The Top Countywide Stories in 2010
From a retiring football coach to the county's takeover of a local police department, Union County was buzzing this year.
The end of the year brings a look back at the time that has passed and the stories that dominated our lives. The Patch editors in Union County sat down to discuss the top stories from our portion of the county. We developed a list encompassing a wide range of issues and themes, ranging from issues in our towns to two stories for the entire county.
1. SUMMIT: Homicide
The murder of Abelino Mazariego in Summit this summer shook the city in more ways than one. Initially the residents' shock represented a reaction to the fact that a crime this gruesome could even occur in a place like Summit. But that layer quickly dissolved into a bitter resentment toward the teenagers responsible for Mazareigo's death and sparked a community-wide conversation about what really makes someone "from Summit." But another layer of this story was the newfound awareness of the Hispanic community in Summit and issues surrounding residency status in the United States. –Heather Collura
2. SUMMIT: Helicopters? Not In (or Next to, or Near, or Over) My Back Yard
Summit's biggest story of the year, however, was the Zoning Board's denial of an application by Overlook Hospital to build a helipad on its roof. The intention was to transport stroke patients from the region's hospitals to Overlook, which specializes in stroke treatment, the hospital argued. These proceedings, which lasted more than a year and predate the birth of the Summit Patch, ignited a community campaign against the proposed helipad with pins, lawn signs and paid advertisements. It is likely the hospital will appeal the decision to the Superior Court of Union County in 2011. –Heather Collura
3. COUNTYWIDE: The Budget Cut Blues
Declining revenue sources – including cuts in state aid – remained a key theme for every municipality in 2010. March's announcement of state aid cuts for schools and local government sent officials scrambling, while declining tax and non-tax revenues depleted local budgets – and factored into voter mindsets.
In Westfield, voters expressed anger at a pay raise for teachers by voting out a school board member, while town officials merged the town's welfare agency with the county to save money. In Scotch Plains and Fanwood, voters rejected the school budget, sending township and borough officials into marathon meetings to make cuts. Decisions to cut middle school athletic programs led several communities, including Cranford and Westfield to implement student activity fees. In Cranford and New Providence, the debate over spending on new parkland, led voters to show incumbents the door. Summit officials responded by cutting police positions, setting up a debate in town over how many public safety officials should be in place and whether or not the town could share certain policing functions with other towns. Garwood officials responded to the decline but cutting bulk waste pick-up in town, while Clark school officials cut the number of teacher's aides in kindergarten classes and librarian posts at the high school and middle school.
At the county level, the freeholder board started pressing increased shared services plans and a change in garbage hauling, which they billed as a "property tax reduction plan." The Democratic freeholder board's unsuccessful Republican challengers campaigned on a plan calling for a reduction in county government services. –John Celock
4. SPF: From the Fanwood Flames to the Los Angeles Lakers
Derrick Caracter says he doesn't think about the past. Stepping onto the basketball court at the Prudential Center on Dec. 12, wearing the purple-and-gold uniform of the Los Angeles Lakers, he says he focused on the present: what he needed to do to help his team beat the New Jersey Nets, and continue holding his spot on the Lakers roster.
Caracter's past, however – his nine-year journey from Fanwood to Los Angeles – was fraught with uncertainty. As he struggled academically and athletically, it became filled with detractors. By age 20, sports bloggers pronounced him "washed up," and finished. His return to New Jersey marked a triumph. Read on here. – Alan Neuhauser
5. COUNTYWIDE: Sewerage Swap
A $20,000 bill would give anyone pause. But when that bill comes as a surprise – and in the middle of a recession – it's cause for alarm.
That's what happened to non-profit organizations across the county late last year, when a sharp spike in the fees assessed by the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority forced municipalities to find creative ways to both pay the fees and not exceed a four-percent (and now two-percent) property tax increase – a cap mandated by the state.
