Mayor Robert Neff, Jr. is nothing if not thorough.
A few weeks ago, to send Neff any questions they might have about the borough. And boy, did they have questions.
We e-mailed Neff about six categories of questions -- from sidewalks to shared services to empty storefronts -- and he took the time to answer them all in detail. In fact, Neff's former newsman days really kicked in because not only did he make a lot of calls and check his facts, we think he may have even broken some news in many of his answers.
A fair number of our question posers included their names with their queries, but probably the same number of readers preferred to remain anonymous.
Look for the second part of Neff's answers on Friday when he takes on the temporary traffic lights on Branch Avenue, borough ratables and just who paid for that pink stripe running through the center of downtown.
- A number of residents had questions pertaining to the lack of sidewalks throughout certain areas of town.
Neff: We had a couple anonymous questions about sidewalks, generally suggesting that there should be more of them.
To put this in context, it would be impossible to go sidewalk by sidewalk and provide a history of why they are where they are (or where they aren’t), and why they end where they end, but in general, the town’s historical philosophy has been to promote a certain, if not rural, then certainly a countrified suburban feel to the town, and that meant minimal sidewalks, and no sidewalks in some areas. Over the years, with increased traffic, additional sidewalks have been put in on busier streets. Each sidewalk, of course, has to end somewhere, unless you were to install sidewalks along every street in the borough. I don’t think anyone wants that, nor would anyone want to pay for it.
Train Station Area
Let me try to address a couple specific areas. As a former train commuter, I understand the questioner who asked about the train station area. Specifically, a Manson Place resident raised an issue that we’re already working on – how to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the tracks at the Sycamore crossing. Our Traffic and Safety Committee has that issue under consideration, and I would encourage anyone interested to attend a committee meeting. Their schedule is posted on the town’s Web site.
The concern about the Silverside sidewalk that ends near the railroad crossing also merits review. It may be that we can create a safer pedestrian access to the train station from Silverside, and I will ask Traffic and Safety to take a look at that issue as well. There are a number of approaches, and perhaps the Committee can make a suggestion. It is certainly a complex enough issue that a quick-fix answer here is not possible. As with all issues, I encourage people to come to our Council meetings or specific committee meetings (all of which are open to the public and posted on the town website) if you would like to propose a particular solution.
I have also heard both pro and con comments over the years about extending the sidewalk on Prospect all the way to Harding Road, raised by one questioner. Presumably there was some thought put into going all the way to Harding when the sidewalk was installed, but whether for expense reasons or some other reason, the decision was made not to do so. I will commend that issue to our Traffic and Safety Committee for consideration, as I will do with the sidewalk question in general. The Committee is comprised of residents with a shared concern but sometimes differing views on problems and solutions, which is to be expected, and receives advice from our police traffic and safety department and our engineer. Again, I would encourage all those with specific concerns to bring them to the Committee’s attention.
- Many questions had to do with the preponderance of empty storefronts/commercial properties throughout town.
Neff: A couple of questioners asked about certain properties, all privately owned, and not under borough control. I will share what I know.
Wicker Rose, Willow Avenue
The former Wicker Rose and gas station building on Willow have been tied up for some time in the Dweck bankruptcy estate. We have periodically pressed the bankruptcy trustee to move and maintain those properties, and in fact (after a couple failed auctions with no bidders) a purchaser has now come forward. My most recent understanding is that the purchase has not yet closed, but that it is moving forward, and requires approval by the bankruptcy court. If the sale goes through, we will look forward to hearing from the purchaser with respect to its plans for the area.
I understand there is also a proposed purchaser for the closed bottling company property on Conover Place, but again, that is a private transaction and I don’t have any further information as yet.
Gift Winds, Prospect Avenue
The Gift Winds property, as I understand it, is owned by a family trust. Walgreens has proposed extending its operation into that space, to include a drive-through, but has not moved forward with its plans. Again, the borough has no control over this private property, but I will inquire about Walgreen’s intentions and the intentions of its owner. It’s been vacant too long.
Exxon Station, Willow Drive
Lastly, the former Exxon station across from the train station is again going to be opened under new ownership as an Exxon station. When I specifically asked Exxon of its intentions some months back, complaining that the property needed attention, Exxon promptly advised of its plans. I was advised at that time that the target date for reopening was June. Because of closing issues, it is now scheduled for July.
- "There has been talk of but I see no action about saving costs and increasing efficiencies through more shared services with other nearby towns. I've read about West Long Branch, Oceanport, Fair Haven, Rumson... all negotiating agreements to share certain job functions, DPW services, etc. You talked about it when campaigning; what have you done and what shared services cost cutting negotiations have you entered since in office?"
Neff: We share a number of services now, but increasing our shared services in a way that saves money has been elusive. It’s not for lack of trying. I am probably in the best position among our elected officials to deal with this issue, since I do meet regularly with the Two River Council of Mayors, consisting of eight surrounding towns (including those you mentioned). I have had conversations with a number of those mayors, and recently had a separate meeting with Mayor Burden of Shrewsbury regarding sharing where we can, and specifically identifying a potential joint HazMat team, which is being discussed. In addition, I am attending a meeting this week with Freeholder Deputy Director Tom Arnone about sharing services with Monmouth County. And at our last council meeting, Councilman Bitman was aware of an opportunity to share our printing services with Monmouth County, which we are investigating.
What I am learning is that a shared service, while a good concept, sometimes simply doesn’t save money for both towns in practice. A recent example is the proposal by Red Bank to create one municipal court for five neighboring towns, including Little Silver. After it further investigated that issue, Red Bank determined that, in fact, Red Bank’s court system was cost effective, and that it did not make sense to merge with other towns. I learned the same thing about three years ago as a councilman, when I investigated merging the Shrewsbury and Little Silver court systems in discussions with Shrewsbury officials. The devil was, as they say, in the details, and at the end of the day, taking into account personnel, the court’s docket in each town, the administrative requirements, and the space required to run the court, a merger simply would not have saved Little Silver any money, given our current, economical system. Another example is the animal control shared service we used to share with another town. In fact, we found a less-expensive alternative to that shared service, and I recently signed a contract with a service that charges by the call, which has proven to be much less expensive than sharing the service. Sharing services is great when it works – but it is not a panacea. When it doesn’t work, we’ll look elsewhere.
Lastly, I would note that some of the “new” shared services you may have read about involving other towns include services Little Silver already shares with other towns, such as fire code official, construction code official and permitting functions. In addition, we do retain the full-time employees of other towns on a part-time basis to provide certain services, such as property maintenance code official. We also share public works equipment where we can with both Oceanport and Shrewsbury. Lastly, we are looking into participating in a program with the county that would save on insurance costs, and the 911 service response is something we currently share with the county.