Staff photo by Rob Anthes

Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede took the stage to deliver her annual State of Hamilton address, and pointed out the nervous looks worn by her staff.

“They never know what’s going to happen at the State of the Township,” Yaede joked.

Indeed, it has become a yearly tradition for Yaede to spring a surprise on her staff and attendees during her speech. Three years ago, she spoke while holding a dog from the township animal shelter. In 2015, former mayor Jack Rafferty drove through the ballroom in a go-kart. Last year, she called former NBA player Kevin Johnson—then the mayor of Sacramento, California—on the telephone mid-speech to discuss bowling alleys.

But by the end of the 33-minute speech March 9, the only surprise this year was the straightforward, confident tone struck by Yaede. There were no gimmicks in her 2017 State of Hamilton address. Just a laundry list of accomplishments and a vision for what’s to come this year in Mercer County’s largest municipality.

“My tone is different,” Yaede conceded at the end of her speech. “Everyone expects Jack Rafferty to come out in a go-kart.”

While Yaede addressed a wide range of issues, she had four major points of emphasis: economic development, stopping the heroin epidemic, public safety and being a good steward of taxpayers’ money. Among the highlights was the announcement that there will be no increase in municipal taxes this year.

But there was plenty more to dig into for the crowd assembled at the Stone Terrace for the luncheon, put on by the Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Economic development

Economic development is a staple of any State of Hamilton address, but Yaede framed the progress in different terms. Specifically, she stressed the effect development has had on the job market. Hamilton welcomed $44.5M in new ratables in 2016, which Yaede said will generate 2,000 new jobs in the township. Development has brought 1,000 jobs to the Route 130 area of Hamilton Square alone last year, she said, pointing to the Homewood Suites hotel at the corner of Kuser Road and Route 130, the Homestead at Hamilton retirement community and a new warehouse at the intersection of Kuser and Klockner Roads, and a FedEx fulfillment center on Route 130.

Yaede also mentioned the Court at Hamilton shopping center, formerly known as Suburban Plaza, which was more than 90 percent vacant before WalMart committed to redeveloping it. A Super Walmart opened in the Route 33 mall in October 2016, with 300 new jobs created as a result.

Also under construction are the former sites of Patterson Chevrolet and Hamilton Chrysler, which is now known as Hamilton Point Center. A Wawa gas station already has opened at the site on Route 33 in Hamilton Square, with an AutoZone built on the old Patterson site, and an Aldi supermarket, Panera Bread restaurant and AAA Car Center planned for the recently demolished Chrysler site.

Going forward, Yaede has her sights set on the location of the abandoned Congoleum factory site across from the Hamilton train station. She said the township has had discussions with a major corporation already located in New Jersey about the site. The talks are not far enough along to reveal anything further, Yaede said.

Also in the pipeline is a proposal for a new hotel, which will be coming before the planning board soon. If built, the hotel would be the township’s fourth.

Yaede credited the township’s success to good relationships between the administration on the business community.

“Without these partnerships, it does not work,” she said. “We’re not too proud to ask for help.”

Heroin

The nationwide opioid crisis has taken hold in Hamilton, and Yaede touted her administration’s efforts in the past year to stem the tide.

In 2015, 10 people died in Hamilton from overdoses.

“Some mayors don’t want to address it, but we have to,” Yaede said.

Last spring, Yaede unveiled Hamilton’s Community Response Plan, which grouped in one place existing programs designed to battle heroin and opioid addiction. The township police continued using naloxone, an opioid antagonist that reserves the effects of an heroin overdose. In the first 18 months of using naloxone, Hamilton Police used it 51 times. The rest of county law enforcement combined used it 70 times.

Yaede and key staff members also learned how to deploy naloxone. Anyone revived from an overdose in the township will be given a packet of information about addiction treatment and recovery, thanks to a program started by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County. The municipal government worked with the township school district to provide a greater emphasis on drug awareness and prevention in the curriculum, and county prosecutor Angelo Onofri visited Hamilton schools in the fall to talk to students about drugs. Yaede said new superintendent Scott Rocco has expressed an interest in continuing that relationship. A recent report released by the state Department of Education said Hamilton Township schools reported 48 drug-related incidents on school grounds during the 2015-16 school year, fifth highest in the state.

The municipal government also partnered with The Overdose Prevention Agency Corporation (TOPAC), run by Hamilton resident Paul Ressler, to raise awareness and promote education. TOPAC received a portion of the proceeds from the State of Hamilton address.

Yaede said stopping the heroin epidemic will continue to be a focus going forward for the administration.

“We had three major health crises in our first few years,” Yaede said, referring to cases of illnesses like enterovirus and hepatitis in the township. “Now, we’re dealing with another one. A major, major problem.”

Public Safety

Yaede said Hamilton had the 2nd lowest crime rate since 1977 last year, and committed to a continued emphasis on public safety in 2017.

Township police received body-worn cameras and updated radio equipment last year, addressing a long-time need.

On the other side of public safety, the township will continue to explore the consolidation of the township’s nine fire districts into one entity. The state Department of Community Affairs submitted a study on the issue to the township in January, and the issue is now before the township council. Yaede said her administration, township council and those involved in fire safety all have the same goal: to provide a “thorough and efficient fire system.”

Yaede also pointed to the township shuttering a massage parlor March 8 as proof of her administration’s devotion to public safety. The parlor previously had been linked to prostitution. Township officials closed the Nottingham Way facility after finding it in violation of a township ordinance passed last year that strictly regulates massage parlors. Two masseuses on the premises did not have a required massage license present. Both were determined to be staying overnight at the location, and, in violation of the town’s ordinance, the facility did not have a list of services posted for patrons.

“True leadership shouldn’t be afraid to address these issues…If you don’t, they’ll just fester,” Yaede said.

Watching taxpayers’ money

The municipal government continues to take its role as a steward of taxpayers’ money seriously, Yaede said, and the net result can be seen in this year’s municipal budget, which will have no tax increase.

She mentioned, as evidence, the township’s new energy aggregation program, which will save each taxpayer $250 during the 21-month duration of the contract. Some people have sniffed at the $11.90-per-month savings, but Yaede said even that amount is a big deal to residents on a fixed budget. She said she was motivated to do the energy aggregation program by a story of a senior citizen who had to count her pills at a pharmacy and give back what she couldn’t afford.

“It is our responsibility to keep finding ways to save money,” Yaede said.

The township also has begun the process of hiring a third-party collections agency to go after $1.15M in uncollected municipal court fees.

“I cannot have that,” she said. “We don’t have a choice about whether we’re going to do this.”

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Rob Anthes serves as senior community editor, managing the Hamilton Post and Robbinsville Advance. He joined Community News Service full-time in 2007 after interning for the company in 2004 and 2006. The Association of Free Community Papers has recognized Rob's writing during its annual Best of the Best Awards 12 times, most recently in 2017. A lifelong Hamilton resident, Rob is a graduate of Steinert High School and Syracuse University.