2021 Mayor's Annual Message

File Jan 09, 10 20 49 AM

2021 BOROUGH OF MADISON ANNUAL MESSAGE
FROM MAYOR ROBERT H. CONLEY

Thank you to Monsignor George Hundt for the invocation. And Father George, I want to thank you for all of your support in our community during this difficult year, from your work with the St. Vincent’s congregation, to your work with Tri-Town Cares to the donation of the Waverly Christmas Tree giving joy to so many.  You have been at Madison’s side all year.

And thank you Jessica Vogel, the daughter of Borough Engineer Bob Vogel for the opening music and the beautiful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Welcome all who are joining us virtually. I want to thank Governor Phil Murphy, Congresswoman Mike Sherril, and Governor Codey for sending their well wishes and our good friends Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey for joining us today. I appreciate all of you for taking time today to witness the oath of office being given to John Hoover and Bob Landrigan, who returns to the Council. And we will be saying thank you to Carmela Vitale, having served an amazing five terms over 18 years. 

So Thursday at midnight we said good riddance to 2020, the year that started with wildfires in Australia and the news of a spreading pneumonia-type virus in Wuhan, China. We were quickly into a worldwide pandemic, changing the way we would live, and devastating the economy, with so many of us losing friends and family. 

We were then faced with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor reminding us that it is long overdue for our country to address social injustice. Added on top of this was a national election, which no matter your affiliation caused added stress in a difficult time.

When the horn on this building sounded at the stroke of 12 on New Year’s Eve, we were so ready to say goodbye to 2020 and to start the great new life that 2021 would bring. And then, when we woke up yesterday morning; it hit us that this is not how it works.I’m sorry to be the one to say that the new year is nothing more than an arbitrary point in time. In fact, a New Year was celebrated 24 times, every hour on the hour, so how special can it be? 

Now that I have probably ruined your day, let me tell you what the new year is really about. It is time to look back on the last 12 months to celebrate our successes and to learn from our shortcomings. It is not the time to erase 366 days (leap year just rubbed the tough year in our faces) but it is time to take our lessons and work towards a better 2021 and future years.

Let us look back on a year that we want to forget and remember what we did well. As we already heard from Congresswoman Sherrill, Madison rose to the challenge. It is during these difficult times that our residents step forward with innovation and generosity. Here are a few examples:

  • FLAG - Front Line Appreciation Group with Chatham providing meals for workers while supporting local restaurants;
  • An anonymous donor supporting weekend meals for the 100 families in the school food program;
  • Food drives and distributions conducted by the First Baptist Church and Wind in the Spirit;
  • The Madison Eagle Christmas Fund with a record year of fundraising through generous donors;
  • The Madison Main Street Foundation Small Business grant program, raising nearly $200,000 and distributing 54 grants. $50,000 came through the Foundation from the work of the Downtown Development Commission. While there was no Bottle Hill Day in 2020, previous years’ and other events supported this effort;
  • Front Line Sewing Angels, another multi-town effort that received national attention as volunteers sewed masks to cover the early shortfall in PPE;
  • The volunteers of the Madison Ambulance Corps; who during normal years put in so many hours as our first responders, the risk of the pandemic did nothing but strengthen their dedication;
  • Residents gathered peacefully to bring attention to racial injustice;
  • The innovation of BoxCar, who created a weekly contact-free food sale, provided the mechanism for distributing food to those in need and brought us drive-in movies;
  • The Madison Housing Authority celebrated its 50th anniversary, a legacy of providing affordable, quality housing. We also thanked Lou Riccio on retirement and his 45 years of leadership;
  • Our Police keeping us safe throughout difficult times, working with residents to build community and providing support for rallies;
  • Our firefighters, who were praised by the homeowners after a major house fire for their efforts on not only saving the structure but doing everything possible to help the family during and after the disaster;
  • And the Fire and Police Department together, for reaching out to Santa and working with the Toto family, creating Operation Santa, saving a great Christmas tradition. And it’s a must see if you haven’t watched the video produced by Madison resident Paul Morgan.

