Dafis will continue as Maplewood mayor for another year

Engel to serve as deputy mayor; township committee has female majority for first time

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — At the Maplewood Township Committee’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 1, Mayor Dean Dafis was unanimously selected to chair the committee, aka continue as mayor, for 2023.

“I’m deeply humbled and honored by your confidence and faith in me. I will continue leading us with the strength, conviction, commitment and collaboration that you’ve become accustomed to from me. And I will continue being our greatest representative externally to our elected colleagues and partners in government. I want to take this opportunity to also thank our Maplewood Dems, without whom I would not be here at all,” Dafis said at the meeting. “I’m proud of our tremendous growth this past year and of our exceptional performance in getting out the vote, here locally and for our congressional representative, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill. We really hit so many home runs politically, truly stood our ground in Essex, quite impressively too I might add, especially when compared to our sister towns in the county with larger populations and greater resources.”

According to Dafis, though the past few years have been rather difficult, he believes 2023 will prove a good year for the township, especially financially.

“Whatever the new year has in store for us, I’m proud to report that the township is prepared to meet it. We are strong, we are thriving, we are prepared. As we head into our fiscal 2023 budget preparations, we are on much better footing financially than we were this time last year,” Dafis said. “We’ve paid off significant debt service, including 2012 and 2017 refunding bonds, saving $1.5 million and $2.3 million respectively in 2023 debt service payments. Interest income has rebounded from pre-pandemic figures thankfully to over $250,000, and we’re seeing our FEMA reimbursements coming in; we’ve already received nearly $800,000 and Ida insurance payments of over $700,000 and still have outstanding claims — FEMA claims of over $2.3 million and Ida insurance payments of roughly $1.4 million. We collected nearly half a million dollars in cannabis fee revenue, double what we anticipated. 

“Of course we didn’t foresee that the state health insurance premium rates would increase dramatically at 22 percent, effective today. This is something we’re going to have to figure out how to accommodate, but all things considered, we are cautiously optimistic about being able to adopt and produce a 2023 budget that is fair, adequate in meeting our needs, sincere, and far more reasonable in tax burden when compared to some recent budgets in the past few years,” Dafis continued. 

According to Dafis, the township was successful in securing federal and state grants to improve infrastructure townwide. Infrastructure work in 2022 — which he promised will continue into 2023 — included bump-outs for pedestrian safety, streetscape improvements, drainage improvements, more than 30 solar-powered crosswalk beacons, 26 ramp upgrades at various intersections thanks to Essex County Community Development Block Grant funding, electric vehicle chargers, speed humps and other traffic-calming measures, and much more. Dafis also reminded residents that the township recently applied for an electric ADA-accessible senior bus.

“We promised you last year, Maplewood, that 2022 would focus heavily on infrastructure improvements and public works, and on that I’m grateful to announce that we have delivered,” Dafis said. “2022 marked our finally turning the corner from COVID, with building, expanding and returning to full steam in services and programming. Most of our cultural heritage celebrations and signature events were back in a very big way.”

Dafis praised Maplewood’s shared service efforts, including the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages initiative.

“Our fire merger is complete and operational,” Dafis said. “We entered into shared health department services with South Orange. Shared services are, after all, a hallmark of efficiency, of good government and better quality in services.”

Another shared service is the Sustainable Essex Alliance to purchase clean energy from third-party providers collectively, at lower prices. In an effort to combat climate change, the town planted more than 200 trees last year, in addition to providing seedlings to residents to plant on private properties. Starting this January, dual-stream recycling has gone into effect in Maplewood and South Orange, and Maplewood’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers is now active.

Dafis also addressed the recent “crime wave” that has been hitting northern New Jersey.

“Make no mistake, we are taking this head on, with better strategies in patrol and leveraging technology, such as license plate readers and working with our residents,” Dafis said, adding that the Maplewood Police Department is already producing good results. “We remain safer as a community than we ever have been. In the next few weeks I will be launching a mayor’s wellness campaign to promote greater health and wellness in our community and to promote our health department’s soon-to-be-shared community health assessment action plan.”

An hour before the reorganization meeting started, Deborah Engel was officially sworn in as a committee member in person at Town Hall. During the meeting, Engel was unanimously selected to serve as the town’s deputy mayor for 2023.

“I am proud and honored to be part of this historic Maplewood event where women take over the majority of the Maplewood Township Committee,” Engel said at the meeting. “It was really meaningful for me to take the oath on the Torah. 

“I realized while working on my speech for today and also along the campaign trail that the thing I’ve taken most out of my Jewish education is the strong sense of community and the importance of community and the importance of building inclusive community,” Engel continued. “I want to listen and learn from all of you residents, elected officials, our hardworking township staff, everybody who lives here. I want to provide inclusive services for our community and look at how we can make mental health supports and evaluation and preventative measures more available and affordable to all of our residents. 

“And most importantly I want to lead with empathy and remember that everybody who lives in Maplewood deserves to feel loved and safe here.”

Dafis also remarked on the significance of having three women serve on the committee at once — marking the first time the township committee has had a female majority.

“Congratulations on your impressive election and for making history in Maplewood. With your oath of office today, we are now, as you remarked, officially a diverse, majority-female governing body,” Dafis told Engel. “May you find public service as rewarding and fulfilling as we do.”

At the meeting, the township committee also recognized the South Orange–Maplewood Adult School.

“It has become our custom at our reorganization meeting to dedicate our meeting to a local community group, organization, nonprofit, association that has significantly contributed to community life and civic engagement and civic life in Maplewood and South Orange,” Dafis said. “And we are absolutely delighted and honored, especially in light of their remarkable 90th anniversary, to honor today the South Orange–Maplewood Adult School.”

The township committee issued a proclamation in honor of SOMAS, which was honored by the Library of Congress in 2000 as a local legacy and is the oldest nonprofit adult school in New Jersey. For more information about SOMAS and its programs, visit somadultschool.org

“I’m really honored that the adult school is being recognized in this manner by the Maplewood Township Committee, so thank you so much,” SOMAS board of trustees President Bonnie Kenselaar said at the meeting. “I hope you’ll join us at an upcoming event or class to help us celebrate our 90th anniversary.”