Dave Kenny’s retirement from municipal government did not last long.
The longtime councilman appeared to be on his way out of the public sector after he announced last spring he would not run for re-election in the November 2017 general election. But just weeks after the November vote, Kenny received some news he said surprised him. Township business administrator John Ricci, who had served in that capacity for parts of four decades, had decided to retire. And Yaede wanted Kenny to take his place.
Kenny agreed, and was quickly confirmed at the Dec. 5, 2017 council meeting. He started the job the last week of December.
Yaede said Kenny made an obvious selection.
“From his 12 years of experience on our township council—where he worked alongside John Ricci—to his two decades of legal representative services that he provided to local governments, Dave Kenny possesses a unique skillset combined with invaluable expertise in our own municipal government,” she said in a statement. “His impressive background truly distinguished him as an excellent candidate to assume the important responsibilities of business administrator. Having personally worked with Dave when I served on the township council, I can attest to his outstanding qualifications, his strong, ethical character and his genuine and sincere interest in serving our community.”
An attorney by trade, the 63-year-old Kenny has served as municipal attorney for Hopewell Township and Robbinsville Township. He runs his own law firm—Kenny, Chase and Costa—and is a lifelong Hamilton resident.
Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes sat down with Kenny in his office Jan. 9. The following is an abridged transcript.
What is your role as business administrator?
As business administrator, I answer to the mayor. The mayor delegates to me the responsibility of creation of the budget—that’s one of the primary ones—and oversee all the departments in Hamilton Township. In effect, I’m guess I’m like the chief operating officer, and the mayor is like the chief executive officer.
You worked with a couple business administrators in your 12 years on Hamilton council. What did you pick up about the job?
Having been a councilman, I’ve been through the budget process on 12 different occasions. Early in my career on council, we had some fiscal crises in the township. I’m familiar with those and how to avoid those, due to the mistakes made under the prior administration. I’ve also served as municipal attorney in Hopewell Township for 10 years and Robbinsville for about eight years. I did work for Ewing Township, Bordentown Township. So, I have a good background there, too, to at least ask the right questions and to know the parameters of the law and many of the legal issues that confront the municipality.
The person you’re replacing, John Ricci, had a background in purchasing. You’re an attorney. Do you bring a different mindset to the position being an attorney?
It’s a little bit different. I’m a new set of eyes. John had his way of doing things, and I may revisit some of those. I may do them his way or I may change them a little bit. Fortunately, we have a very competent staff here, so those are people I can rely on and the citizens of Hamilton can rely on. The mayor also is very hands-on. She knows everything that’s happening here, and she approves everything and sets the direction for me to follow.
As we talk, you’re in your third week in the job. What’s it been like?
Well, I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing things, where we stand with various matters and getting up to speed on the budget that will be proposed within the next few months. I’m familiarizing myself with many of the employees. There’s some disciplinary issues I have to deal with that I’ve been dealing with. And the everyday issues that pop up. We’ve had a couple of snow storms already. It’s a learning experience, but fortunately I started with a pretty good base with my experience as a municipal attorney and then as a councilman.
As you mentioned, the budget is one of your primary responsibilities. You’ve come into this job in the thick of the budget process. How formed is the budget already, and how much input will you have?
John Ricci did quite a bit with the budget already. I’m meeting with our budget officer [Jan, 10]. I want to go over some things to see if there’s some other expenses I want to revisit that are in the proposed budget. We wouldn’t have revenue numbers until the end of this month, which obviously is a big part of the budget. We’ll have to see what they do down at the statehouse with a lot of things. But then our budget will be presented to council in the next couple of months.
Will the fact that you’re an experienced councilman help the budget approval process at all?
I think it will, having been through it before sitting on the council side. A lot of your budget is locked in because of wages and salaries. There aren’t a lot of areas that you can change, especially because we try to be very lean. We have fewer employees than the township used to have. We’re doing more with less. We have to continue to do that. But you always have upward pressures on your budget, just through inflation. Trash costs go up. Fuel costs can go up. A lot of things. We done a lot to save money. The 2-percent cap has helped us over the years, and we’ll have to see if the governor will reauthorize that for police and fire salaries. Obviously, a big issue this year will be what the council decides to do with fire consolidation.
Let’s step back to be clear. Is the municipal government responsible for police and fire salaries now?
