Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller delivered the following remarks at Jan. 18’s Township Council meeting, for his annual State of the Township address:
My fellow Montclair residents: It is my great privilege to speak to you this evening on the state of our township.
For nearly two years, our community, our nation and indeed the entire world have been faced with a public health crisis of a scope and severity previously unseen in our lifetimes.
When I gave this address one year ago, as vaccine distribution was beginning in earnest, it was my sincere hope that the coronavirus pandemic was coming to an end.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
Wave after wave of this insidious virus has stretched our healthcare system, our economy and our patience to the brink.
Now, once again we are forced to make difficult but necessary sacrifices to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community.
The coronavirus pandemic has left no corner of our society untouched, and Montclair is no exception.
Nearly every aspect of our daily lives has been impacted. The toll of this virus can be measured in small businesses forced to close. It can be measured in birthdays missed. In months spent apart from classmates, colleagues and loved ones. And sadly, it can be measured in lives lost.
As we know, more than 800,000 of our fellow Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus, including at least 78 Montclair residents. We join together in mourning their loss.
But, the pandemic can also be measured by the resilience of our spirit.
Throughout this ongoing crisis, Montclair has answered the call to serve.
Our local nonprofit organizations have kicked into high gear, providing more help than ever before. Our local houses of worship have extended their hands and opened their doors.
Small businesses pivoted to meet the needs of our community.
As a government, we’ve been laser-focused on bringing all available resources to bear to address the enormity of this unprecedented challenge. One of my first acts as mayor was to convene a specialized task force to focus our COVID-19 response efforts.
The task force has borne significant results for our township, including the development of a recently published directory of local non-profit organizations, and in their instrumental efforts towards securing grants, including helping to secure a more than $600,000 grant to support the work of Toni’s Kitchen.
The task force has also worked to address the impact COVID-19 has had on small businesses From the beginning, we’ve worked to support our small businesses, including providing direct municipal grants to Montclair small businesses and by lobbying the State to modify outdoor dining rules. We funded and ran a shop local campaign, and held town hall meetings on small business grants from the state and federal government, with representatives to help guide our local businesses. We waived outside permit and parking fees and more.
We are committed to continuing to work with our small businesses and our entire community to come out of this stronger on the other side. The work of the COVID-19 task force continues unabated. I am thankful to the talented team of volunteer residents for their willingness to serve.
In December, as the omicron variant began to circulate, my colleagues on the township council and I made the unanimous decision to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in our township. It is not a decision we made lightly, but faced with this highly contagious variant, this council was duty-bound to act. I’m confident this measure will mitigate the spread of the virus and protect our community.
And that is how we have governed since the start of the pandemic and how all of Montclair has responded, with a steadfast resolve to take care of one another.
That’s who we are as a community. Drawing from a deep well of generosity, and genuine concern for the wellbeing of our neighbors, our local non-profits, small businesses, houses of worship and private citizens have each, in their own way, demonstrated the very best of what Montclair is all about.
Despite facing a challenge of unprecedented proportions, the state of our township remains strong.
Montclair has not been dispirited by the challenges of the last two years. Adversity has strengthened our resolve, and our commitment to meet the needs of our residents.
One of those needs is a sustainable solution to the skyrocketing cost of renting an apartment in our township. Affordability is a challenge Montclair has struggled with for some time. It’s no secret that our community is a desirable and sought-after place to live. Our historic homes, vibrant downtown, flourishing arts scene and world-class public schools have driven housing costs to all-time highs
Increasing home values have been a hard-earned dividend in the investment many have made to live here. But we know that Montclair’s worth is derived by more than just the price of our housing stock. Left unfettered, rising rents threaten to diminish the very diversity that makes Montclair such a special place to live, work and raise a family.
I firmly believe that reasonable, common-sense rent control measures are critical to the sustainability of our community.
That’s why, alongside dedicated residents, members of the Tenants Association of Montclair and my council colleagues, I was proud to help lead the effort to help pass the very first rent control ordinance in Montclair’s history. Our victory for residents was put on hold, as enactment of the rent control ordinance has been delayed by protracted litigation.
Despite this delay, I am undeterred in my commitment to this critical issue.
I remain engaged in ongoing dialogue with all parties, and I will continue to be a strong advocate for common sense rent regulations until residents can rest assured that they will continue to be able to call Montclair their home.
One of the pieces that makes Montclair special is our downtown. Among New Jersey suburbs, Montclair’s vibrant downtown stands out as a true gem. Making sure our downtown remains the envy of surrounding communities requires thoughtful stewardship and bold vision.
This, year we saw two such examples. One newly opened, and another newly announced.
The recently opened Wellmont Arts Center and Plaza will serve as an anchor for our downtown. Centered around an open-air pedestrian plaza, the Wellmont Arts Center will energize our arts scene, provide a central location for community gatherings, and fortify Montclair’s reputation as the cultural hub of Northern New Jersey. It has already been a welcome addition to our community and will continue to enrich our township for years to come. Being part of guiding this project, from the very first drawing to the final brick placed, it is wonderful to see it already living up to the great potential we always envisioned.
