Brand new playground at Oval has been shut since winter and Santos is not happy about it

The new playground at the Oval, seen here the week it opened in 2021, has been shut for months and the mayor is not happy about it. Observer file photo

Public infrastructure travails, firefighter hirings and the 2022 municipal budget shared the spotlight at the April 26 meeting of Kearny’s governing body.

The playground in the heart of the Gunnell Oval recreation complex has been gated much of the time since the $120 million re-do of the facility and Michael Neglia, the town’s consulting engineer, blames the contractor for failing to correct a “wavy safety surface” condition that, he said, first appeared during the winter.

Since then, Neglia said, that “compromised” surface has “sat back down, but if it doesn’t last. I’m not going to accept it.  The town has spent a lot of money (on this project).” While the surface material may well adhere in the short run, Kearny may have to “get another contractor” for a long-term fix, he said.

Mayor Alberto G. Santos added, “We just can’t continue waiting this out (with the contractor),” particularly with the warm weather ahead. “We need to be ready and get this playground open.”

Ironically, the Oval – and Neglia Engineering – have been feted with the award of an “Excellence in Design” citation from N.J. Parks & Recreation, but Third Ward Councilwoman Eileen Eckel said that recognition – along with “rising numbers” of kids participating in municipal recreation sports programs – has been marred by recent acts of Oval vandalism.

“Signs were going missing,” Eckel said. “There was a search and they found maybe 10 or 12 in the Big Belly garbage disposal. Plus, there was damage to the bathroom facilities and garbage was thrown all over. Our children have to be taught to respect the places where they play. It’s not OK for the taxpayers to continuously pay for repairs. We need parents to step up to the plate to tell kids this is not OK. If a playground is chained and locked, you don’t go in there. That’s a message that’s important for our kids to hear, that if someone’s caught, there’ll be restitution. We have to make sure this facility is here for the next generation.”

Meanwhile, Neglia offered apologies to residents inconvenienced by “night-time operations” at the Dukes Street pump station where sewer pipes are being installed between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., prompting temporary road closures along Schuyler Avenue and related road detours in the area.

“And it’s noisy,” Santos said. “It’s not fair to residents. We have to review those detours. There may be a way not to close off everything at one time.”

Neglia said he’ll advise the contractor to shift to daytime hours, “but there will be significant obstruction (of traffic).”

Santos quizzed Neglia about why nothing has been done to jumpstart the Sanford Avenue Sanitary Sewer Long-Term Intervention project to relieve flooding and sewer backups in that neighborhood. Santos said the Kearny Municipal Utilities Authority, which handles collection of primarily industrial/commercial wastes from South Kearny, needs to extend its legal jurisdiction to include residential and, if it agrees to do that, then it needs to inform the town whether a sewer line it built out to a location near the residential flood area 13 years ago to potentially “grow its service area” has sufficient capacity to handle the additional wastes.

If the KMUA won’t sign off on the deal, Neglia said the town would likely have to temporarily divert Sanford Avenue wastes to a temporary “storage” facility and then pump the stuff to a sewer collection line off Schuyler Avenue.

Either way, said Second Ward Councilman Peter Santana, those long-suffering residents need to be updated on what’s happening.

“Residents not knowing where it stands is just degrading to us,” Santana said.

On the public-safety front, the governing body appointed three new firefighters which, according to Fire Chief Joseph Mastandrea, brings the number of rank-and-file officers to 101, just one short of the 102 maximum permitted under the Fire Department’s Table of Organization. All are replacements for retirees, he said.

Mastandrea said the town had planned to hire four firefighters but one prospective appointee who didn’t complete the pre-hiring screening process “is still pending.”

The three probies — Peter Casale, Jerry Arruda and David Laracuente Jr. — are all Newark residents. Each will earn a starting salary of $33,000. The town’s personnel policies list Kearny and Newark as the “preferred” catchment area for Kearny Fire Department hirings.

The trio now begin three months of training at the Morris County Public Safety Academy, followed by about four weeks of classes leading toward certification as Emergency Medical Technicians, before starting in-house training in Kearny.

The governing body, meanwhile, awarded Kearny fire superior officers annual pay increases of 1.75% for 2020, 1.75% for 2021 and 2% for 2023, after a public hearing on a pay ordinance adjusting their salaries. Over the life of the contract, Tier 1 fire captains (promoted after Nov. 1, 2016) will see their annual pay rise, as per a seven-step guide, up to a maximum of $140,160, while salaries for Tier 2 captains (promoted before Nov. 1, 2016) will go from $147,263 to $152,837.

Tier 2 deputy chiefs, also on a seven-step guide, will end up with a maximum pay of $172,445 while Tier 1 deputies will go from $184,329 to $191,306.

A proposed new municipal budget introduced Tuesday night should give local property owners some tax relief. Town Finance Director Shuaib Firozvi said the $81,157,852 spending blueprint for 2022 is up by $675,000 (less than 1%) over 2021 but because the local tax levy remains flat at $40.5 million, the bottom line is the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 can expect to pay $59 less than last year on the municipal portion of the 2022 tax bill.

The county and local schools share of the bill must still be computed. The public gets a chance to put in its two cents at a hearing slated for May 24 in the council chambers.

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Ron Leir | For The Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.

He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.

He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York