Not for fire, not currently. People still pay fire taxes to their fire district. If council decides to create one fire district, then we wouldn’t be involved necessarily with the budgeting for that. If council decides to create a municipal department and dissolve the fire districts, then we will be involved in the budgeting because it would become part of the township budget.
Adding a fire department obviously would be a big change to the municipal budget. But, in talking with John Ricci, he said, in general, it is easier now to make a municipal budget than it was 40 years ago because everything is locked in. Are you hoping for a continuation of that, or are you looking to make some changes to the budget?
I don’t think you will see any real significant changes with the budget, but there are some things we’d like to do that the mayor may have some priorities for. There are certain things we still have to do. We’ve spent a lot of money over the years for capital improvements to the sewer system, which we think is very important because maintenance can save you a lot of money in the long term. If you have an emergency collapse, which we had 11-12 years ago, it takes a lot more money to fix after the fact then if you had maintained it before the collapse. So, we constantly look at those. Obviously, department heads have their things. There are always needs for equipment. We’ve addressed that significantly over the last 10 years. The township fleet is in very good shape. But, again, it’s been 10 years, so there are certain things you have to replace.
Before taking this job, you weren’t just in public service. You also ran your own law firm. Is the firm still operating?
Yes, Kenny, Chase and Costa. There are still four attorneys in the firm. I handed most of my work over. I may do some work on the side. But this comes first. This is my priority, here at the township. If there are some things I can do at night or on the weekends to keep my hand in the law, I’ll continue to do it.
Were you looking for a change like this?
It came as a surprise. I announced that I wasn’t running for council again. I had no inclination at that time that John Ricci was retiring. It was the first week of December when the mayor asked me to come down to a meeting. I came down, and she and John Ricci asked me if I would be interested in being business administrator. It was a Monday. I was surprised. I said I have to talk to my partners, I have to talk to my wife. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But then I decided it’s a really interesting opportunity, and since I have the background, I’m confident I can do the job. I really appreciate the mayor having confidence in me.
Were you actually surprised?
I was. John Ricci had mentioned it to me a couple times [before he announced his retirement]. “Why don’t you become business administrator?” I’d say, “I don’t think I want to do that.” But that was before. When it was offered to me, I had to give it real thought then.
I’ve always enjoyed working with the mayor and the people here in the building. I thought, “Why not? I’m 63. It’s an interesting career change.” You don’t often get that at the end of your career. I enjoyed practicing law. I had great partners. We had a great firm. But you don’t get many opportunities to do something different.
I’m lifelong Hamilton resident. I really care about this town. We’re proud of what we accomplished on council the last 12 years, and we want to make sure things stay headed in the right direction.
As much as there’s continuity between you and John Ricci, especially with the same mayor in office for at least two more years, this is an interesting moment in Hamilton. You’re a new business administrator. The majority of council is new, and of a different political party. It’s a time of change.
Things are always changing, wherever you are. [laughs]
John Ricci’s a great resource still. If I have a question, I can pick up the phone and run things by John. Fortunately, his secretary still here, because we know it’s the secretaries who really run things. [laughs]
It must be different coming to government from private industry.
Yeah. Having a small firm, I worked for myself all these years. That’s a little bit of a transition. Now I work for the mayor and the people of Hamilton. It’s already been very enjoyable.
What is on your radar as far as projects you’d like to see done?
The fire consolidation will be a big project, if the council votes to make it a municipal department. That will be important to the town and to the taxpayers. We have some areas of town that pay almost as much in fire taxes as they do in municipal taxes. There’s a divergence in the rates between fire companies. That’s one thing that will be challenging and fulfilling.
We want to continue to make this township as efficient as possible. We have the Hamstat system, which has worked out great over the years and there’s terrific follow-up if someone reports a problem.
The police department, it’s always a challenge to ensure they’re properly equipped at all times. The police department has done a fantastic job in this town. It’s a very safe town. But there’s always going to be problems, and we have to adjust to them.
“Efficiency” has been a buzzword in Hamilton municipal government ever since John Bencivengo took office in 2008. At this point, 10 years in, I imagine the budget must be pretty lean. Are there efficiencies left to find?
There are always ways you have to look at it. We just entered into some new interlocal agreements with Upper Freehold, which is a way to employ our resources in getting some extra revenue, which offsets our need for taxes while at the same time providing service to another town. We do a lot of interlocal service agreements. It’s helpful to both municipalities involved.