Another project that is just taking shape is the Essex-Hudson Greenway. Recently approved by the state of New Jersey, the Greenway is the culmination of nearly a decade of advocacy by the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition. The Essex-Hudson Greenway will connect Montclair with Jersey City and communities to our east along a repurposed rail line that will be transformed into a miles-long park, walkway, and bike bath. This innovative repurposing will provide economic and environmental benefits and enable further improvements along its route.
And positive environmental change is important. As we know, the pandemic is not the only global crisis to hit home this year.
Failure to take meaningful action to curb climate change has resulted in an increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events.
In September, remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated our township with torrential downpours resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout our township. The damage caused by the flooding was truly devastating. For residents in some parts of our town, it is a situation they are experiencing with greater severity and far too often.
One such location, Burnside Street, has been particularly impacted. Located off Watchung Avenue, Burnside has been plagued with chronic flooding for years, but without any clear or effective solutions.
After once again experiencing flooding, and with the frustrating lack of progress in finding a remedy, I wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeking federal assistance to provide flood mitigation and relief for residents.
The USACE was quick to respond, and along with myself, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, our local engineering team, and council colleagues, a team from the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the affected area and will be submitting recommendations and potential solutions.
I thank Congresswoman Sherrill for her assistance on this critical issue impacting our township.
Montclair is fortunate to have partners in the federal government we can count on.
That federal partnership is also important as we press the federal government for more financial assistance during these challenging times. Certainly, like all other aspects of life, our municipal finances have not been immune to the impacts of the pandemic either. During my administration, and under the Jackson administration previously, we’ve taken steps to significantly reduce our municipal debt in Montclair, while simultaneously raising our bond rating and making critical investments in infrastructure.
These steps – reducing our debt by tens of millions of dollars, improving our bond rating to triple-A, and making key investments – have put Montclair on solid financial footing to weather this challenging period.
Despite our strong financial position coming into this pandemic, the reality is our township will still face some difficult choices in the near term. This year’s budget again presents unique challenges. Montclair’s revenues continue to slowly rebound but will likely fall far short of what would be expected in a normal year.
Despite facing this last year and yet again this year, we have been able to deliver budgets that still support so many of the wonderful programs, activities and services we all enjoy in Montclair, while minimizing any local tax increases. We are asking all departments to look carefully at the budget to continue to find efficiencies while providing the level and quality of services that we want to see.
It won’t be an easy process this year, but I am confident working with our municipal staff, the Council and you, our residents, we will develop a budget that works for all of us.
Financial sustainability is certainly a key to preserving the things that make Montclair special.
Through our financial management and efforts around rent control, we help to preserve our diversity. It is important, because we know that Montclair is a community that values people of all backgrounds. Our commitment to diversity and equality makes us an example to communities throughout the country.
It also makes us a target for those who do not share our values. During this past year, like in many places throughout the country, we’ve seen a disturbing trend of hate groups targeting our community.
We’ve seen a white supremacist organization target our township by affixing propaganda stickers throughout Montclair to recruit more members. This neo-fascist, antisemitic organization, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a neo-Nazi group, tries to spread their hateful views, even in Montclair. But they are the antithesis of everything for which we stand. I want to be clear: Montclair will not be intimidated.
In addition to pursuing this issue with the relevant state and federal law enforcement agencies, to help us fight back, Montclair has been awarded a $300,000 grant by the Department of Justice to establish an anti-hate community task force.
As mayor, you have my commitment to always stand up for our values, and to always stand up to anyone who would seek to undermine them. As special as we are as a community, we also acknowledge that there is always more that we can all do to combat hate, and together, we will do so.
Finally tonight, I want to take a moment to address the role that montclair plays as a leader for other communities to follow. Around the country, we’ve seen faith in our institutions and in the very support for public service erode. We’ve seen the peaceful transfer of power threatened.
The very survival of self-governance is in question. We have an opportunity in Montclair to prove that self-governance is sustainable.
It may not seem to some that one town, or one person can make a difference, but each of us matters. We have a chance to show that while we question vociferously on one hand, we also respect the institutions and processes of democracy. Our well-informed residents have never shied from voicing their opinions. Lively public discourse is as much a part of the fabric of our town as the Montclair Art Museum or Mountie football. It’s part of what I love about our community.
But here in Montclair, we have a responsibility – not just to one another but also the state and quite possibly the nation – to show what progressive government is capable of when we work together. Our township is too important, the ideals for which it stands too precious to squander. As much as we value diversity, we must also honor compassion, understanding, forgiveness and tolerance. In this stressful time, an unforgiving time, and with the backdrop of a nation whose democracy is in jeopardy, it is easy to be consumed by infighting over differences rather than uniting for a common purpose.
While that national discourse can seem hopelessly cynical and divisive, Montclair does shine a beacon for what is possible when people from all backgrounds come together for the greater good. If we can find a way to work together, and focus on solutions, municipalities throughout the state will take notice – and maybe those beyond New Jersey.
If we descend into division, and personal attacks, that too will set an example.
Leadership isn’t about talking the loudest or just taking easy positions because they are popular.
It also isn’t about looking for things to take credit on. Our challenges are significant. This moment is precarious. Leadership is about making difficult decisions, often in uncharted waters, and helping to guide us all to a better place.
We do that together.
With a unified spirit, grounded in our shared values, I know there is nothing that Montclair can’t achieve. So, to each and every one of you, I say thank you, for being such an important part of our community.
May God bless the United States of America and the Township of Montclair.
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