Published On: Sun, Dec 30th, 2018

David Del Vecchio reflects on 27 years as mayor of Lambertville

On Sunday, Dec. 30, Mayor David Del Vecchio sat down with the Free Press for an in-depth interview recapping the past 27 years in Lambertville. Here are the highlights:

It’s 1991 and you decide to run for mayor of Lambertville. Who was the mayor before you?

Frank Fuzo. He lost the Republican primary to Dave Burd, and I ran against Dave Burd.

So this was a political party flip at this time?

Yes. The Governing Body was four Republicans and (former mayor) John McManus.

Was Lambertville predominantly Republican before that? 

No. It’s almost like a New Deal Democratic town. What happened is people like Phil Pittore, they got older and less involved. So the Julia Fahl’s of the world were Republican at the time. They came in — people like Rick Anthes, Burd, Fuzo and Jim Rosso.

So, in 1991 what were the main issues you were running on?

Property taxes. The police department had 13 or 14 people. So I had gone door-to-door knocking on houses. And I was convinced by talking to people that they thought we had too many cops.

Did you cut taxes immediately when you got elected? How did you do it?

I got elected, had a hearing and said I’m going to downsize the police department. What I didn’t understand was the only people who will come to a meeting about the police were people who support the police! People came and I got killed. I waived the white flag and just ended up cutting through attrition. Then, I cut about $40,000 in the tax levy. The collection rate was real low, it was like 90.68. We were only collecting 90 cents on the dollar. For example, the average past five years is around 99. So I was able to cut the reserve fund by increasing the collection rate.

I was sworn in on Jan. 1, 1992, and had won by 46 votes. I beat a Republican in the election who was still on city council and a future Republican opponent who was also on council. So we ran Marie Warford and George Hambach, and that was 1992, the Bill Clinton year, and that was like 90% turnout, and we had a big win. But Anthes got back on council, then ran against me in 1994 and in 1997.

So, in the 1990s what differences were you seeing in Lambertville?

We got a small cities grant and re-did the library and put in an elevator and got some DOT  (Department of Transportation) money and started rebuilding downtown streets. Around 1992-93 first we did Coryell, Church…and Coryell was the first block party. So construction on downtown streets is not easy. I think I was really hurt [in the recent election] by the construction going on by the utilities there. But anyway, back to the 90s: When that construction was done, people said they wanted to have a party and celebrate. So we closed the street and had our first block party — and now everyone has block parties. I think we saw more people doing private investment in their properties because we were investing in the city. We eventually did all the downtown streets over time. And we did well in the Florio and Whitman administration with grants. And with the McGreevey administration, we did really well.

What is going on in the 2000s?

The DRJTBC had just raised tolls on bridges. By the early 2000s, governors McGreevey of New Jersey and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania came up with a grant program for towns on both sides of the river. If you had a bridge, you qualified. We got six or seven million dollars; our first project was a huge success and we did it quickly.

What was this money used for?

We used it for roads, trees, sidewalks. We used it for the Swan Street light [across Route 165]. We even got federal money to work up on Connaught Hill — we put sewer and drainage there.  Overall, it was eventually on all three hills through various forms of funding. When Richard Codey became governor, we actually got a line item in the budget for tax relief for like $350,000.

What else happened involving infrastructure?

We had the first city-wide traffic calming plan in the state of New Jersey, which included speed bumps, bump outs, raised sidewalks in a couple places. We re-built Cavallo park. We got historic trust money for City Hall. Small cities money to make the library and city hall handicapped accessible.

What was your worst winter ever?

1994 I think was bad.

Do you mean 1996? The only reason I ask is because it was my first year away at college and my father joked that the only time he missed me was when he had to shovel that snow alone.

That might have been it. Also, when I lived on Bridge Street, I think 2015, beginning of 2016 – we had like 30 inches of snow. Then we had a winter in the early 2000s where it compounded with a reality TV show, “Joe Millionaire.” The finalist Zora Andrich was from Lambertville and we became part of the story. The actual final airing of the show occurred during the storm, and I think ratings were boosted significantly here because people were snowed in.