Those are just a few of the examples of what we can do during difficult times. Let us not forget what the Borough government was able to do in 2020.

In reference to our electric department, I have often said it is the work done quietly on the sunny days that prepares us for the storms. That is also true with working through a pandemic. 

Over the past few years we created two new positions in the Borough, one was the Director of Business Development and the other was Communications Coordinator. Both were very important positions at the time but were invaluable in 2020. Director of Business Development, Lisa Ellis managed the small business grant program, provided vital information to our businesses and not to be missed was able to help fill store fronts during a pandemic. 

Communication Coordinator, Michael Pellessier pushed out vital information to all our residents and produced my weekly messages earlier in 2020. He also became our Zoom guru, quickly getting up to speed on the technology so we could have virtual public meetings in the safest possible way. As I speak he is managing this meeting while in the State of Washington. All this work was recognized state-wide. Madison performed so well that I should mention each and every employee but that is not possible but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two more people. Marlene Dolan, our Public Health Nurse, our Dr. Fauci. From the start of the pandemic to now she has been putting in endless hours leading the contact tracing, providing vital information and staying on top of the latest trends. Marlene was supported by our full time volunteer, Board of Health President Eric Range. Eric could be found everyday at the Health Department doing whatever was needed to support the cause.

2020 also began with the annual budget process and the discussion around surplus levels. It is this surplus from the sound fiscal management of this and previous Councils with the guidance of CFO Jim Burnet that has put Madison in a position to weather the storms. The proposed tax increase was cut in half and targeted electric rebates were provided to residents who lost income and businesses that had to survive the shutdowns. 

Just as neighbors helped neighbors, Madison did the same. Recognizing that the pandemic was not just a threat to our physical health; the shutdowns, job loss and isolation in the first half of the year was creating mental health issues. I pulled together a group of mental health professionals, clergy, and community leaders from Madison and the Chathams to address this growing issue. The group evolved into Tri-Town Cares, and continues to meet to address mental health issues not only related to COVID-19 but also racial injustice, election-related stress and now the holidays when we couldn’t be with friends and family.

We also helped our neighbors recover from Isaias. For the most part, unless you lived on Maple Ave, the storm was a minor inconvenience in Madison.  This was not the case for the neighboring towns. Our electric crews working with JCP&L, helped restore power in Morris Township, Florham Park, Chatham Township and Chatham Borough. This effort not only helped speed their recovery but enhances our ability to partner with our neighbors on future endeavors.

Alright, I won’t argue with you if you want to call 2020 the year from hell, but hopefully we go into 2021, with the knowledge that Madison is stronger than ever. There was so much last year that was out of our control but Madison excelled with what was in our control. We wear masks, avoid gatherings, keep our social distance and most of all take care of each other.

The rollout of the vaccines is a reminder that there is a light at the end of the tunnel but we are still many months away from moving towards normal, a new normal at that. To wrap up (2020 came to an end and so will my message) just a few things as we look towards the future.

While we have managed fiscally for the rainy day, the 2021 budget will be a challenge with the shortfalls from 2020, particularly with utility revenue. We must understand the office world has changed, people will return to business campuses such as the beautiful Giralda Farms, but working remotely at least part time is here to stay forever changing the office climate. Small liberal arts colleges like Drew University were under financial stress before the pandemic, 2020 just added to that stress. We will need to work with Drew so that they can come out of this stronger. 

And lastly, prior to the pandemic our downtown was probably the strongest since the pre-mall days of the 1960’s. Many creative ideas came out of the virtual innovation roundtable that I hosted with Lisa Ellis. Some of these ideas were implemented on a temporary basis and we should look at what can be permanent such as expanded outdoor dining, supporting the unified platform to promote local retail and the creation of a pedestrian mall. 

Now if it makes you feel better, go ahead and kick 2020’s butt out the door but remember it has made us stronger and ready for whatever 2021 brings us. 

Thank you all for joining online today, and thank you to all our virtual guests who shared their wishes for the new year and a special thank you to all our elected officials and volunteers who have stepped forward to serve Madison, the best place to live in New Jersey.

And to all a Happy and Healthy New Year.