Many towns, including Scotch Plains, simply removed the fees from the tax bills they mailed to residents, and sent the RVSA bill as a separate assessment. Residents, of course, were irked. Many called the bill simply a tax by another name. Non-profits, however, were the hardest hit. Because they are tax-free institutions, once exempt from paying the sewer assessments, many suddenly found themselves facing four- and five-figure bills they had not budgeted for.
Some bills were adjusted and reduced. This year, they were mailed to Scotch Plains residents as two installments. RVSA spending, however, continues unabated. An investigation by The Star-Ledgerpublished June 13 revealed that the RVSA's commissioners approved a 30 percent budget increase over last year, and that the authority's multi-million-dollar cogeneration plant – over-cost by as much as $200 million, and the cause of the sudden uptick in fees – will likely never work.
The Scotch Plains Township Council, apparently stunned by these developments, decided to clean house. It replaced RVSA Commissioner Joan Papen, who had held the post for nine years, with zoning officer Robert LaCosta. How this change may change may affect future developments remains to be seen. –Alan Neuhauser
6. CLARK: Fire Tragedy
When Arthur L. Johnson High School sophomore and star athlete Eryka Underwood was severely burned in a freak backyard firepit accident, it seemed like the entire town of Clark felt compelled to respond, chiefly by donating money, blood and prayers for Underwood's speedy recovery. Then, the Johnson girl's soccer team decided the best way to help its teammate recover was to play like champions – or rather, "play like Eryka," their mantra – and went farther in the State Tournament than anyone expected, making it to the Group II Championship first the first time in school history where they lost to Mahwah. –Jessica Remo
7. CRANFORD: Spending to Save Open Space
In a year where fiscal belt tightening was the norm, the Township Committee purchased a 3.7-acre piece of land, on which the now-vacant Solomon Schechter School sits, to keep it out of the hands of developers and create a separate park space. During election season, Democrats derided the $1.9 million purchase as unnecessary and imprudent in a time when the township, led by a Republican majority, should be keeping expenses down. But in the past couple of weeks, with a new committee featuring a Democratic majority incoming in January, the lame duck Republican majority passed an ordinance to define the property as a New Jersey open space property, barring it both from Union County funding and residential development – two options which Commissioner Aschenbach, the new Democratic mayor in 2011, voiced support for in past meetings. –Michelle Walbaum
8. CRANFORD: A (Fire)place in History
With the impending demolition of the vacant Solomon Schechter Day School, the Historical Preservation Society scrambled to save a historically valuable fireplace discovered in one of the rooms. Created in the early 20th century and crafted out of painted tile depicting a barnyard scene, the fireplace was something chairwoman Maureen Strazdon did not want turned into rubble. After making calls to Union County, the Society secured $9,975 from the Union County Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Over the course of several days, as contractors swarmed the vacant school to tear it down, a tile contractor from Michigan worked to save the fireplace by prying off each tile piece, one by one. It was successfully transplanted into storage. County and township officials are currently deciding where to display the fireplace tiles. –M.W.