So what about flooding?

2004, 2005 and 2006. What flooding taught me is that no matter what’s going on, you still have to be able to function. We got pretty good at getting people out of their houses and getting people back in in a really quick time. We also got flooded during Hurricane Floyd and [Tropical Storm] Lee. And then there was Sandy, and Irene, which wasn’t about flooding, but power. During Sandy, we lost power for seven, eight, nine, 10 days, depending on where you were. During Sandy, I put a curfew because it was eerie at night. We then got grant money to put back up generators at city hall, the library and the justice center.

Did anyone ever have to sleep at these locations?

No. During Floyd, I think some people had to sleep at South [Hunterdon High School].

When it comes to flooding and the Delaware, what’s the biggest thing a reader wouldn’t know?

That the reservoirs didn’t cause the floods, but they exacerbated the situation. It was just perfect timing: flooding in the Poconos, New York State, once we had snow melting.

That boggles my mind that it happened like that three years in a row. What changed after 2006 . . . besides the weather? Because this year has been the wettest on record by certain measures but everything’s been fine.

A bunch of different things have to happen for it to flood. A resident, John Diller, educated me on what’s called the Community Rating System. And you start out with a “10” and it’s like a good driver discount for different things you do. For every point you go below, your residents get 5% off on flood insurance. And we got down to a “7.” So now people save 15% on their flood insurance. But overall the floods taught me, as did 9/11, that no matter what happens the government has to function.

What were some of the environmental accomplishments you had?

Four things: environment, energy, open space and recycling. The county is supposed to do recycling in New Jersey, and our county got out of the recycling business.

Hunterdon was the worst in the state when I did a Hackathon a couple years back.

Around 2007-08 we either had a choice of keeping going ourselves or privatizing it. I asked the former city clerk and public works director to come up with a recycling plan. Then we came up with a plan and had a meeting, and at the meeting, the public said, “this plan really sucks.” I agreed. And then the environmental commission and people at the meeting and other residents came up with the single stream recycling program we have now.

Do you see changes on the horizon with China not taking a lot of recyclables? I think Mayor-Elect Fahl wants to change how it’s collected anyway, but it looks like things are going have to change anyway, just because of what China is doing.

It’s cost us a lot of money this year. For example Colgate in New Brunswick used to pay us $20 a ton, sometimes we’d pay them $20 a ton depending on the market. Now because of China, we’re paying like $50 a ton. The problem is the same whether you go to a private carrier or not. Because we used inmates, we were so much cheaper compared to others.

Then, we established the third waste food program.

Is that program stable economically?

We get communities money for that. Before if the food was just going into the regular garbage, we might be paying $8 more a ton.

So the city gets charged based on the tonnage of solid municipal waste ( basically weight of garbage trucks)? How much are we saving on that? 

The savings are a couple thousand a year just on food waste, but recycling reduces that tonnage too. From our 2011  – 2018 garbage numbers, we saved roughly $20,000 a year, even though we lost some this year.

On Open Space, we purchased the woods east of Ely Field and it will look the same forever, the land behind CVS, the plastics bag ban, Paris Accords, LED lights.

In energy, George Fisher and us created the South County Energy Co-Op. We did the solar array at the high school, did energy audits for all city buildings. At City Hall, we went from home heating oil to natural gas. At the library, we went from electric to natural gas, we ended up saving thousands a month there.

You mentioned something about finances you’d like to get into?

At the time, when John Corzine came in, he cut state aid for all municipalities under 10,000 people. We lost a lot in one year and he put a 4% cap on taxes, so we said “what are we going to do?” City Council came up a plan: we sold the parking lot by DeAnna’s for $150,000 and we took a look at every department in the city and downsized.

Do you think Mayor-Elect Fahl’s concern about debt is legitimate? Does the city have too much debt?

