It's February 29, 2012 Leap day, and 2011 was certainly an interesting year. We had a major snowstorm early in the year. We had Hurricane Irene later in the year. And finally, the longest storm we had come to a conclusion in December: the yearlong mayoral election. For those of you who may have missed it, the appellate court ruled three to nothing that I won the election. Remember that each vote, your vote, does count. But even with the election hanging over my head, I and my very capable staff of workers, volunteers, and elected officials were able to accomplish quite a bit. Some of it was major but much of it consisted of the little things which enhance the quality of life and which help to make a difference in the everyday lives of people, sometimes in very subtle ways. Part of that quality of life is having a city council who works very hard to do what they believe is right. We don't always agree on things but that allows for other ideas to be brought out. (Recognize council members: Joe Connors (pres and at-large), Mark Noble
(vp and 2nd ward), Mickey Gross (at-large), Don Applegate (1st ward), and Bill Schwark (3rd ward).
We are happy to have with us: Freeholders... Assemblymen ...I would also like to recognize Superintendent of Schools Mr. Robert Sheedy and Board President Cindy Zammitt. I thank them for the fine job they do. We have a very dedicated staff which last year helped 82% of our seniors get accepted to colleges. And this year we are very proud that one of our seniors, Tyler Simko, was accepted to Princeton, an Ivy League school. On the down side, if you listen to one of the Republican candidates for President, we must be raising a bunch of snobs! We also have students participating in the TV quiz show MSG Varsity Challenge having advanced to the second round which is going on today. We may be a small school but we do great things.
Getting information out to the citizens is very important. To this end we have upgraded the South Amboy website. The format and appearance have changed for the better. Our business administrator, Camille Tooker, and I now have the ability to input information instead of going to a third party. This allows us to quickly get information about events and updates on the site and once the conversion is complete out website will give residents additional information and user friendly access points, such as the ability to pay your taxes and sewer bill on line, a service which is currently available. The same can be said for our cable TV access channel. We have also upgraded our phone system at city hall to better serve our residents. These improvements are just the beginning as we all get more involved in the changing technology of the 21 st century.
With the price of gasoline going up it is important that we get people from one place to another in a more cost effective manner. This past year Middlesex County Area Transportation Program began services that could take a South Amboy resident either across town or across the county. This reduces road congestion and air pollution and is a very convenient service and at the cost of .50 for seniors and $1 it is very affordable. For that price you could go all the way to East Brunswick Mall. I would like to thank Freeholder James Polos, former chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee and State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee for their insight in implementing this valuable program.
The South Amboy Sadie Pope Dowdell Library, under Director Elaine Gaber and Cathy Charmello, President of the Board of Trustees, continues to serve the many different segments of our community. They have purchased online software to provide assistance with SAT, AP, GED and citizenship tests. They continue to offer great programming for all no matter what your age and in these difficult fiscal times they have taken great strides to enhance the library. As they say, it isn't just books anymore.
During the year the city has celebrated in a number of different ways and added a few new ones. We had our great St. Patrick's Day parade and will have it again on March loth. I wish to congratulate Rob McQuade on being named the Grand Marshal. I have been informed that we will have more bands and more groups marching than ever before. It keeps getting better and better every year and I wish to thank the organizers of this event
especially Councilman Mickey Gross who takes great pride in this each year.
In April we had a two-day event which highlighted the Raritan River Rail Road. Its goal was to help raise money to move the last standing station to a new site. To this end they set up model trains of various scales, had a film showing, along with other railroad exhibits and pictures, many of which were of South Amboy from years past. South Amboy was the starting point for the railroad which at one time had passenger and freight cars which went all the way to New Brunswick. Personally, I was fortunate to have worked on the Raritan River RR as a summer job while in college and gained first hand experiences of how the railroad operated. South Amboy is rich in railroad history and having this type of exhibit is one way to keep those memories alive and give our younger generations a glimpse into South Amboy's railroad history. We hope to have other exhibits like this in the future.
This exhibit also helped to kick off the revival of the Historical Society of South Amboy. As a history teacher and life-long resident this was one of my pet projects. With the help of Elaine Gaber of the library we were able to rejuvenate an interest in local history and the organization has gotten off to a great start. At this time the society has over 30 active members and is growing. With Mary Szaro as its president, the society has had a presentation on family trees and has applied to the county for plaques which will commemorate the Camden-Amboy Railroad and the 1950 explosion. These plaques will be erected at places where they can be read and people can appreciate some of South Amboy's rich history. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, they are also researching and compiling a list of South Amboy residents who fought bravely in that war. It's a great pastime for anyone who wants to get involved.
