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Dickson Cites Summit's Successes, Challenges in State of City Address

During reorganization meeting Thursday night, Mayor Dickson discussed challenges endured during, after Sandy, and accomplishments made throughout Summit in 2012.

Mayor Ellen Dickson delivered her “State of the City Address” during the Summit Common Council’s reorganization meeting Thursday night in Council Chambers.

Dickson cited the progress made throughout the city in 2012, while also discussing challenges faced by residents and city officials alike.

Superstorm Sandy

The greatest challenge the city faced this year was Superstorm Sandy, Dickson said, which was “a harsh test.” Summit lost power for the third time in nearly 18 months, a source of stress and destruction for many, and physical hardship for others.

Dickson noted that despite the challenges presented by Sandy, most community members put their own troubles aside to help others first.

“When they could, they provided shelter, food, money, or a helping hand. The effort came from many citizens and also our local charities, religious institutions and many of the people working for the City of Summit. Regardless of the organization, that helping hand was provided by many citizens who just wanted to help. The strong sense of community we enjoy in Summit was especially strong during Hurricane Sandy,” Dickson said. “It is important to remember how so many helped and to celebrate their efforts, to reinforce the strong sense of community that Summit enjoys and, in so doing, provide a reminder that we are each other’s keeper. I thank all citizens for their efforts and patience throughout the ordeal.”

Dickson said the reason Summit lost power for such a long period of time is reflected in a quote from George Pataki, former Gov. of New York, in a Wall Street Journal Article:

“Superstorm Sandy exposed perhaps the greatest flaw underpinning the American way of life: insecure and unreliable electric infrastructure. Under the stress of a major storm these systems have proven inadequate in responding and recovering.”

Dickson noted that Summit and communities like it will take a back seat to restoration efforts in larger cities, critical care facilities and other pertinent facilities. So, Dickson has been speaking with JCP&L about a plan to harden the electric grid in Summit, which is being spearheaded by City Administrator Chris Cotter and Tom Ferguson, a long-time resident and former head of the Cable TV Committee. Ferguson and Cotter drew up a plan, which was submitted to Dickson Thursday night, to bury wires from Springfield Avenue, which is already electrified underground, to the post office, YMCA, Library, Firehouse, First Aid Squad and LCJSMS.

“I assume we will have to pay for most of the cost of a project like this but it may be cheaper and more dependable than generators,” Dickson explained. “Since Deforest Avenue is scheduled for re-engineering and repaving, a second loop could encompass this area. This plan does not protect homeowners but it does protect critical parts of our infrastructure. Much as we are installing Belgian block curbing in a ten to twenty year timeframe, burying the wires is a long-term solution.”

Progress in the City

Dickson said the city is focused on ensuring that Summit remains “a very desirable place to live and also a very attractive place to do business.” She noted Merck’s decision to relocate its global headquarters to the city, the second Fortune 500 Company in Summit. Celgene was the first.

There are positive signs of vitality throughout the city, including the opening of many new stores and restaurants, Dickson said, and the reconstruction and reopening of 1 DeForest Avenue, now home to companies like like McKinsey and Bank of America – Merrill Lynch. There are also new housing units in various stages of building throughout the city.

The Reeves-Reed Arboretum is also undergoing some major renovations and will re-open in the spring, the mayor said. "Arboretum Director Frank Juliano, who started in May of 2012, has been doing a great job and is working well with our various city departments," she said.

Summit’s Budget

Summit is rated AAA, Dickson said, and the combined budget for schools and city services increased by less than 1 percent in 2012. But the real pressure on the city’s budget comes from Union County, as the city pays $33 million to the county in taxes each year, with an 11 percent increase last year.

“Obviously the 2 percent spending cap does not work with the County.  This is frustrating since the value provided by these taxes is not apparent and they give us much less financial flexibility and make it much harder to afford new programs,” Dickson explained. “I ran for Freeholder and while many of us have attended the Union County Freeholder meetings we know our voice seemed to have been ignored.”

Dickson said the needs of citizens are hard enough to meet, while median incomes are much lower than they were five years ago. However, she said the county government builds “a $10 million golf club house, approved the construction of a multimillion dollar ice skating rink, and runs a hospital that is losing millions of dollars a year.” 

At a minimum, county government needs to become more accountable, responsive to all of its constituents, transparent and affordable, Dickson said, suggesting it be eliminated all together, a step taken in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Those states are more affordable, Dickson said. 

Common Council

Dickson thanked several individuals who helped her during her first year as Mayor of Summit, including Councilwoman Nuris Portuondo, who is retiring.

