Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin always planned to try something new for his first State of Hamilton Township address, but surely he didn’t expect this.
Nearly six months after postponing his first attempt, Martin posted a 15-minute township address to the township’s YouTube page Sept. 3 that brought into sharp focus the challenges faced by the township, many of which did not exist a year ago.
“2020 has been a year like no other,” Martin said. “It has challenged us to adapt, to overcome and to persevere through challenges.”
Martin insisted that the township’s foundation is strong, but said Hamilton faces “very serious fiscal and infrastructure challenges.”
He pinned the blame on the administration of Kelly Yaede and what he called a “kick-the-can” philosophy of budgeting. Martin said the COVID-19 pandemic grew the budget hole even more, forcing the township to furlough employees in July, institute wage freezes and cut spending.
Both sewer rates and municipal taxes have been increased in 2020 already, a subject Martin did not broach during his address.
In May, Martin announced the township would raise residential and commercial sewer rates for the first time in more than a decade. Residential sewer rates increased effective July and will be reflected on the Oct. 1 bill. The township estimated in May that the increase would amount to $78 per household annually. Township officials have said it has been decades since improvements have been made at the Hamilton Township wastewater facility, and the infrastructure is in dire need of upgrades.
Then, in June, Martin introduced a municipal budget that included a tax increase of 4.4 cents, or $100 per year for an average Hamilton home with an assessed valuation of $225,000.
Hamilton Township also has already reduced the funding for overtime pay in the police department budget, as well as borrowed $4.1 million in cash from neighboring Robbinsville Township, all in an effort to fill budget gaps.
Martin acknowledged during his address that the pandemic has caused pain beyond the municipality’s budget. To help local small businesses, the Hamilton Township Department of Community and Economic Development established in August the Small Business Assistance Program. The program took $90,000 of the township’s federal Community Development Block Grant CARES funds, and will enable around 20 Hamilton Township businesses to secure assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a press release from August, the township said the Hamilton Small Business Assistance Program will provide grants up to $5,000 to allow businesses to pay things like employee salaries, general operating expenses, inventory and advertising/marketing expenses.
The mayor also said he has encouraged any construction in the township to be done by local workers.
“I believe a rising tide lifts all ships, so I continue to advocate to any developer or contractor to use local labor on local building projects,” Martin said. “Our local workers support local small businesses, which support our local nonprofits. Support for one is support for all.”
The pandemic has stressed the township health department, as well, with staff conducting contact tracings for as many as 225 cases of COVID-19 per week at the peak of the pandemic. The department has been dealing with about 30 per week now, Martin said. As of Sept. 3, 175 people in Hamilton have died from an illness related to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, in response to national concerns about police brutality in the aftermath of the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Martin said the Hamilton Police Division has made an effort to better communicate with residents. Since June, HPD has worked with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office to hold community sessions. The goal, Martin said, is to let people know that Hamilton and New Jersey have “previously made many of the reforms that are needed on a national level.”
Martin also commended the work of two Hamilton police officers—Michael Stefanelli and Anthony Lucidi—who arrived first to the scene of a June 16 fire on Klockner Road and saved the lives of the family inside the burning building.
“While no department is perfect, we can never stop appreciating those that put on the uniform each and every day,” Martin said.
While much of his speech reflected on issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin also assured residents that he hasn’t forgotten about the three primary objectives he set for himself at his Jan. 1 inauguration: providing safe drinking water, completing the consolidation of the township’s fire districts, and improving the township animal shelter.
On the drinking water front, Martin said “we cannot rely on Trenton to get out of its own way” and highlighted the effort of Hamilton, Ewing and Lawrence townships to join state legal action against Trenton Water Works. The court granted that request in mid-August.
“This is the result unfortunately of some in Trenton not fulfilling their basic responsibility in providing clean, safe drinking water for all of us,” Martin said.
Martin said that fire consolidation is “well underway,” and that the township has hired legal help to assist completing the process. The mayor added he hoped to soon announce a successful conclusion to fire consolidation. The township has sought to consolidate its nine fire districts for years. [Update: The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board unanimously approved Hamilton Township fire service consolidation Sept. 8, paving the way for the township’s nine fire districts to be consolidated into a single township fire department in 2021.]
The township animal shelter, meanwhile, has a new manager, Donielle Killian-Gioia. The shelter had drawn the attention of township council and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office in 2019, with both entities conducting investigations. MCPO said its investigation revealed that in a 34-month period between Jan. 1, 2016 and Oct. 1, 2018, staff at the Hamilton animal shelter had euthanized nearly 330 animals before holding them for at least seven days, the minimum number required by state law.
Martin concluded by urging his residents to see common ground and to work together for the benefit of the township.
“We must focus on the common goals that we all want and work toward accomplishing them together,” Martin said. “It is in that common mission as fellow Hamiltonians, we can raise our town to new heights. No neighborhood ignored, no neighborhood forgotten. One great Hamilton Township.”