In October we had our Artfest and Street Fair which helped to show off some of South Amboy's talent in music and art. There was food and displays of all types and a dunk tank. Thank you former Mayor Jack O'Leary, Councilman Mickey Gross, and teacher Tony Gonsalves for offering themselves as the "dunkees". They helped to raise a lot of money for the library. I would also like to thank Joan Conway, Barbara Tobin, and Tom Tice for their tireless efforts in organizing this event. There were many fine art exhibits from our community and we hope that others will participate in the future. We could also use some more volunteers for this as the plans are forming for the 2012 fest as we speak. If you are interested, please get in touch with Camille at city hall.
At Christmas time, in addition to our tree lighting and Santa night festivities we brought back the Home Decorating contest and we had a total of 32 entries. We also offered a Trolley tour of the decorated homes and the response was incredible. Over 180 people signed up for the tour of South Amboy and we had to add two additional trips through the city and also had to use our new senior bus to accommodate the extra people. Showing off our city and the pride people have in their homes was a great thrill for all. And it is alright to keep your Christmas decorations up just a bit after the holiday is over. I guess we should know, right Linda?
It is also my pleasure at this time to announce that through the cooperation and collaboration with the city of Perth Amboy we will be putting on a fireworks display this summer on Raritan Bay. The cost of this display will be totally funded through the donations of sponsors and not the taxpayers! Besides celebrating the Fourth of July and the birth of our great United States, South Amboy will be celebrating the looth anniversary of the first air mail flight which left from South Amboy and landed in Perth Amboy. Through the efforts of the library, you can read firsthand accounts such as that event in The South Amboy Citizen which ha4 been digitized. And Perth Amboy will be celebrating the 250th year anniversary of the Proprietary House, the last Royal Governors Mansion, and the lOOth anniversary of the Perth Amboy YMCA. At this time I would like to recognize and thank Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz for the cooperation which we have had between our two great cities.
It is programs like these that help make people proud of their community and proud to get involved.
There are other areas in which we have improved the quality of life in South Amboy. Right here at the Community YMCA center we created a slope stabilization on the side of the building where it always washed out in heavy rains; we built a retaining wall in the rear of the building to stop erosion; we added rear sidewalks; we have retro fittln the front doors so that they open automatically; and we are in the process of adding a bathroom right next to this room to make it more convenient for all. We added benches on Broadway, changed some of the parking patterns to alleviate safety issues and help businesses, and spruced up the planters. I would like to thank Theresa Hoeverman and the Garden Club for their efforts with the Broadway planters and the flowers around the South
Amboy welcome signs and the Allie Clark sports complex. With Spring just
around the corner we will be looking for a few more volunteers-and you
don't need a green thumb. They will teach you what you don't know.
Our road improvement program continued with improvements to 10 city streets: Gordon, Thomas, Stockton, Augusta, Fourth, Wilmont, Ferris, Mason, Catherine, and George Streets all were repaired. We have had to repair old infrastructure sanitary sewers on South Pine, Broadway, Potter, John, Church, David Streets and the Second Street Alley and drainage repairs on First Street and City Hall.
We have upgraded the electrical systems at the five firehouses and city hall and replaced some of the HVAC systems though the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant. Through another grant we were able to get our fire department a washer and dryer for the turn out gear so they won't have to be sent out for cleaning. The Progressive fire house roof was replaced and the Enterprise fire house was converted from oil to gas heat.
Improvements were made to Veterans Field, Russ StillwagoniMagniminity Park, and a retaining wall was replaced at Sixth Street Park. This year we are applying for Green Acres grant money to rehabilitate the ball fields. In the past we refurbished all of our city parks with grant dollars and will continue to seek funds to upgrade our facilities.
As soon as weather allows we will be rehabbing the city's basketball courts by painting backboards and redoing the playing surfaces.
These improvements are not cheap and we have had, as I stated some help through grants: a $250,000 DOT grant for South Pine Avenue and Portia St.; $80,000 for lights, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; and $100,000 for the upgrade to city hall from the Middlesex County Freeholders. Middlesex Water Company spent $3.2 million in its RENEW project which lined and replaced over 17,500 feet of water mains and the cleaning and updating of meters for remote meter reading. I would like to recognize and thank Bernadette Sohler and Bruce O'Connor of Middlesex Water for their commitment to providing quality water for South Amboy.
We continue to work with the YMCA in this fantastic facility in order to better serve its membership which had now grown to 4500! There is a new branch manager, Sherrill Rudy, and they have added soccer, swim, and family programs. This is a great p lace to experience healthy living and have fun doing it.
These are all things which either added to or enhanced the quality of life for the residents of South Amboy. But we also need to look to our future and you need look no further then just outside this building. Major changes have taken place to the landscape to make way for a great development for the city. Through the Redevelopment Agency we are preparing a project which will bring to South Amboy Venetian Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center and W oodmont Properties townhomes. At this time I would like to recognize the executive director of the Agency, Eric Chubenko. It is though his tireless efforts that we are able to improve the dynamics of our city and helps stabilize our tax rate. I would also like to recognize Eric Witmondt and Stephen Santola, executive vice-president of Wood mont Properties. Through their efforts they donated this property for the Community Center, are spending millions to remediate and develop the property, are adding additional parking for the Community Center, and will build 86 townhomes. It is projects like this and developers like these people that South Amboy looks for because they only look to better the community in which they develop. Through efforts such as these South Amboy will continue to be rejuvenated. Their project is depicted here and I'm sure that they will be around if anybody has any questions for them.
In conjunction with Woodmont Properties, Venetian Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center will construct a 93,000 square foot facility. It will consist of 120 long term and 60 short-term residents. This project represents a major tax ratable for the city of South Amboy. It will also add jobs and patrons for our downtown businesses. It is my pleasure to introduce Michael Jacobs, Vice-president of Windsor Healthcare Communities. This is a major win-win for the city. Like W oodmont Properties, there are renderings of the facility for you to see.
Another major project that has been ongoing is the ferry. At this point we have advertised, received bids, and submitted all the information to the state for approval. Once we get that approval we can finish the road to the terminal site and the so-called "bridge to nowhere" will go to a place where people can once again get a ferry ride to New York. The federal Transportation Act (TEA-2l) has $13 million allocated for this project.
Projects such as these just don't happen by themselves. Much hard work, long hours of research, and many meetings are logged by several agencies. These dedicated volunteers don't get anything out of this except the satisfaction that they did right by the citizens of South Amboy. Projects must go through the Redevelopment Agency which is headed by our Executive Director, Eric Chubenko, and Chairman, Kevin Mezzaros. They go through the Planning Board which is chaired by Mike Wilday. And then for final approval by the city council, which is headed by Council President, Joe Connors. After all of that they must still be approved by state agencies. These leaders, along with all of the members of the agencies, work very hard for you. They take great pride in their jobs and I thank them for their dedicated service to the city.
During the year, as we always do, we honored the police, fire, and first aid departments through their various memorials. On Memorial Day we remember our veterans with a parade and try to keep their memories alive with a series of photos of those veterans which are placed in storefronts along Broadway. I would like to thank Tony Gonsalves and the South Amboy History Club for the work they do in this area. We welcome any additional photos or information because our history and contributions to the war efforts is so important. We must remember from where we came, so we have some insight as to where we are going.
This past year also marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Our country lost many innocent civilians that day including South Amboy resident, Gary Frank. We honored them just as the rest of the nation also did. And March 1 i h marks the 5th anniversary of the death of Sgt. First Class Benjamin Sebban who was killed defending our country in Iraq. As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day also remember to say a prayer and keep Ben in your thoughts.
This past year also saw the passing of city employees: Karen Rufus of the Senior Center, Charles Vail of the DPW and Senior Center, and Ray Niestempski, a crossing guard. We miss them and will remember them in our prayers.
Up to this point I have recognized the efforts of those who serve in our agencies and work on many projects. And now I would like to say a few words about those who do the everyday work in the city of South Amboy and keep things running as smoothly as possible.
First and foremost is Police Chief Darren LaVigne. This is a man whose organizational skills allow him to operate a very efficient police force and these skills were never more evident then when we were faced with the potential disaster that was Hurricane Irene. Along with our city OEM Coordinator, Richie Johnson, we were able to put together an emergency team and policy which helped to keep damage and problems to a minimum. The men and women of our po lice force measure up with the best in the county. I would also at this time like to congratulate Officer Patricia Kanecke. Just recently I had the honor of promoting her to the rank of sergeant-the first female sergeant in South Amboy history. And in order to allow our police force to better do its job we provided them with 4 mobile data terminals which allow them to network with Middlesex County to read license plates. Two new cruisers were added to the fleet. We upgraded software to afford officers the opportunity to file reports in the field and spend less time at the desk. We signed an agreement with Middlesex County for the donation of a taser. We upgraded the in-house computer system and purchased an evidence tracking system. And lastly, we hired a new officer, Albert Kester, who is currently in the academy and is scheduled to graduate in July.
I would also like to recognize Jerry Magee our superintendent of Public Works. He is in charge of a great work force which many times go above and beyond the call of duty. Through their various skills they have taken on special jobs, many times volunteering their time to get them completed. They are there in rain or shine working for you. And working in conjunction with the city workers is our city engineer, Mark Rasimowicz.
Mark is the person who reports to us the bad news of problems though out the city and how much it will cost us. But he also uses his expertise in coming up with solutions to solve those problems. He can be seen at most council meetings and I believe that the citizens appreciate his calm personality and his direct answers to the questions.
