To a packed room of residents and elected officials at last week’s Hopewell Township Reorganization Meeting, Mayor Kevin Kuchinski made the following speech:
Welcome to tonight’s Hopewell Township reorganization meeting. I’d like to take a moment first for some thank you’s in the audience tonight: representing the fighting 15th, we have Liz Muoio, our NJ Assemblywoman; our Mercer County Freeholders, Andy Koontz and Lucy Walter; Diane Gerofsky, our Mercer County Surrogate; and Paul Sollami-Covello, our County Clerk for Mercer County.
And I would like to thank my fellow members of the Committee for agreeing to serve Hopewell Township and its residents this year – Julie Blake, John Hart, Kristin McLaughlin and Vanessa Sandom – and recognize former members of the Hopewell Township Committee in the audience tonight – Todd Brant, Jim Burd, and Judy Niederer. Thank you for all you do in NJ, and for being here tonight.
I’d also like to thank the staff and professionals present here for their service to Hopewell Township, and also our new Town Crier, Stanley Saperstein. And a special thanks to our First Responders and Veterans, who have dedicated their lives to service and selflessly protect us against all manner of threats. Finally, I would like to thank my wife Leslie — “I couldn’t do this, without your love and support” – and my four wonderful children, Ryan, Brennan, Kaitlyn and Liam, and my Dad and Mom, who are all here tonight. And you, the assembled residents and volunteers of Hopewell Township. Thank you all for helping make Hopewell Valley such a special place to live and call home.
Last year was a productive year. We fulfilled our promise on lower taxes, reducing spending by 1.6% and holding the tax levy essentially flat. I am proud that Hopewell Township once again has the lowest municipal tax rate in Mercer County. And we delivered two years of roads maintenance in one year in 2016, while staying within the approved budget, securing more outside grants to help fund this work. Third, we took concrete action towards selling Pennytown and hope to complete that process this year. We will use these proceeds to reduce Township debt and interest expense. Finally, we delivered on our commitment to improve communication with the Boroughs and Schools and with you, our residents.
While we made good progress in 2016, we still have significant work to do.
First, we must intensify efforts to make Hopewell Township more affordable. Taxes remain a burden, and I see far too many parents move out of Hopewell Valley once their kids have grown, not because they want to, but rather because they can no longer afford the high taxes here or because there are not smaller, less expensive housing units to move into. Younger families and single people, including our teachers, police, and firefighters, also struggle to find affordable living options within the Township.
This needs to change.
In 2017, we will continue our multi-year plan to reduce debt. Last year, we reduced debt service by 18% vs. 2015, yet it still consumes 24% of total Township spending. Divesting properties (like Pennytown), that we no longer need, to meet our affordable housing obligation will help us pay down debt and stop kicking the can down the road. Over time, we should work to pay current year capital needs out of the operating budget, so that we do not need to take on new debt and the associated interest expense. Second, we must do more with less, challenging so-called “fixed” spending in the Municipal Budget, returning the proceeds in the form of lower taxes. As an example of this, we are currently evaluating additional investments in solar energy, which would not only save money, but also helps shift us away from fossil fuels. Finally, we are continuing our work towards more shared services with other municipalities and our schools.
Second, we must continue our efforts to defend Hopewell Valley versus the dual threats of the PennEast pipeline and the proposed over-development of the Township, as we work to meet our Affordable Housing obligations. On the former, Hopewell Township has already come together with citizen groups and environmental organizations, to send a strong signal to PennEast that we don’t need and don’t want their pipeline. We have successfully delayed the project, and will continue to fight the environmental destruction, risks to our drinking water and reduced property valuations that it would bring.
The Township has filed over 20 specific and documented objections to the proposed pipeline with FERC, as we fight this scourge. We have robust clean water protections in-place through our Tree, Storm Water and Steep Slopes ordinances, and we will enforce these, through the courts if necessary.
Turning now to Affordable Housing, let me be clear that we will fulfill our constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing. However, the number of new affordable units proposed for Hopewell Township is excessive, and we are working to reduce that. We have engaged experts to challenge the underlying numbers and are working to develop a housing plan that limits suburban sprawl, protects against uncontrolled development, and preserves our rural character. Together, we must smartly control this process and accommodate our affordable housing requirements in a way that is consistent with our master plan.
Our third initiative for 2017 is to accelerate efforts to support our local businesses. Small businesses are a key pillar of our community, and their success helps reduce residential property taxes for all of us. Importantly, when you spend at locally-owned businesses, more of that money stays in the community – $68 of every $100 vs. only $43 when you spend that same $100 at a national chain. We will continue to support successful efforts like Restaurant Week and our weekly Farmer’s Markets, and we are going to form a new Economic Development and Tourism Committee to help market the rich history and recreation opportunities in Hopewell Township, and to bring more visitors to the Valley, in support of our businesses and restaurants.
Finally, we need to work across party lines to serve our residents. We have long-serving members with many years of experience in governing on this year’s Committee, as well as newer voices who can bring fresh ideas to help solve the challenges facing our Township. I look forward to working with each of you.
In the year ahead, let’s identify opportunities to cut spending and reduce property taxes. Let’s strive to find common ground on other issues facing the Township, and work with our partners in the Boros and School District and at the County and State level to make Hopewell Valley an even better place to live. Deputy Mayor Blake is going to touch on a number of other key initiatives for the year ahead, so I am going to wind my remarks down here.
I look forward to what we can accomplish in the year ahead. Thank you in advance for your support, and here’s to a great 2017!