Parks and Exasperation, Part 1- What Might Have Been

March 3, 2020

March 2020 Chairwoman’s Update

This Spring, thousands of Westfield children will suit up to play baseball, soccer, lacrosse, and a variety of other outdoor sports.  Sadly, they will continue to have inadequate Town fields on which to play.

More than two years into its tenure, Mayor Brindle’s administration has not added a single square inch of new athletic field in Town for the benefit of our children and other residents.  It did not have to be this way.

When Mayor Brindle took office, the Town had already invested $80,000 to develop an improvement plan for Tamaques Park. That plan, which can be accessed at http://www.goleader.com/news/docs/2018-Westfield-Tamaques-Park-Plan.pdf, included among other things a new, lighted turf field that would be pre-lined for multiple sports; a new and expanded fieldhouse that would provide storage for flag football and other sports, a second floor community room and wrestling room, new restrooms, and a concession stand; and 60 additional parking spaces to improve safety in the park and relieve the burden on neighboring streets.

Participating in the process that produced the Tamaques Park improvement plan were the Westfield RecreationCommission; representatives of flag football and wrestling; coaches from our soccer, lacrosse, softball and baseball leagues;and Mayor Skibitsky and the then members of the Town Council.  Given the anticipated heavy usage, a turf field with lights was critical to providing all young athletes with the necessary extended playing time and playing season.

By August 2017, the plan had been fully designed and vetted by stakeholders.  The parties were not only discussing details about the new field and building, but also discussing the coordination of team schedules for the use of other Town fieldsduring construction.  The anticipated timing was for project approval by the Mayor and Council in early 2018, with shovels in the ground that Summer and Fall, and completion in Spring or Summer 2019 – as in last year.  Then came the November 2017 election.

Less than 60 days after taking office, in a February 24, 2018 email to the Recreation Commission, Mayor Brindleunilaterally cancelled the Tamaques Park project in its entirety.  Town Council members were not forewarned about the decision, nor were their opinions sought; indeed, there was no public vote taken.  The Mayor simply pulled the plug.  In her words, she decided to “delay” the planned renovations so that she could include the initiative in a “5 to 20 year vision” for all Westfield parks.  That vision remains wholly unfulfilled, a distant mirage.

We need fields now, and we should already have a lighted, turf one in Tamaques Park for use by multiple sports.  Our children may one day be able to see Mayor Brindle’s new fields — after they graduate from college.  Perhaps their children willbe able to play on them.  Mayor Brindle’s short-sightedness has left our youth with new fields only in their dreams.  If you too are disappointed, let the Mayor know at [email protected]

Next time: Part 2 – The Mayor’s illusory, and expensive, parks plan.


January 2020- Response to the Mayor’s State of the Town Address

In her State of the Town message last week, the mayor touted Westfield’s many qualities and shared her roadmap for how our town can continue to thrive in the future while overcoming challenges endemic to many New Jersey communities: downtown development; budget management; and infrastructure maintenance and improvement.  These challenges are not new and were, in fact, the focus of her campaign back in 2017.  Now, two years into her administration, it’s reasonable for residents to begin to evaluate the mayor’s strategy in addressing these long-term challenges and to expect some progress.  The State of the Town message provided a glowing report card, but the reality is that aside from additional, redundant studies, little progress has been made on the issues that matter most to Westfield residents.

Most would agree that revitalizing the downtown is a top concern, and, in fairness to the mayor, it is not something that can be resolved quickly.  We are in the midst of an economic realignment that challenges the business model of brick and mortar retail stores in an increasingly online marketplace.  But after two years, it’s fair to ask, when is it time to move past studies and reliance on a revised Master Plan, and when is it time to implement new policy and see results?  The State of the Town speech mentions that 23 new businesses have opened over the past two years. While that statistic is true, it doesn’t paint the full picture of what has been a decidedly disappointing effort so far by the mayor to turn around the downtown.  Yes, new stores have opened, but many were planned and approved under the previous administration.  In addition, the vacancy rate is worse than it was. Recent vacancies include high-profile retailers such as Teresa’s, Lucky Brand Jeans, Vine Ripe, Victoria’s Secret, and, of course, the Rialto.  In April 2017, a downtown task force report was developed that contained dozens of recommendations for how to revitalize the downtown.  Unfortunately, the mayor decided to ignore these recommendations in favor of yet more studies contained in the revised Master Plan.  Westfield residents deserve an honest assessment of progress made in the downtown.  It’s fine to highlight the positives, but the truth is that the downtown business environment has not materially improved, we have over 20 vacant stores at the time of this writing, and it’s time to move past the planning phase and implement the kind of initiatives that will turn our vacancy rate around.

The mayor also touted a budget that included a zero percent municipal tax increase, a healthy $9.5 million surplus and record 20-mile road re-pavement plan.  Of course, every taxpayer is going to be happy to see their municipal tax rate hold steady (which does not include the county and school tax), as long as they understand that it wasn’t achieved by any budget belt-tightening.  In fact, the budget has increased 10% in the past 2 years.  And this increased spending wasn’t attained by any substantial increase in tax ratables.  It was achieved by a steady degradation of the municipal budget surplus over two years from approximately $14.5 million to the current $9.5 million.   Over time, a lower surplus can impact our credit rating, increase bond costs and limit our ability to respond to economic downturns or local challenges like Hurricane Irene or Super Storm Sandy.  While FEMA did reimburse many Irene or Sandy-related costs, those weather events did lead the town to invest in improved police vehicles, such as SUVs, which were better equipped to navigate through storm-damaged areas.  The town also installed generators on public buildings to build power redundancy in case of outages.  A healthy surplus gives the town the flexibility to make those investments when needed.  When combining a smaller surplus with a budget that is actually growing year to year, we’re in danger of putting our town budget in unnecessary risk should the trend continue. 

It is certainly the mayor’s prerogative to follow her own fiscal philosophy.  We just believe it’s important that taxpayers understand the potential consequences of the town’s budgetary policy and ask the mayor to be more transparent about the decisions she makes and the accomplishes she highlights.  For example, she noted in her speech that 20 miles of roads were repaved this year, which every resident would agree is a welcome achievement.  However, she failed to credit Elizabethtown Gas for repaving half of those roads through their gas line replacement program. 

With regard to town parks and playing fields, the mayor seems to be following the same strategy she is pursuing in the downtown: disregard thoroughly considered, well-vetted plans to improve parks and fields and commence a new round of studies that serve only to delay much needed improvements.  The previous administration developed a Tamaques Park improvement plan that included a multi-use, lighted turf field along with an additional 100 parking spaces.  Unfortunately, she chose to discard it in February 2018, and there has not been a single improvement on any field or on any court in the past two years.  Meanwhile, in 2016 and 2017, the town was able to refurbish the tennis courts in Tamaques, the softball field in Memorial Park and the playground in Mindowaskin Park.  It’s well past time that in 2020 the mayor puts plans into action so that our children and families have the fields they deserve.