized valuation of real property averaged over the past three years, is 0.563%. This is an enviably low ratio, he said.

“I trust that this in-depth look at the year 2020 will serve as an example of how we, as a community, rose to the biggest challenge in a century and acted with compassion, purpose and fairness,” Cohen said. “The challenges are not over but I believe that with vaccines, science, and a strong sense of community we have the greatest gift: hope.”

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.