We all know the recession we've gone through these past few years and we still have fiscal problems we must face just like most communities and our state government. But we couldn't have made it without the many volunteers we have here in South Amboy. I first want to recognize and thank the members of the South Amboy Fire Department which is led by Fire Chief Jamie Norek. These brave people, along with the Police force and the first aid squad with Captain Christine Walzak and President Gene Cox, are the ones who answer the call of duty even if it is 3 :00 in the morning. They are the ones who put their lives on the line when many of us are asleep in our beds. They take great pride in what they do and continue to represent South Amboy to the highest degree as evidenced once again in taking first place at the annual Wildwood convention. Thank you for your, continued dedication and devotion to the residents of South Amboy and surrounding areas.
I would like to thank Mary Lou DeBlis, head of the city Rec department and the senior center. She, along with her great staff, continues to offer their services and help in making their departments run smoothly and efficiently. We added a new senior bus, we have door-to-door service, and take our seniors anywhere within a 10 mile radius. And the theater program is now under the direction of the city's rec department.
Then there are the incredible people who work at city hall. With cutbacks over the years they have been asked to do more with less and they have risen to the challenge. They are extremely helpful and polite. In the past year I have received a few letters and emails from residents thanking me for their services. They are a credit to our city. There is Terry O'Neal, head of the financial department, our CPO and one of the best in the business. Joanne Katko who is in charge of the day-to-day division of revenue and our tax collector. Kathy Vigilante, our city clerk. Actually, Kathy works for the city council but she, just like all the other workers at city hall, help each other out and go above and beyond their regular duties. As a councilman and council president for 18 years I worked with Kathy and you couldn't fine a more professional person. Even though he does not have an office here, John Lanza, our city attorney, works tirelessly for the city and makes sure that we legally do the right thing. Our Planning Board planner and Zoning official is Angelo Valeatutto. He has also prepared many redevelopment reports and we greatly rely on his expertise in these areas. And one of our most important people, especially at budget time is Gary Higgins, our municipal accountant and auditor. It never ceases to amaze me how he can analyze and explain the budget.
But the one I would really like to recognize is Linda Garnett, my secretary. I go into her office and see post-its all over her desk but I don't ask. All I know is that she does a great job of keeping my schedule in line and reminding me of where and when I should be someplace. I don't know what I would do without her.
Lastly, there is our Business Administrator, Camille Tooker. I don't know anybody who works as hard or puts in as many hours as she does. Her knowledge of the workings of South Amboy is incredible and we are very fortunate to have such a dedicated worker.
I feel very thankful to have all of these good people working for me and for the citizens of South Amboy. This is not a one person job. I am only part of a team which has been assembled over the years. And all of these people work so well together. And this is what it means to be a citizen of South Amboy. We can't solve the world's problems. So we need to focus on our little part of it: our home, our street, our city. We need to get involved and then you see things in a different light. You need to take that first step even if you don't know where it will lead. Take a chance and don't be afraid to fail. We are not perfect and we don't have all the answers but once we acknowledge that fact we can put our lives in perspective and realize that what we do now is to help the next generation lives a better life not perfect-but better. And we need to look at our community and see a vision of ourselves.
Doing the job of Mayor takes a lot of patience and a lot of support. I want to recognize at this time my mother, Ann Henry. When I first decided to run for mayor her first response was: Why do you want to do that? But now that I'm here she likes to give me more advice than I really need and now she's asking Why don't you fix that or Why don't you take care of that. But I love you anyway, Mom! My father passed away a couple of years ago but I am sure if he were here he would be enjoying the moment and I'm sure that he is enjoying it looking down on me now. And I need to recognize Lois Morriss and great and long-time friend of my mother. Two of my children could not be here: oldest daughter, Kristen is in Washington, DC. my next, Erin, is teaching in Old Bridge but my youngest Freddie was able to take time from his busy schedule to be here today. I would like to thank them for their support. I would also like to recognize my older sister, Sister Carol who also celebrated an anniversary this past year. It was 25 years ago that she opened Mercy Center in Asbury which helps to serve the poor with distributions of food, clothing, and just about anything else that they need. I would also like to recognize my younger sister, Lynn, who assists Carol in just about every way possible at Mercy Center. Together they make a great team. And then there is my brother, Sayreville Councilman, Bill Henry. I would like to thank him for giving me a different insight into so many political topics.
That leaves my wife and partner, Linda, or as some like to call her: Mrs. Mayor. Sometimes I think she knows more people than I do. But her loyalty and support have helped me though many a difficult time. And having to go to court so many times over the election, I'm up by three, then one, then two, then one again. To say the least it was a very trying experience. But I can't imagine going through it with anybody else. Thank you for being there for me. I love you.
So thank you for coming here today. May God bless you, bless our troops overseas-may they come home soon and safely. And may God bless America.
But before I end there is one last person to recognize and that is Jack O'Leary, our former mayor. His were big shoes to follow having done great things for our city. He gave many of these state of the city addresses and this is my first. I am a teacher, but I'm waiting for my grade. How did I do, Jack?