2021: The year in review

Hudson County struggles to return to normal

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Rendering courtesy of the Hoboken School District
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Photo by Mark Koosau
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Photo courtesy of the city of Jersey City
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Photo courtesy of the city of Hoboken
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Rendering courtesy of the Hoboken School District
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Photo by Mark Koosau
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Photo courtesy of the city of Jersey City
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Photo courtesy of the city of Hoboken

By Mark Koosau and Daniel Israel

2020 was a year of deep and profound disruption, and 2021 was the year Hudson County’s residents and officials made their best efforts to either return to normal or discover a new more hopeful future.

The year was grim, tiring and frustrating for many residents because of the pandemic, which seemed to recede in mid-year thanks to the availability of vaccines, only to come roaring back on two unforeseen variants more contagious than the original SARS CoV 2 coronavirus.

In 2020, about 49,058 residents tested positive for the virus, and the disease took the lives of 1,673 residents. By contrast, in 2021, 72,306 residents tested positive for the virus, and the disease took the lives of 623 residents.

Despite the darkness, some light at the end of the tunnel emerged for Hudson, as its municipalities mobilized to vaccinate as many people as they could. By and large that effort could be considered a success. The county is one of the most highly vaccinated in the state of New Jersey, with 72 percent of all residents fully vaccinated.

As 2021 came to a close, however, the county experienced the greatest surge in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. But even then, residents were able to, for the most part, return to what they know best this year. In-person events returned, school districts made valiant efforts to bring children back into the classroom, and people were able to get together at gatherings and restaurants.

And throughout the rest of the county, many things changed while others not so much. The famously complex and contentious politics of the county continued, for better or worse. Old faces left and new ones emerged, bringing fresh personalities into one of most diverse communities in the state and the country.

It’s time to vax

At the beginning of 2021, after vaccinating their health care workers at the end of the prior year, Hudson County started to roll out its vaccination campaign. Following the state’s plans, they began by vaccinating seniors, and went on from there, from frontline workers and first responders, to teachers, the general public and teenagers.

Jersey City has 70 percent of its residents fully vaccinated, while Hoboken is just shy of 71 percent.

But even as vaccinations continued throughout the year, the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon. Highly transmissible variants such as delta and now omicron have been the cause of surges within the county.

And with vaccines being one of the best ways to prevent infection, severe illness or death from COVID, some municipalities decided to implement their own mandates to combat the spread.

Hoboken, Weehawken and North Bergen issued mandates for their municipal workers, while Hoboken’s school district became what’s believed to be the first in New Jersey to issue a vaccine requirement for students 12 and older.

As the end of the year approached, boosters became available, first for the most vulnerable and then the general public, with boosters being seen as the best way to protect against the new variants due to the waning immunity of the first double-shot protocol.

In December as the weather got colder and the holidays approached, COVID cases increased dramatically to levels not seen since the pandemic began. Some of the county’s top officials got caught in the surge, with Mayors Steve Fulop of Jersey City and Ravi Bhalla of Hoboken testing positive for COVID.

Old faces fade away, new personalities arrive

Throughout the year, a number of people that were the heads of institutions parted ways.

First responder and public safety departments saw many changes to leadership. In Jersey City, Police Chief Michael Kelly retired in February; succeeding him in his role was Tawana Moody, the first Black woman to have ever led the Jersey City police force, as well as the first civilian to oversee the department.

Hoboken also saw its public safety leadership change. Anton Peskens became the Fire Department’s leader after Chief Brian Cimmins was put on administrative leave. City Police Chief Ken Ferrante also retired in June, with Daniel LoBue being sworn in in an acting role in July.

Libraries in the two cities also welcomed new faces. Terry B. Hill became the second Black director to lead the Jersey City Free Public Library, and Jennie Pu became the first Asian American woman to become director of the Hoboken Public Library.

In Jersey City, which has the second largest school district in the state, Superintendent Franklin Walker, who had been in the school district for decades and had been superintendent since 2019, decided to retire by the end of 2021.

In the halls of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Albio Sires decided not to seek another term in office in December, paving the way for Robert Menendez Jr. to seek to represent the 8th Congressional District that encompasses most of the county come 2023.

Things come to end (mostly)

The year saw closure to a number of pressing issues and stories that happened across the county, some that endured through multiple years. While it might be the end to some stories, others were certain to open up in the future.

