Santos, 4 councilmembers, re-sworn in; mayor delivers ‘State of the Town’ reorganization speech

From left, DeCastro, Konopka, Santos, Doyle and Ficeto Observer file photo

Mayor Alberto G. Santos and Councilmembers Marytrine DeCastro, Richard Konopka, Carol Jean Doyle and Gerald Ficeto were sworn-in to new, four year term on the Kearny Council Thursday, Jan. 6.

Santos delivered a stirring speech, recapping the last 22 months especially, and looking ahead to the next year.

Here’s a transcript of the mayor’s speech:

I want to thank the professionals who guide us throughout the year. And I want to thank the citizens who volunteer on our boards and committees, some of whom are joining us this evening. I look forward to continuing to work with all of you in the coming year.

The past 22 months, as we all know, have been extraordinarily challenging. Many of us have lost much to the pandemic. Know that everyone who has experienced loss — and there are many of us who have experienced loss — you are in our thoughts tonight and you’re in our prayers.

I extend my profound gratitude to our first responders in the Town of Kearny, including our police, firefighters and EMTs, and to our healthcare professionals, for sheer dedication throughout this pandemic. I want to thank our residents. I know it’s not been easy. Whether it’s staying at home or distancing, or wearing a mask, or lending a hand to neighbors in need.

But we are coming out of this pandemic stronger. I truly believe that and I want to thank our town civilian employees, who despite many obstacles, kept town hall open and our town operational throughout the pandemic. I’m very proud to work alongside with you.

As I said, the past 22 months have been challenging. But we’ve also been challenged for many years before that, and this town has always risen to the challenge. I’ve learned much about local government during my 22 years as mayor, the most important of which is that we can overcome the darkest of days, the challenges that confront us.

When community organizations, when schools, businesses, churches individual residents and yes, local government, share resources and work together.

Governing effectively at any level but governing effectively at the local level, especially, is a shared undertaking. We’ve been repeatedly challenged over the years, and we’ve repeatedly risen. When Superstorm Sandy inundated the Gunnell Oval complex, and overwhelmed Kearny, we raised our sleeves and went to work. Today we have a state-of-the-art recreational complex at the Gunnell Oval.

South Kearny has undergone a dramatic revitalization, becoming a regional hub for many small and mid-sized businesses, as well as the home for new and expanded distribution centers.

When the Great Recession resulted in a sharp drop in real estate values, and a sharp drop in tax revenues for our town, we tightened our belts on expenses and we re-examined our redevelopment plants. These efforts bore fruit and are reflected in the revitalization of those redevelopment areas, with the generation of over $2 million a year in new revenues to the town in the form of payments in lieu of taxes and in a significant increase in real estate valuations, which also increases the tax ratable base.

When we were threatened with cuts to tax sharing revenues for the Meadowlands District, we worked with our state legislators to ensure we receive full funding every year. Those efforts resulted in over $6 million a year. That’s how much we receive right now in Meadowlands tax-sharing — we receive $6 million a year to our community.

And when we were told it would be easier to move backward than it would be to close the state-operated Keagan Landfill — and when regional and state agencies turned their backs on us despite our pleas — this community rallied. We literally conducted our own measurements of toxic emissions from the landfill. We engaged in public protests. By we, I mean the community, engaged in public protests. We demanded justice in court. And we did not stop until we moved the mountain and had the landfill closed.

And in the early weeks of the pandemic, in March and in April of 2020, disorganization at the federal and state levels left municipalities on their own to fend for themselves. Our health department immediately procured protective equipment for our first responders who never stopped responding to emergency calls.

When vaccines first became available, we insisted on vaccine clinics in the Town of Kearny as early as January 2021. When food insecurity grew, citizens at the town’s food pantry worked with the Kearny Health Department and ensured that the need was met with weekly food distributions.

Our community keeps rising to the challenge. Although we are in yet another COVID wave, we have kept our vaccine vaccine clinics operating, public safety has been maintained and emergency calls have been answered. As we get closer to COVID becoming an endemic illness, instead of a pandemic illness, our health department will continue to protect public health.