Wishing her luck, Dickson said Portuondo was “a vital and effective leader and has accomplished so much during her tenure as councilwoman.”  She also stood in for Dickson when she could not perform any weddings throughout the year. Between the two of them, they performed 35 weddings in 2012.

Dickson congratulated Al Dill, Jr., the newest Councilman, who was sworn in during the reorganization meeting. Dill did serve on council from 1989 to 1998.

She also congratulated Councilman Rich Madden, who was elected to a second term and will serve again as Council President for 2013.

Public Safety

Dickson also recognized Police Chief Robert Weck, who has “done a fine job during his first year, along with his two Captains Steve Zagorski and Andy Bartolotti.”

Community policing in the downtown was revived this year, which has been successful and well received, Dickson said. The police department even had their first Open House, which was also well received. There are plans to continue it in the future.

Dickson noted that Fire Chief Joe Houck and Deputy Chief Eric Evers lead the city’s fire department, which may undergo some reconfiguring in the future.

“Parts of our Fire House are 100 years old and reaching the end of their useful life.  Schematics are being developed for a new firehouse,” Dickson said. “This may involve reconfiguring that part of Broad Street and may offer many opportunities like combining it with a parking garage.”

Dickson also noted that the combined dispatch center with New Providence is expected to be up and running in the next 12 months.

Communication

While Dickson said communication between the city and its residents has improved in recent years, she said there is still more to do.

“I would like to see a material leap forward this coming year in the way we use the Internet to connect with residents both in times of calm and in times of emergency, and the focus of that leap needs to be on the City's web site, where we can guarantee its availability, and we can quickly publish important information,” she explained.

Dickson said the city also needs to look for ways to receive immediate feedback from residents through the city’s web site.

“I want to explore with all of you how we can make the site more friendly to you, how we can improve it and make it easy to receive information from you, and how we can use it to push information out to you when there is a need to do that,” she said.

Education & Schools

Dickson said the Board of Education recently went through some changes, as Board Member Michelle Stevenson stepped down earlier this year and Board Member Tom O’Rourke is retiring. Dickson thanked both for their years of service.

Elizabeth Ann Burton, a more recent appointment to the board, also resigned, as she is moving to Colorado with her family. Dickson wished her well.

Dickson said David Dietze, a new Board of Education member, has been a solid contributor so far and she is looking forward to his continued work.

Richard Hanley is the most recent appointment to the board, Dickson said, who will officially begin on Jan. 16.

Dickson noted some of the district’s recent accomplishments, including being ranked #11 by NJ Monthly Magazine, and the Summit Hilltoppers Football team winning the State Group 3 Championship and finishing their season 12-0.

Dickson and the Council were recently invited to the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School to read reports prepared by the 8th Grade social studies students on how to improve the City of Summit. 

“The project called Public Policy Convention was an idea of Assistant Principal, Eric Parks, and was led by Social Studies teachers Dan Miller, Laurie McCormick, Eric Kostibos, and Jamie Kochis,” Dickson explained. “I was very impressed with the students’ projects and it warms my heart that students are learning civics again.  The reports gave ideas and suggestions on how to change and improve on City government and services.  I was a little surprised to see how many students feel there is not enough parking in our town.”

A challenge going forward is the school district’s infrastructure, Dickson said, as some schools are in need of repairs.

“Superintendent Nathan Parker has been diligent about investing in our infrastructure.  But many of our schools are old and need updating.  While Union County’s population is down by 2 percent, our student population in Summit is up by 1,000 students in 10 years and up 2 percent from last year, which continues to put pressure on our school budget,” Dickson said.

Twelve years ago, when Summit High School was renovated, a demographer told the city that there would be no more than 330 students per class, Dickson said, and the newest class, moving from the middle school up to the high school, has about 370 students.

Department of Community Services

Public Works

Dickson said Superstorm Sandy took up a lot of time for the Division of Public Works, most of which was tree-related.

“Thank you to all our public works crews for your perseverance and all those extra hours on the job,” she said. “We could not have done it without you.”

Engineering

Summit’s Engineering Division upgraded and maintained the city’s infrastructure this year, which was put to the test by three major storms throughout the past 20 months, Dickson said.

“In addition to improvement projects on the City’s roads, sewers and drainage, the Division played a key part in several new programs and projects,” Dickson said. 

One effort, spearheaded by Rick Matias, required coordination between multiple towns and government agencies, Dickson said. Matias is helping the city to develop a significant portion of the trail along the Passaic River, which should be completed this year.

In addition, a basin wide cleanup project to the Martin’s Brook watershed will now come to fruition thanks to the Engineering Division securing an environmental grant.

“It also completed a road rating system and a full evaluation of the City’s sidewalk and handicap ramps, which will be vital in budgeting for improvements to the City’s infrastructure, and completing projects where they are most needed,” Dickson explained.

Department of Community Programs

This department, led by Director Judith Leblein Josephs, took over the Senior Connections Bus, which saw increased ridership this year. Plus, Judith and her team are still exploring ways to fund this vital service to our seniors through grant opportunities, Dickson said.

“Two Walnut Street was sold at auction this year. As a result, the Summit Community Center has been hosting youth programs, with approximately 15 to 35 students coming to the Center on a daily basis,” Dickson said. “Our golf course and family aquatic center continue to be self-sustaining.  Our Concerts and movie nights on the Green were paid for by local businesses. Please remember to thank them.”

Dickson noted TRYCAN, has been successfully offering programs for special needs youth and attracted around 100 youth volunteers.

“We are very fortunate to have such a rich resource of community-minded citizens and it’s re-assuring to see our youth learn by example to give of themselves so generously,” she said.

Public Library

Dickson announced that Susan Permahos will be the new Library Director beginning in early March. Permahos previously served the Township of Springfield for 15 years.

“I am confident that she will meet the challenges of our library and will bring new ideas to the table,” the mayor explained. “She certainly has big shoes to fill as our former Director, Glenn Devitt, recently retired after 25 years of service to our community.  Thank you, Glenn, for your outstanding service.”

Plans for a reception to welcome Permahos are now underway and Dickson said she hopes community members will join her in welcoming the new Library Director to Summit.

Technology & Transportation

Dickson said in many ways, Summit is what many other cites want, as it’s home to great restaurants, great places to shop and do your day-to-day business, and has easy access to transportation.

Dickson said she wants Summit to continue to strive to be at the forefront of technology, which is why the city developed a Technology Advisory Committee within the last year to explore how to use technology in city services and throughout the community.

“We have connectivity, accessibility and convenience.  In 2012 the City’s Department of Community Services and Summit Downtown, Inc. developed its first Ap – a Historic Tour of Summit, NJ.  This is a free Ap, and is an interactive tour experience, showcasing Summit’s beautiful historic business district as well as famous landmarks, residences, shops and restaurants.  I have reached out to other groups, such as our Arts Committee and our houses of worships, to develop their own tours, so stay tuned,” Dickson explained. “Our Parking Services Agency has an Ap for on-line payment of various parking fees.  It is all-the-buzz in downtown Summit. Please watch for the roll out of our new parking system in the shopper lots.”

Final Thoughts

Given all that has happened in 2012, Dickson told this story she heard from a friend:

“When she was a kid, her Mom liked to make breakfast food for dinner every now and then.

One night she made breakfast after a long hard day at work. She placed a plate of eggs, sausage and extremely burned biscuits in front of her dad and she waited to see if anyone noticed - her dad just reached for his biscuit, smiled at her Mom and ask her about her day at school. I don't remember what I told him that night, but I do remember watching him smear butter and jelly on that ugly burned biscuit. He ate every bite of that thing... never made a face nor uttered a word about it!

When I got up from the table that evening, I remember hearing my Mom apologize to my dad for the burned biscuits. And I will never forget what he said: "Honey, I love burned biscuits every now and then."  Later that night, I went to kiss Daddy good night and I asked him if he really liked his biscuits burned. He wrapped me in his arms and said, "Your Momma put in a hard day at work today and she's real tired. And besides - a little burned biscuit never hurt anyone!"

As I have grown older, I've thought about that many times. Life is full of imperfect things and imperfect people. I am not the best at hardly anything and I forget birthdays and anniversaries, just like anybody else. But what I have learned over the years is that learning to accept each other's faults and choosing to celebrate each other’s differences is one of the most important keys to creating healthy, growing, and lasting relationships.

That is my prayer and hope for all... that we will learn to take the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our life and lay them at the feet of God. Because in the end, He's the only One who will be able to give you a relationship where a burnt biscuit is not a deal-breaker!

We could extend this to any relationship. In fact, understanding is the base of any relationship, be it a husband-wife or parent-child or friendship! Do not put the key to your happiness in someone else's pocket - keep it in your own.  So, please pass me a biscuit, and yes, the burned one will do just fine.  Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

Happy New Year!"

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