Lawrence Nation! (I am trying out a new greeting) Just a little update on the Whitehead Road Roundabout so some of you can meet your negative comment quota for the day!
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Thursday, April 22, 2021
Since April is Distracted Driver Awareness Month, I decided to write a topical article in combination with a community issue. As many of you know, there was another motor vehicle crash at the Whitehead Rd round-a-bout where a car drove through it, over an embankment, across a parking lot, and into a building quite a distance away. The motorist seemingly did not acknowledge the existence of the round-a-bout when approaching from the southbound lane of Brunswick Avenue. This crash prompted many of you to comment on community FB pages that the round-a-bout is "awful," "dangerous," or "a mistake," etc. At the same time, many others said it is safe and easily navigated if you are a competent and attentive driver.
As the Municipal Manager, however, I have a different responsibility from my past roles. Candidly, residents' comments in these FB posts helped push me to look at this from a different perspective. One that requires action to determine what, if anything, can be done to make the area safer by factoring into the equation drivers that drive carelessly for the variety of reasons I previously identified. It is a reality that must be considered.
Here are some links that I have referenced in my article that you may find interesting:
Friday, March 19, 2021
As I write this article, our community has had 2028 positive Covid-19 cases (not positive tests) and 90 deaths. In the U.S., we have had 29. 4 million cases and have endured 539,000 deaths, and worldwide there have been 121 million cases and 2.7 million deaths. These numbers continue to grow daily, both globally and locally. I reject any argument that attempts to diminish the loss of human life with claims that most are elderly or had pre-existing conditions. These are human beings with family and friends that mourn them deeply. To be marginalized for any reason is wrong, and to believe that the virus can't infect you or a loved one, regardless of age, is foolish.
We can now fight this virus with more than just social distancing, mask-wearing, and keeping our hands clean and away from our faces. Science has delivered to us vaccines that have proven to be effective in saving lives. We are well into delivering these vaccines into the arms of as many people as the current inventory allows. Public health officials estimate that vaccines will be available to all from the age of 16 and older by mid-year if we continue in our present course. The challenge then turns to convince a mistrusting portion of the public to vaccinate.
This past Sunday, I was watching a news conference where a public health official was asked the following question, "What should be done now to convince the American public to receive this vaccine?" He answered, "We need a concerted effort by local officials in communities across the country to work to get as many people as possible vaccinated because they enjoy more personal connections with their citizens than state and federal officials." As I let this statement sink in, I began to think to myself that this "ask" is much bigger and more personal than the "ask" to advocate for all to "mask-up, wash your hands throughout the day, and keep a safe, social distance." Personally, it makes me uncomfortable to advocate for others to get vaccinated. I don't have the education, knowledge, or scientific background to be qualified enough (for me) to advocate for other people to inject the vaccine into their bodies. But, I am comfortable sharing with you why I chose to get vaccinated (I still have one to go in a week) and why I thought my wife (now vaccinated) and children (when eligible) should get it done too.
First, to be clear, my thinking is devoid of any political agenda whatsoever. I have said from the first time I publicly commented on this pandemic, and every time since, political viewpoints and blind loyalties have absolutely no place of value in the fight against a world pandemic, a public health crisis like we have not experienced in the past 100 years. None. And with the latest polling showing that a disproportionate and significant percentage of people from one political party opting not to get the vaccine over people of the other political party is equally mind-numbing and mind-boggling. Former President Donald Trump and his wife were vaccinated in January and have since publicly encouraged others to vaccinate. President Biden and his wife were vaccinated and joined in the effort to convince the public to follow. If the leaders of opposing political parties decided on vaccination, I don't understand why political affiliation is still a factor now. Politics and Pandemic? Far from "Perfect Together."
I also have done a deep dive into the history of the science behind the vaccine to understand better how the vaccine was created and how it works. I was encouraged to discover that the actual "race" to create this vaccine started more than 15 years ago with leading scientists from world-class pharmaceutical companies and research institutes working to fight various novel coronaviruses leading up to the one we fight now. In fact, the vaccines we are delivering today were almost wholly developed before the first case of the virus was discovered in the U.S early last year. With science so far along already in the vaccine research and development, and add the full force of our federal government, the teamwork between experienced and committed public health officials and top scientists, and add $9,000,000,000 used for human trials over the following nine months, I have more confidence in the vaccine then if I just looked from afar and marveled at the time-frame between March 2020 and December 2020 without knowing more. This, coupled with how the vaccine works within the body (too long for me to describe here, but the Mayo Clinic website offers excellent information, Get the facts about COVID-19 vaccines - Mayo Clinic), convinced me to trust the science behind the vaccine.