One of those stories was Hudson County’s controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts to detain people in the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny while their immigration status was decided, in some cases a long draw-out process.

Long opposed by immigration activists in the county for its inhumane conditions, county officials finally severed their plans with ICE and freed those that were detained on Nov. 1.

In Jersey City, one of the most pressing issues for many residents and advocates has been affordable housing. For much of the year, the city’s controversial inclusionary zoning ordinance with loopholes for developers to avoid creating affordable housing was under legal litigation.

Ultimately, housing advocates came out victorious on that end when a Hudson County judge overturned the loophole ridden IZO. With the IZO being sent back to the drawing board, a new one was drafted by Jersey City and the Fair Share Housing Center and adopted by the Jersey City Council, which provided 10-15 percent affordable housing with no loopholes.

In Hoboken, protracted negotiations between the developers of the proposed Monarch development and the city ended amicably when the city agreed to let the developers build a new structure at the site of the present Hoboken Public Works garage on Observer Hwy, and the city agreed to look for a new site for the garage elsewhere. The agreement fulfills the city’s desire to dedicate Pier 15 for recreational use rather than residential development.

Still continuing in Hudson County is the ongoing battle for Liberty State Park, in which activists led by longtime advocate Sam Pesin have been outspoken in protecting the county’s most recognizable green space from privatization.

The activists have been fighting against billionaire Paul Fireman, who has sought to privatize part of the park for the nearby Liberty National Golf Course, with counter protestors financially backed by Fireman’s charity showing up at rallies.

As the end of the year approached, the latest commotion in Hoboken arose over a newly proposed $241 million high school. Residents who have been outspoken against the plan are now organizing to oppose it in the upcoming referendum on January 25.

Photo

Photo courtesy of the Hoboken School District

Municipal elections

While 2020 had one of the most consequential presidential elections of all time, residents in 2021 went to the polls to vote for something much closer to home, including the statewide election of governor, as well as municipal elections.

Jersey City would be the highlight of this year’s elections, where the mayor and all nine seats on the city council were up for election this year.

A slew of challengers lined up as progressive alternatives to the city’s establishment. But voters decided to stick with Mayor Steve Fulop defeating educator and activist Lewis Spears for a third term in office.

Fulop is now the first mayor in Jersey City to win a third term since the reign of infamous political boss Frank Hague in the early and mid-20th century. Many of his City Council slate members also won reelection last year.

Photo by Mark Koosau

A loss that could be felt across the city was long-time Councilman at-Large Rolando Lavarro. Known by many politicos for being one of Fulop’s most persistent critics over the years, he lost reelection after serving on the council for a decade.

Lavarro was unseated by Amy DeGise, the Hudson County Democratic Organization chairwoman and daughter of County Executive Tom DeGise.

Even while Fulop’s slate swept the elections, one independent managed to best a mayor-backed incumbent. Frank “Educational” Gilmore, a well-known educator and activist in the city who has openly talked about his journey from struggles to success, unseated Councilman Jermaine Robinson to represent Ward F.

Over in Hoboken, Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who had become the city’s first ever Sikh mayor in 2017, ran unopposed for a second term in the Mile Square City, a sharp contrast from the election in that year, which was wide open after former Mayor Dawn Zimmer decided not to seek reelection.

With Bhalla’s election all but guaranteed, the focus this time was the three at-Large City Council seats. While an opposition slate and a number of independents ran, it was ultimately Bhalla’s slate that won, with two of them, Councilmembers Emily Jabbour and Jim Doyle, winning reelection, and one of them, Joe Quintero, winning election to replace Vanessa Falco, who vacated her seat for a new administration job.

North Bergen

Throughout the year, North Bergen continued to reach toward some sense of normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The main focus of the year was arguably the distribution of vaccines in the township.

In 2021, Township Administrator Chris Pianese retired, handing the reins to Health Officer Janet Castro. Castro, who had been leading the Health Department throughout the pandemic, left the department in the hands of the new health officer, Tina Mereos.

North Bergen adopted an over $100 million budget, facing revenue loss due to COVID-19 but managing to keep the tax impact at 1.9 percent, approximately $73 per household. The township-wide property tax revaluation began in 2021. Assessors began inspections around late April, beginning to host webinars to inform residents of the process starting in May. Now, the preliminary values are complete, with letters expected to go out mid-January.