Each one of us is part of that shared undertaking that has enabled Kearny to overcome these challenges. The council and I work collaboratively with citizens. Kearny is leading the way by demonstrating how government and community members working together are a positive force for change in our lives.

The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who we celebrate this month, ‘We cannot walk alone and as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead,’ we could not turn back. We will keep marching ahead in 2022. The council and I are committed to investing, continuing to invest in our town’s public safety, so that our police department continues to make Kearny one of the safest communities in the region and in the state of New Jersey and the Kearny Fire Department can timely respond to fire emergencies anywhere in the town from the tip of South Kearny to the residential areas along the Belleville Pike.

We will ensure staffing at level set forth in our tables of organization and provide the technology needed to ensure safety and to protect our officers and firefighters when they respond to calls. Will continue to enhance enhance our open spaces and recreational areas in 2022 — that means the renovation of Harvey Field, the walking path at the northern end of Riverbank Park and a new bulkhead at the crew facility.

We’ll continue to make stormwater improvements to mitigate the impact of flooding events that we‘ve seen in 2021 again and again. We plan to have a a ribbon cutting by the end of the year for a new pump station on Devon Terrace that will help a neighborhood on the eastern side of Schuyler Avenue and the revamped pump station at Harrison Avenue, which will help the Sanford Avenue neighborhood.

But we recognize all of us recognize that isn’t enough. Those pump stations are not enough. We need to increase stormwater retention throughout town. We also need to increase open pervious surfaces so that sewers do not become overwhelmed with stormwater. To meet this challenge will need to incorporate stronger stormwater measures and new development projects and in our public infrastructure.

The council and I will also not waver in our obligation to maintain property-tax affordability in Kearny. The municipal portion of the tax bill has actually decreased modestly in each of the last four years, while at the same time, we’ve grown our budget surpluses.

We can firmly say that our town is in very good financial shape. We will keep it that way.

Another priority, which is part of our shared undertaking and being collaborative, is that the council  an I will ensure that local government is responsive to citizens and functions in a transparent manner. Today, citizens are empowered with social media tools that provide instant dissemination of information and the ability to make their demands heard quickly. As I’ve stated before, the perils of social media that we read about in the national arena also affect local communities, including here in Kearny. It’s easy to exaggerate on social media. It’s easy to use a photo or video that’s not from our community to provoke a reaction as if it were here. It’s easy to write a post that, on its face appears objective, but enables responses and comments that are inaccurate or have false innuendo or are outright abusive.

Each one of us is on social media. It is part of our daily lives. Everyone here is on social media. But that also means each one of us has a responsibility not to turn our backs when abuses occur. We need to respond to inaccurate statements. We need to respond to exaggerations. We need to respond to personal attacks on anyone.

On some days it feels like it seems to be coming from everywhere and it’s hard to keep up with it. But if we work collaboratively and realize it’s a shared undertaking, we can push back against the unkindness and the incivility and against the untruths. Together we can ensure that those discussions are civil and factual.

The last priority I want to highlight is one that makes Kearny truly singular. We are community where people of different backgrounds live and work together in pursuit of their dreams. We draw strength from this diversity. As Rev. Connolly pointed out in her invocation, our town’s history is one of being inclusive and welcoming to those who want to join our community. Since our founding, Kearny has been a crossroads of cultures, traditions and faiths. We’ve been to home for countless immigrants, including my own family and including me.

We are all very proud of that history. But we need to ensure all residents have a voice, that all residents are treated fairly, from the newest immigrants to the families that have resided here for generations. I know that’s a shared commitment of all members of the council.

I’m incredibly honored to serve this community. Each day of the past 22 years and each day of the past challenging 22 months, I’m proud to call Kearny home. To be part of a community that’s known for its perseverance, its hope, its compassion.

I know that through our shared commitment to our citizens of the town and through our hard work, we will continue to march forward. We will march forward and will overcome our challenges. We’ll continue to make our town a better place.

It’s a tremendous honor to be here with you again today, even in the virtual world that we now live in. I look forward to working with each of you this year. And I offer each member of our community the best wishes for peace in 2022. Thank you for listening.

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.