We all can acknowledge the incredible discoveries and inventions the human race has made throughout history -- in engineering, science, and technology. This vaccine lines up well with other tremendous feats of humankind. So, I believe in the vaccine's science, and I think it necessary to stop the spread of this deadly virus. If the current polling holds and a significant number of people choose not to vaccinate, establishing immunity will be delayed for years, and the virus and all the destruction it causes will continue.
My decision to be vaccinated was not only to protect me. As with wearing a mask and social distancing, it was done (and is still being done) to protect others as well and do my part (taking personal responsibility for the public good) to stop the spread. I want us to re-open as quickly as possible, but I also want it to be done safely--valuing every life, regardless of age-- equally. The best way that I felt I could help now was to be vaccinated.
Monday, February 22, 2021
May you grow
up to be righteous.
May you grow
up to be true.
always know the truth and
lights surrounding you.
you always be courageous,
upright and be strong.
May you stay
With the pandemic, our healthcare providers are front and center in the fight against the virus. Doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers have rightfully been the recipients of our daily appreciation and respect. However, I must say, for months, I have had this nagging feeling that one group of medical professionals, our Emergency Medical Staff (aka, EMS), have not received the recognition they deserve for what they do each day through this health crisis. I hope with this article, the readers can understand the circumstances in which they have performed their jobs over the past year. It is the definition of courage, and they are heroes.
The Lawrence Township EMS is comprised of one supervisor, eight full-time, and twenty-five per diem EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) that serve our community seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. They are highly skilled and certified in pre-hospital emergency patient care for medical and traumatic incidents. There is a fleet of three basic life support ambulances and one first-responder vehicle. Each ambulance is staffed with a two-person crew that serves on a twelve-hour shift rotation.
Late last week, I had the chance to sit and talk with one of our EMTs about her experiences during this pandemic. She described the difficult circumstances in which they work and the emotional and physical toll on her and her co-workers. In addition to seeing more death in the last year than she had in her entire career, she also expressed a feeling of isolation and a lack of support. As I listened to her describe what they go through on any given day, I felt ashamed that I had not fully understood their experiences. I often speak of the importance of making sure each employee feels valued, respected, and supported. The conversation forced me to acknowledge that I failed them.
Last week at our council meeting, Jack Oakley (Director of Fire & Emergency Medical Services) made his budget presentation to the governing body. Along with discussing the department's financial situation, he also made sure to highlight our EMTs' efforts. He described them as being at the "tip of the spear" in this fight against Covid-19. It is an entirely accurate description. It is the EMTs that respond to emergency medical situations. Whether it is going to a resident's home or responding to various types of accidents that involve personal injuries, what makes them different is that they go to the crisis.
The very nature of their job places them in situations requiring them to work in uncontrolled and unsterilized environments. During this pandemic, they must wear a full-body suit and oxygen mask to respond to each emergency call. Picture an astronaut or bomb squad specialist in full-gear, and you get a good sense of how they must work. They place themselves in the direct path of the virus when they provide medical services to contagious and sick individuals. Over this past year, they have witnessed death like they never had in their careers. They have felt frustrated by the restrictions placed upon them in how they render aid to contagious patients. The EMT I spoke with told me that these Covid-19 restrictions are, at times, directly in conflict with their training, experience, and the mindset to do all they can in service to their patients.
After each call to service, they return to the station and decontaminate their suits, equipment, and vehicles. They sometimes shower six times a day and are forced to live with the fear that they may either catch the virus or bring it into their home and expose their family members to the deadly disease. Replay this every day, and you should come to understand how courageous and heroic these professionals are in the service of our community. If you see one out and about, please make sure to thank them for their service.
NOTE: I understand that many people deserve recognition and appreciation for their contributions to the fight against this virus. My intent in this article was to highlight one particular group's effort, and it is not to be taken as devaluing any of the efforts of others.
Monday, January 18, 2021
2021 Lawrence Township Budget Recommendation
The challenges and impact of the world pandemic known as Covid-19 invaded every facet of society in big and small ways. Although we begin this year with the knowledge that there is a vaccine to fight this deadly virus and hope that a better day will be upon us sooner rather than later, the pandemic’s effects and impact leave many unanswered questions and our financial future unclear. In crafting this budget, we are mindful of the uncertainty, and, therefore, our approach is best described as remaining calm in the “eye of the storm.” In the coming months, and most likely longer, the short term and long-term negative impact of the pandemic will reveal itself to us. These are truly unprecedented times as we enter into 2021.