9. GARWOOD: GOP Sweep
In the historically Democratic borough, a Republican election sweep sounded impossible – until this year. Former councilwoman and frequent Union County Freeholder candidate Patricia Quattrocchi (R) bested two-term incumbent Dennis McCarthy (D) for the mayorship. Republicans Jim Mathieu and Victor DeFillippo also beat Democrats Kathy Villaggio and Matthew Allouf to fill the seats left by exiting councilmen Anthony Sytko (R) and Stephen Napolitano (D). –Jessica Remo
10. NEW PROVIDENCE: Park and Property Swap
The controversy surrounding the sale of Oakwood Park and Passaic Riverfront property in New Providence to Union County for $1, in exchange for $3.5 million in renovations, became one of the town's biggest stories of 2010. After a divisive, two-year battle, one lawsuit and a referendum on the November ballot, residents voted down the sale by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Mayor-elect J. Brooke Hern was against the sale, while Mayor John Thoms, who lost his campaign for re-election, was for the sale. All candidates, including Hern, incumbent Councilman Michael M. Gennaro and Councilman-elect Robert L. Munoz, pledged to honor the vote of the citizens before the election, regardless of the referendum's outcome. An official vote by the Borough Council has not taken place yet. –Caitlin Mahon
11. NEW PROVIDENCE: After More Than 330 Wins and 15 Championships, Bottone Retires
But perhaps the biggest story of 2010 was the retirement of Head Football Coach Frank Bottone. Announcing his retirement before the season began, Bottone has a stellar record with more than 330 wins, 15 conference championships and seven – no make that eight – state titles, the last he achieved at New Meadowlands Stadium in early December, his last game as a head coach after 48 years. Players from his nearly five-decade run dropped by to the borough during Thanksgiving weekend, honoring him at mid-field before the Pioneers' sacked Gov. Livingston 35-13, and the following night at a football reunion. The Board of Education is now assembling a committee to discuss options for naming a school district building after Bottone and hosting a ceremony in his honor. The Star Ledger also named Bottone as the 2010 state football Coach of the Year. A replacement for Bottone has not been named, but rumor has it former player and longtime assistant coach Art Cattano is in. –Caitlin Mahon
12. SPRINGFIELD: County Assumes Responsibility for Springfield Police Department
Since Springfield Police Chief William Chisholm retired in April, the town's police department has seen a number of dramatic changes. Peter Davis, the department's Officer-in-Charge, led the force for three months, then announced his retirement and resigned his command position. With no one left at the top, the Union County Prosecutor'sstepped in to assume "complete authority" over the department. Davis briefly returned to the force, retired for good in September, then sued the town for not making him chief. Union County remains in control of the department. –Adam Bulger
13. WESTFIELD: Death of Firefighter Jim Pfeiffer
Westfield went into mourning Aug. 22 when firefighter Jim Pfeiffer died in a freak accident while off-duty at his Mountainside home. Pfeiffer's Aug. 26 funeral was attended by hundreds, and as the funeral process snaked through downtown Westfield, residents stood and watched in silence. Since Pfeiffer's death, residents – many of whom never met the 30-year-old firefighter – organized multiple fundraisers and established a memorial fund to benefit his one-year-old daughter, Carly.
14. WESTFIELD: Stranger Danger
Parents started to keep a closer eye on their children in September, when two child-luring cases occurred within a week of each other in Westfield. On Sept. 16, a group of girls told police that they were approached by a masked man near Wilson Elementary School who offered them a ride. A suspect, Eric Degner, was arrested the next day after being spotted at the same location. Degner was held on drug charges but not charged in the luring case. On Sept. 23, a male student at Franklin Elementary School reported that he was approached by a man driving a pick-up truck, who allegedly waved at him to enter the vehicle. Following the cases, emails flew around Westfield, Scotch Plains and Fanwood, containing pictures of suspects and warnings of other suspected luring cases in nearby towns.
15. Berkeley Heights: Groundwater Issue Still a Concern for Certain Residents
Although it dates back to 1996, the issue of Tricholorethylene (TCE) is still very much on the minds of a certain Berkeley Heights residents who still fear the unknown fourteen years later. The chemical is found in over-the-counter products and is said to have entered the groundwater at the Alcatel-Lucent plant on Mountain Avenue. As many as 16 homes may have been affected by the chemical, which settles near or under the house. At a recent borough council meeting in November, it was reiterated that the Department of Environmental Protection assures the homeowners that TCE is not harmful to those living in the area.The last round of testing was done by Alcatel in 2007 and according to officials, the chemical continues to spread.Further reports on the testing are expected. - Mike Curci
16. Berkeley Heights: Tax-Exempt Organizations Surprised by Sewer Bills
Because of a recent sewer plant project, tax-exempt organizations in Berkeley Heights will have to foot a much higher bill than in the past. An ordinance passed several years ago allows for a raise in rates on these organizations to help defray the cost of major projects. The Board of Education saw their bill rise 281%, from $17,000 to $49,000 per year. Many organizations complained they were not notified of the increase until they received the bill. - Mike Curci
Check back tomorrow to find out the top nine best stories from 2010 here in Summit.