The township adopted an ordinance permitting recreational cannabis establishments, later amending it to cap the number of each type of establishment at two or three. North Bergen also adopted a trap, neuter, and release (TNR) program to address the feral cat population in town, something it had been eyeing since before the pandemic but was delayed due to the virus.

Environmental issues became the talk of residents at commissioners meetings, with a push by local environmental group NB Earth Talks for more compost bins following the success of the first bins installed in August in Braddock Park, and for the pursuit of green energy projects by the township. It started with the group pushing for the township to achieve a higher level of certification than Bronze from Sustainable Jersey, which eventually encouraged other residents to seek green projects in the township, including a community garden, an idea township officials are open to. Additionally, the township continues to work with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) toward the parkland diversion in Braddock Park that would allow the pre-school trailers to continue to exist there, despite continual opposition from some residents who maintain the trailers are unsafe.

North Bergen, like much of the county, suffered flooding due to Hurricane Ida. Following the storm, residents appeared at the Board of Commissioners meeting to express concerns about recurrent flooding. Following that, the township continues to work on sewer improvements and other infrastructure upgrades.

While 2020 was a year filled with protest, 2021 was quieter, but people still came out to support the causes they champion. Racial and social justice rallies continued, with residents coming out to show solidarity with Cubans, Palestinians and African-Americans over the summer.

Development continued across the township, with various redevelopment projects moving forward, including the groundbreaking of construction of a new affordable housing complex, the nearly-completed library and community center downtown, and the opening of the Solaia redevelopment.

At the start of 2021, the school district in North Bergen was still operating under virtual instruction. By late April, the district had transitioned to a hybrid model to finish out the 2020-2021 school year. After working out an in-person graduation and summer school, the district returned to school for the 2021-2022 school year in September fully in-person. During the first part of the school year, students enjoyed a brief reprieve, even getting the opportunity to speak with astronauts on the International Space Station. However, by the end of the year, with COVID-19 on the rise, the district announced it would temporarily shift back to virtual instruction with the hope of returning in person the second week of January.

Secaucus

The town of Secaucus kicked off the year beginning the distribution of vaccines to its population. And throughout the year, the town was able to vaccinate residents with overwhelming success leading to one of the highest vaccination rates in Hudson County.

Additionally, Hudson Regional Hospital collaborated with the town in providing vaccinations, also continuing to offer drive-thru COVID-19 testing.

In 2021, the town adopted a $60 million budget, suffering revenue loss due to the pandemic but maintaining a zero percent tax rate increase because of slashed expenses. And Secaucus plans to use all of its $2,291,508.66 in ARP funds to offset budget shortfalls. The town also filed suit against the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, seeking to recover its share of payments under the state Transportation Planning District (TPD) Act.

A few key development project has finished or are underway in town. The Hudson County Public Safety Training Center opened in Secaucus, and Laurel Hill Park was renovated to the tune of $1.3 million. The town also bonded $7.8 million for a new senior center, and $2.1 million to install solar panels at the rec center.

In 2021, Secaucus continued to pursue green initiatives, such as the “Recycle Right” program, the launch of compost bins, and its achievement of Silver certification from Sustainable New Jersey. The state will also pursue the Superfund designation of the Hackensack River, which abuts Secaucus, North Bergen, and Jersey City, seeking to clean up the river.

Speaking of green things, Secaucus said no to recreational cannabis establishments for now. In the meantime, the town did adopted a two-percent tax on medical cannabis which would apply to the current medical dispensary in town, Harmony Dispensary.

Meanwhile, the town’s local police therapy dog Oakley continued to be a beacon of light and joy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to sooth residents during vaccinations and working with students at Huber Street School. Oakley was joined by fellow pooch Strobe, the first dog to join the SPD’s Canine Unit. Fire Chief Carl Leppin stepped down, leading to the ascension of Joe Schoendorf to the position.

The school district saw a shakeup in leadership with the unspecified removal of Superintendent of Schools Jennifer Montesano and replacement with Acting Superintendent Daniela Riser. Meanwhile, the ‘Change We Need’ slate swept the school board elections amid a crowded race. Mayor Michael Gonnelli and his slate of incumbent council members sailed to reelection unopposed, with Gonnelli clinching a fourth term as mayor.

The school district ended the 2020-2021 school year under hybrid instruction, with plans to go fully in person by the end of the year. COVID-19 ultimately prevented that. The district started the 2021-2022 school year in person and opted to stay in person, only shifting to half days for the first week of January while other districts went virtual.

Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Temple Secaucus celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Weehawken

Much like the rest of the county, Weehawken also focused on vaccinating its residents in 2021.

The township adopted a $47 million budget for 2021, facing $3.4 million short in revenue. However, the township cut expenses to avoid an increase in municipal tax. Third Ward Councilman Raul Gonzalez resigned because he was moving. Former Third Ward Councilman Robert Sosa was appointed to fill the position.

Meanwhile, NY Waterway became the talk of the town after plans for an expansion of its current maintenance and refueling facility were “leaked.” The ferry operator continues to defend its plans as residents have organized to oppose the facility’s planned expansion. Mayor Richard Turner and the council are skeptical of the plans and await final site plan review before the Weehawken Planning Board.

Development of the township also continued, as Weehawken opened up its waterfront pool complex, with plans for future expansion to the recreation complex.

In addition to flooding, Weehawken suffered mudslides along the cliffs from Hurricane Ida. To deal with the damage, the township bonded $2.5 million for immediate repairs and now is pursuing long term shoring up of the cliffs.

The school district shifted to hybrid at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, then started the next year in person before temporarily shifting to virtual for a week in January. The district has also opened Wellness Centers to promote student mental health and has been offering extra help with college applications.

West New York

The town rang in 2021 by beginning the administering of COVID-19 vaccines to residents. But the city did not have a municipal site of its own. After a plea for help from Mayor Gabriel Rodriguez, Holy Name Medical Center set up a site at Memorial High School in West New York.

West New York appointed Luis Baez as the new Business Administrator, naming then-Business Administrator Jonathan Castaneda as Special Projects Manager. The town appointed a new town clerk, Adelinny Plaza, after former clerk Carmela Ricci retired after decades of service. Former Mayor Dr. Felix Roque teased a possible rematch with Rodriguez. But Rodriguez wasn’t phased.

The West New York Board of Commissioners bonded some of the funds to construct a new $25 million library. The town also raised the minimum wage to $15 for all municipal employees except for seasonal, and is permitting one recreational cannabis establishment. Additionally, West New York broke ground on the Grand 508 51st Street, what will be the tallest building in town when completed.

At the commissioners meetings, parking was the topic of discussion. Residents argued that the parking space line repainting was resulting in fewer parking spaces, to which West New York officials defended the project. And the town continued moving forward with parking projects, such as initiating the 57th Street parking deck project moving to the construction phase and completing the green infrastructure project at the 63rd Street parking lot.

West New York officials including Rodriguez took part in the rally for Cuban freedom amid protests on the island nation over the summer. The Archdiocese of Newark held a prayer vigil at a local church in support of Cubans.

The West New York school district was virtual until April of 2021, when it shifted to hybrid instruction for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year. The district opened in person for the 2021-2022 school year, following much of the rest of the county in temporarily going virtual for the first week in January.

Union City

In Union City, predictably vaccinations were also a major focus. The city adopted a $151 million budget, which remained balanced despite COVID-19.

State Senator Brian Stack, also mayor of Union City, was handily reelected. And following the success of early voting, the city opted to allow it again for the May municipal elections.

Much like West New York, Union City also cracked down on illegal fireworks after an uptick in noise complaints in 2020 and again 2021. The city was also one of many North Hudson municipalities to codify electric bicycle and scooter regulations.

Unlike its neighbors, Union City opted to prohibit recreational cannabis establishments, with Stack citing the dense nature of the city as reason for his objection. Meanwhile Stack continued to champion legislation he says will preserve the Palisades cliffs by establishing the Palisades Preservation Council, but has drawn the ire of some Hoboken officials.

Signs of life

While the word “normalcy” remains potentially debatable, there were some signs of normalcy returning to the county. In-person events were held, such as Jersey City’s JCAST returning after going virtual last year.

Photo courtesy of the city of Jersey City

Statues of famous figures were also placed throughout the county, including a statue in the newly created Bethune Park in Jersey City of Mary McLeod Bethune, and a statue on the Hoboken waterfront of the city’s most famous native, Frank Sinatra.

Photo courtesy of the city of Hoboken

As Sinatra was believed to have said: “I’m not one of those complicated, mixed-up cats. I’m not looking for the secret to life… I just go on from day to day, taking what comes.”

Day to day life is what Hudson County does, in its own inimitable style.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at mkoosau@hudsonreporter.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.