In 2020, the revenue consistently generated through municipal operations decreased significantly due to the pandemic, and we expect the same to continue well into 2021. Also, we anticipate a significant decrease in commercial ratable and tax collection overall. Once these factors become real and quantifiable, they will dictate our approach in crafting the 2022 budget. For now, we hold. There will be no new capital projects (except for our annual road improvement program), and staffing will remain consistent with 2020 levels.
With fiscally prudent financial planning over the years and successfully implementing sustainable measures that reduce operational costs, along with a strong grant-game, new commercial ratables coming online this year, the sale of long-held unproductive township-owned land, and a commitment to provide some relief to the taxpayers of this community, the recommended 2021 budget offers a zero percent tax increase.
NOTE: The numbers in [ ] represent last year's amounts.
The recommended municipal tax rate for 2021 remains .597 [“.597”] which represents a 0% tax increase [2% increase]. One (1) cent = $464,978.48.
- The Amount to be Raised by Taxation in 2021 is $27,760,451.69 [$27,644,378.44] which is $116,073.25 [$937,422.52] over 2020, the 2021 increase is attributable to the increase in assessed valuation, not via increased tax rate.
- The Levy Cap Bank available from 2019 and 2020 is $437,594, and we will use $0 to remain within the 2% tax levy cap. NOTE: The 2021 Recommended Budget is $1,055,263 under the Levy Cap and is available for "Banking." This addition to the 2019 and 2020 banks will leave a usable "cap bank" of $1,492,858 for future budgets.
- The 2020 year-end Surplus balance is $17,162,489.74 versus a 2019 year-end balance of $16,983,267.36, an increase of $179,222.38.
- The Surplus balance remaining available after applying an amount as anticipated revenue will be $10,312,489.74 [$10,133,267.36], an increase of $179,222.38 over the 2019 remaining balance.
- The cash reserve balance for tax appeals is $4,119,491.18 [$4,119,491.18].
- The decrease in outstanding debt continues. The 2010 closing balance was $30,797,000. The 2020 closing balance is $11,237,701.88.
Fiscal strength is evident as $6,850,000 in surplus (also known as Fund Balance) used in the 2021 budget has been regenerated at the close of 2020, with an increase from the 2019 year-end Fund Balance of $17,162,489.74 from $16,983,267.36. Fund Balance is the excess in the following Balance Sheet categories: Amount to be Raised by Taxation, Miscellaneous Revenues Anticipated (MRA), Delinquent Taxes, Prior Year Appropriations Lapsed, and Miscellaneous Revenues Not Anticipated (MRNA).
In 2021, our recommendation is to utilize $6,850,000 in surplus, $14,017,682.80 in MRA, $830,000 in Delinquent Taxes and $27,760,451.69 in Amount to be Raised for Taxes. The total of these balance sheet categories equates to the municipal budget of $49,458,134.49.
The level of appropriations in the 2021 recommended budget was considered when shaping this budget, all within the statutory limitations placed on revenues and appropriations. The following are significant changes in appropriations leading into 2021:
Appropriation Increase/Decrease Reason
Salaries $405,000 Labor Contract/Covid-19
Trash Collection $45,650 Contractual Increase
Public Employees’ Pension $68,160 Statutory Increase
Police & Fire Pension $104,858 Statutory Increase
Capital Improvement Fund -$755,000 Reduced Funding Capital Program
Reserve for Uncollected Taxes $45,650 Statutory Increase
 NOTE: Figures in [ ] are 2020 amounts included for comparison.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
We won!! We won!! Let's all take a deep breath, center ourselves, and find out what we did to win....(and we also win in the category of the longest title for an article)!
First, a little housekeeping issue: I will continue to provide a link to my blog posts on the various community FB pages.....!
Earlier this week, I was informed that the Township had won The Governor's Environmental Excellence Award in the category of Climate Change & Clean Air. The award recognizes individuals, businesses, institutions, communities, organizations, educators, youth, and others who have made significant environmental protection contributions in New Jersey. Apparently, we are THAT good!
The Governor's Environmental Excellence Awards Program is New Jersey's premier awards program for recognizing outstanding environmental performance, programs, and projects throughout the state. It is sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank, and the New Jersey Corporation for Advanced Technology, in partnership with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
To those residents that want to know a little more about our efforts, I offer the following link to our submission to the NJ DEP for consideration in this award category:
I hope the residents of this community take pride and ownership in this award. It is validation for the years of hard work and commitment to pursuing and completing meaningful projects (mostly funded by various grants) to reduce our carbon footprint and be a community that leads in sustainability. For many years, our elected officials have embraced the idea of being environmentally responsible in our municipal operations. This policy directive empowered Township employees to do what they do to turn policy into actual change. It requires teamwork and sustained commitment from many, that do the work behind the scenes and out of view of the residents they serve.
Special acknowledgment goes to Mayor James Kownacki, Council Members Michael Powers, Cathleen Lewis, Christopher Bobbitt, and John Ryan for their continued commitment to making sustainable action a policy of their administration. Also, our Municipal Engineer James Parvesse and Engineer/Grant Specialist Brenda Kraemer, Public Works Director Greg Whitehead, and our CFO Peter Kiriakatis, have primary roles for the projects that we make happen. Stay tuned for more projects as this is a never-ending process!
Double Special Acknowledgment (is that a thing?) to Council Member Christopher Bobbitt, who in 2018 was our Mayor and made sustainability the focus for his 2-year term….and was the motivating force for our amped-up efforts that resulted in this prestigious award!
NOTE: "In January 2020, a new "Green Committee" was formed, comprised of a representative mix of residents, businesses, and schools that met to identify community-wide priorities. Climate change was one of four actions discussed, and a subcommittee was formed to investigate ten actions in that category further. The Green Committee and other stakeholders will be valuable participants in the development of the Community Energy Plan, which is viewed as one of the next steps to showcase the Township's emissions reductions while planning to implement these strategies for further reductions on a community-wide level."
Here is the link to the Green Committee page on our Township website: http://www.lawrencetwp.com/com-erc.html
Here is the link to more information about the Community Energy Plan from the NJ BPU's Clean Energy Program: https://njcleanenergy.com/commercial-industrial/programs/community-energy-plans
 From our application to the NJ DEP under Section 5 “Education and Outreach.”
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
The following article is rated "R" for language. If you are not interested in reading harsh language, do not continue!
The Scene: November 16, 2020, at 6:58 pm: 2 minutes before the start of the Lawrence Township (virtual) Planning Board meeting:
A middle-to-late aged woman can be heard loudly and clearly saying, "There is Nerwinski. He looks like a bum. I would like to kick him in the f-ing balls!"
This is what I heard within seconds of logging in to attend the meeting. The Planning Board Chairman quickly informed her that everyone could hear what she said because she did not mute her audio. I am reasonably sure that she had no intention of making this a public statement for all to hear and was appropriately mortified (I think). I, on the other hand, was stunned. To hear someone I don't know at all speak with such anger towards me was…..equally jarring and devastating.
People tell me that I need to be tough-skinned and prepared to take abuse from unhappy residents in my position. Unfortunately, I am not tough-skinned, and I am okay with being who I am. It makes what I do a little more complicated, but that's for me to deal with, and I do. So, I took some deep breathes, fighting off the impulse to log out of the meeting since there were more than enough members attending for a quorum, and I (along with other planning board members) sat through three hours of site plan application by Amazon for a "Last Mile Facility" on Princess Road, and rendered a decision that was supported by the facts and the law.
But after working through this incident, I realized that these planning board (and zoning board) hearings on development applications, at times, stir powerful emotions from residents who believe approval would negatively impact them. Their fear of a change to the quality of life causes them to direct and project their anger towards those they feel are responsible. But, to be clear, I am not employed by Amazon; I am not the owner of the commercial property on Princess Road; I did not have ANYTHING to do with coming up with the idea of developing the commercial lot into a warehouse; I didn't have anything to do with establishing the zoning for Princess Rd to permit warehouses and other industrial buildings to be situated on it (that happened decades ago); I didn't have anything to do with the approval and construction of The Gatherings which was built well after Princess Road was zoned for commercial development, and I honestly didn't feel like I was dressed or looked like a bum. Yes, I was casually dressed, but my shirt was clean, my hair was combed, and my face was shaved (around my goatee) …but I digress! My point is that I, along with the other board members, are "involved" with the application because of our membership on the planning board and for no other reason.
Despite the preceding paragraphs, this article is not about any particular application before the planning board or the zoning board, but rather to discuss how applications for developments come to be and the role and the responsibilities of the planning/zoning boards have in deciding to approve or deny them. Indeed, many books about this subject contain hundreds of pages referencing statutes and cases that you can read to be better informed. Still, I offer the following insights knowing that your daily lives are too busy to allow you the luxury of actually reading a textbook on zoning/planning laws! The goal is to provide you some context about development applications and how and why the boards make decisions.
First, you should know that almost all of the development applications heard by the boards are initiated by private citizens or private businesses, not your governing body or township officials. Second, every single application that complies with the NJ Municipal Land Use Law and the Township Land Use Ordinance requirements MUST be accepted, processed, reviewed by Township professionals, and ultimately decided by either the planning or zoning boards after a full and fair hearing. And when I say every single application.....I mean it. For example, suppose the Lawrence Shopping Center wants to make an application for developing an amusement park that will cover every inch of the property, or a local church wants to build a 50,000-seat stadium next to Lawrence Road. In these cases, despite their absurdity, the application MUST be accepted and a hearing ultimately scheduled so the board members can decide to either approve or deny. Third, each board member must consider the NJ Municipal Land Use Law, the Lawrence Township Land Use Ordinance, the testimony of the fact witnesses, the testimony of expert witnesses, and the comments offered during public participation by residents, property owners, or business owners before rendering their decision. Finally, the mere fact that an application becomes a hearing before a board in no way, shape or form, should cause you to believe that the "Township" endorses it or wants it approved and made a reality. That would be a false assumption.
NOTE: Neither the LSC nor the local church has any such plans!!!!
The Lawrence Township Planning Board currently has 11 voting members (eight residents of the community appointed by the governing body, the Mayor, a Council Member, and the Municipal Manager). The Board's duties include supervision over the drafting of the Master Plan for the Township (reviewed every six years), reviewing proposed ordinances to make sure they comply with the Master Plan, and reviewing and deciding every application for a proposed subdivision, development, or building project (site plan) to ensure compliance with our land ordinance. This Board has the power to grant specific variances (i.e., a request to deviate from a current zoning requirement) that have to do with the shape and size of buildings and plots of land.
The Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment (the Zoning Board) has nine voting members appointed by the governing body. The Board's sole authority is to review development and building applications which require a "use" variance. In addition to the "bulk" size and shape requirements, each parcel of land is assigned a particular use (a zone) or set of uses, which are permitted under the Master Plan and zoning ordinance. Any different use needs a variance. For example, building a commercial property in an area zoned only for residential use would go to the zoning board for review and decision.
The residents that serve on these boards are volunteers. They donate their time reviewing plans and attending hearings (often late into the evening) and, for the most part, do not receive much, if any, appreciation from their fellow residents. Though it is an important job, it is thankless. But knowing the members as I do, they don't do the work to receive appreciation; they do it out of their sense of community volunteerism and believing themselves capable of the critical task.
Though many believe that these boards can vote to deny applications because they are unpopular with a group of vocal residents who attend the hearings in opposition, a denial of the application that bows to peer pressure may not end the application process. New Jersey law sets forth specific guidelines as to when applications should and should not be granted.
Notably, the members of these boards swear an oath as follows:
I, [Jane Doe] do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully, impartially and justly perform all the duties of the Lawrence Township Planning Board/Zoning Board member according to the best of my ability. So help me God."
I witnessed first-hand board members honor this oath, understanding full well that their decision to grant or deny an application will disappoint someone or many. Should a board vote "no" without a basis in law or fact on an application, the applicant can (and often does) appeal the decision to the Superior Court of New Jersey. Significantly, the Judge who is assigned to hear the appeal is not influenced by public opinion, and his/her job is strictly to apply the law. The Judge will consider the application's facts and apply the law to determine whether the Board's decision should be overturned, upheld, or if the Board should look at the application again. This provides a check on Zoning Boards and Planning Boards, ensuring that the law is enforced. Therefore, applicants that follow the law can count on their application being granted by appealing to the Court.
Those who attend hearings, advocate for their interests, or the more significant interests of the community should know, understand and respect that the members of these boards have a fiduciary obligation to honor their oath and the established laws of the State of New Jersey and the Township of Lawrence. "NIMBY" (Not in My Backyard) is alive and well in every community, including this one. It makes their decisions that much harder, but our boards have demonstrated a commitment to do their job, knowing if they vote to please a vocal crowd, all that would result is an appeal to a Court, at significant cost and expense to the taxpayers of Lawrence Township, and the ultimate approval of the application they denied for the wrong reasons.
For the curious, do a Google search for the following New Jersey cases: "The Pizzo-Mantin Case," "Toll Brothers v. West Windsor Case" or "W.L. Goodfellows and Co. v. Washington Township Planning Board," and you will get a better sense that a board's denial is meaningless if the law or the facts don't support it.
I hope the above gives you a better understanding of the planning board and zoning board process and a better appreciation for the challenging responsibilities your fellow residents undertake when they volunteer their time to serve on these boards. As for me, I will work on toughening up and wear a full suit and tie, shave and comb my hair when I sit at home and attend the next virtual planning board meeting. Well, what I said in the last sentence is not going to happen. My position is firm on this; apologies to all!
Lawrence Nation ! (I am trying out a new greeting) Just a little update on the Whitehead Road Roundabout so some of you can meet your negati...