Looking back to 2018, Morristown has plenty to feel good about: A bustling downtown with new projects rising swiftly, dozens of new affordable housing units, open space acquisitions, modernization of the police force, and social activism that brought thousands here.
Mayor Tim Dougherty spent nearly a half hour rattling off highlights at Tuesday’s council reorganization meeting.
But tucked inside his unscripted speech were some cautions for 2019.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us over the next several months on balancing this budget,” Dougherty said, asserting the town is facing nearly $2 million in added costs.
Echoing warnings issued last week in Morris Township, where new Mayor Jeff Grayzel spoke of state fiscal obligations being shifted to municipalities, Dougherty said Morristown is looking at a 13 percent increase in pension payments, and a jump of 7- to 10 percent in insurance costs.
“Get ready, because it’s going to be a little tight. Tighten your belts, because it’s going to be a little bit of a change for 2019,” the mayor said.
Video: Tighten your belts in 2019
A small increase in residents’ municipal tax bills last year was their first after seven straight years of no hikes.
At Tuesday’s year-opening meeting, where Morris County Sheriff James Gannon paid a courtesy visit, the council unanimously re-elected Toshiba Foster and Hiliari Davis as its president and vice president, respectively, and approved a slew of appointments to boards.
All the names on this list were okayed. The council added these:
Board of Adjustment: Jeff Stiles, Noelle Nish, Christopher Hayes (Alternate I), Beth Wall (Alternate II). Parking Authority: Anthony Lucia. Housing Authority: Nathan Umbriac, Caroline Opondo. SMCMUA (regional water utility): Donald Kissel.
Foster kept council liaison appointments the same as last year:
Morris County Community Development Revenue Sharing: Councilman David Silva; Housing Authority: Councilwoman Hiliari Davis; Parking Authority: Councilman Robert Iannaccone; Morristown Partnership: Councilman Michael Elms; Environmental Commission: Councilwoman Alison Deeb; Planning Board: Councilman Stefan Armington.
“We are a very diverse community, we are a Fair and Welcoming Community, a city driven by great residents,” said Foster, pledging to work with them and her fellow officials to move the town forward.
“I am honored to work with this body,” added Davis.
“We agree, we disagree, but we always get on the same page, which is a rarity in local politics…I moved back here when my daughter was born because I thought: There’s no other place where I want to raise my kid.”
Dougherty expressed optimism about working with Morristown Medical Center and its parent, Atlantic Health, to create a “Health and Innovation Corridor” on Madison Avenue this year.
Other things coming in the New Year: Quarterly police reports from the town’s new public safety director, Michael Corcoran Jr.
Since Corcoran came aboard in the fall, Dougherty said, police have worked with groups such as the Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center in a public education campaign to get bicyclists off sidewalks, improving the quality of life downtown.
Dougherty gave no updates on the status of Police Chief Pete Demnitz, placed on paid administrative leave last month for reasons not made public. The Mayor acknowledged the good work of his acting chief and the fire chief; Demnitz was not mentioned.
Traffic continues to vex residents. Dougherty said he hopes to meet with state transportation officials this week to press them to synchronize downtown traffic signals, which he asserted “are off by 300 percent” and contribute to gridlock around the Morristown Green.
It remains to be seen how expansion plans for the Morris County court complex might affect traffic. The Mayor urged citizens to attend tonight’s (Jan. 9, 2019) Morris County freeholders meeting to hear their proposal.
Dougherty pointed to a series of town-approved developments as signs of economic vitality, not traffic-generators.
New apartments at 11 DeHart St. –the last phase of the Epstein’s department store redevelopment that transformed the downtown–have won a national architectural award, Dougherty said.
Plans continue for a parking deck in municipal lot 10, behind the post office. A Cambria hotel is coming to Market Street, where apartments are going up.
Apartments also are rising beside town hall, on the site of the old Calaloo Café, and construction is proceeding behind the seniors complex on Ann Street. Another project is approved for the train station parking lot, and applications are pending for Schuyler Place and Morris Street.
Dougherty lauded residents for successfully opposing a self-storage center that had been pitched for the latter site.
“We know it’s tough to get out of the house, but we thank the public that comes out” to meetings because their input benefits the town, he said.
Fifty-eight affordable housing units opened in 2018, and so did 27 businesses, Dougherty added.
PARKS, AND A PLUG
Now in his third term, the Mayor said he hopes to be remembered for open space initiatives that include the acquisition, completed last week, of 11 acres from the Loyola religious retreat for the expansion of the Foote’s Pond park.
He also cited improvements to the Cauldwell playground and the George Gramby Park, and a linear park being created as part of the Modera 55 apartment development on Speedwell Avenue.
Additionally, Dougherty said he is proud of progressive policies such as Morristown’s municipal I.D. program, and of the town’s role as a hub for positive change. Last January, thousands participated in a women’s march here. Two months later, thousands more joined high school organizers of the March for Our Lives, for common-sense gun reforms.
Morristown also has become a cultural center, Dougherty noted, thanks to the Mayo Performing Arts Center and events including a book fest and the Mayor’s jazz festival.
“Every day I wake up, I pinch myself and say, how lucky and how blessed am I to be mayor of this community,” Dougherty said.
A longtime chronicler of all these happenings, photojournalist Bob Karp, was honored on Tuesday for his efforts.
Karp is leaving the Daily Record after an award-winning career and heading south. Dougherty, accompanied by his wife, Morristown First Lady Mary Dougherty, declared Jan. 8 as “Robert Karp Day.”
“He’s one of the best news photographers I’ve ever met,” the Mayor said. “You know that we’re going to miss you.”
Video: A plug for the Fourth Estate, and photojournalist Bob Karp: