By John Burton
FAIR HAVEN – “It has been an interesting year. There’ve been a lot of challenges.”
That is Mayor Benjamin J. Lucarelli’s assessment about his nearly year-long tenure as an appointed mayor.
Lucarelli, who was sworn in on Jan. 1 following his election in November for a two-year term, now looks forward to the next two years as the borough’s mayor.
“A lot of great things have happened and some difficult things happened,” during 2012, he said.
Lucarelli noted that a high point was the borough’s centennial and its long planned celebrations, including the daylong event featuring a parade, picnic and fireworks.
The day was deemed so successful that officials have decided to schedule it as an annual event. “It was absolutely wonderful,” he said. It had “all the highs that a mayor can have.”
Super Storm Sandy, that wreaked havoc on much of the Jersey Shore, was at the other end of the spectrum.
Fair Haven is situated on a higher elevation than many of its neighbors and was spared the flooding that other communities experienced. However, the storm caused a remarkable number of downed trees and residents and businesses in the 2.1-square mile community – like many other communities in the area – endured about two weeks without electric power.
Restoration of power to the borough’s roughly 6,000 residents was also impacted by the nor’easter that blew through the area shortly after Sandy. The Dec. 26 storm, with its high winds and heavy rain, Lucarelli also noted, again caused some limited power outages in the town. “That shows you how fragile our [power] grid is,” he said. The power grid and other issues will have to be addressed in the coming year, he said.
Lucarelli was selected last February as the borough’s mayor by a 5-0 vote of the all-Republican Borough Council . He replaced Michael Halfacre, who stepped down in January to become director of the state’s Division of Alcohol Beverage Control.
Lucarelli was named to the council in January 2009 to fill a vacant seat and then went on to win a full three-year term to the council in November 2009. He ran unopposed last November for the remaining two years of Halfacre’s four-year term, which runs through December 2014.
Lucarelli, who operates a commercial real estate and property management firm in Red Bank, talked about what the coming year will mean for him as mayor and the community as it continues to recover from the storm.
One of the most pressing issues, he said, will be the council’s ability to address its increasing employee pension and benefit obligation. For about the last five years the municipal budget has been flat or even with a slight reduction in the tax levy. But the pension and benefit obligation – which has grown in recent years from being a relatively small budget line item to an $800,000 item – is now about 12 percent of the entire budget. The governing body will have to look at ways to address that, he said.
“It’s going to be a real challenge trying to keep a lid on expenses as we go forward,” he acknowledged, especially having to address requirements imposed on municipalities by the various levels of government.
Surprisingly, though, the costs to the borough for Sandy weren’t as overwhelming as in some communities. Overtime, obviously, increased during the emergency, but, Lucarelli said, department heads, especially the Department of Public Work’s, kept a tight rein on it, sparing taxpayers.
The borough’s initial claim submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was for $50,000. Most of that, he said, was for fuel reimbursement as DPW workers collected and chipped 100,000 yards of brush and cut up trees.
Despite the demands the office places on its holder, Lucarelli said he looks forward to the next two years and is mindful of the work so many do, including the professional staff and the many volunteers who give up their time to help the community function.
The key to continuing, Lucarelli said, is to “plan and try to make the right decisions.”