No. Our AA bond rating got reaffirmed, so the markets don’t think we have too much debt. This year we have a budget of $5,253,038. And we have three accounts: surplus, debt service and capital fund balance. Those three accounts are going to have $2 million it in. That’s 40% of our budget. She doesn’t have to spend all that, but she has some in tax cap space and more in budget cap space. So we’re in good financial shape and arguably have never been in this good shape. Last year we paid off more debt than we ever have.

How has the town demographically changed sine 1991?

Much younger. I think that was a reason I lost.

Are you talking single people or families?

Both. You have to remember at one point we had 3,800 people and like 3,100 registered voters. It’s high because we had fewer kids around 2008.

So you think the population has swung back toward families?

Somewhat. Ironically, the school historically was not a great school. Some people would move here and if they had kids they would move to Hopewell. But Gail Richardson and others formed an education foundation (today LAEF) to define the agenda for the Board of Education. And eventually many of them became board members.

Do you think the school’s merging with West Amwell, Stockton and South Hunterdon has provided economic benefits? Because I think we still pay a higher share than the others because of the formula (amount of kids sent, home valuation, etc).

It depends on the growth with regard to expenses. But, we no longer have three superintendents.

So where do you see the winds blowing if you had to predict where the Save LPS movement is going?

Well, I think they will put money in West Amwell School and they will put money in LPS. I think politically the easiest thing to do and most winnable thing to do is that.

Regarding plans to build a new school, wouldn’t a referendum have to pass in two of the three towns and a majority of the population overall?

I had some tough meetings with Dr. Muenker (South Hunterdon Superintendent) and (BOE president) Jim Gallagher. I said “You guys are making a zoning decision, changing the town from a walking district to a busing your kids district.” You almost shouldn’t let boards decide where schools are, you should let governing bodies do that.

How have you balanced the division that exists between the people who were born and raised in Lambertville and the “newbies” who moved in over the years?

Taxes. That’s why I became a tax hawk. Because I knew if I was raising taxes, I was gentrifying the town and was forcing people out. And that’s why I tried to get other people’s money (OPM) to do projects and to keep what I controlled stable.

But didn’t we have a big increase that I mentioned to you at the mayoral forum? And I know you replied that the municipal rate hadn’t gone up that much. 

From 2016 to 2018, I don’t think it was that much. I don’t know if our overall portion increased because of the school or other factors.

What about human rights in town?

One of the big things in 1994 was that the police department was under the control of the prosecutor’s office. They gave it back to us. Then I ended up pressing charges against the chief of police, Jack Venettone for, amongst other things, sexual harassment. The council ended up buying him out.

We also had a guy, Dave Hendricks, who beat up a prisoner. I tried to negotiate a settlement with him. His lawyer said, “I want to suck the city dry.” We won on appeal and I fired him. We then had to change ordinances while advertising for a police director. We then hired Al Varga who helped change the police culture and later on Bruce Cocuzza really cemented that change.

So staying on human rights, what years are the Latino population predominantly coming in? I know the Human Rights Council was created not primarily for that community, but has spent some time assisting the community. 

Even before Donald Trump, there was some local angst.

Like anger at them?

Yes. So we did a landlord ordinance. I mean, if you’re next door to people and there’s three generations in a house – well, that’s America. I mean, my grandfather in Montclair was probably doing that. If people are renting floorspace, then we’d prosecute that landlord. We took 3-4 landlords to court and won.

If overcrowding is a family issue – that’s America. But if overcrowding is the rental policies of a landlord, we’d address that.

After Trump’s election things changed. There was ICE raid, we held a meeting with lawyers and then came up with IDs for our undocumented community. And they didn’t want to be a sanctuary city, they just wanted the status quo.

What are some issues on human rights accomplishments that the reader might not know about?

First civil union in the state, first same sex marriage in state, committee on human rights. One of the things that you’re going to be successful electorally is if your governing bodies look like the people you govern.

What about Latino representation on some committees? There has to be some eligible leaders that will step forward in the near future. 

I grew up in Dover, New Jersey, and it was mostly Puerto Rican. And they’re already U.S. citizens. So the politics were much different. I think there just needs to be a path to citizenship. Oddly enough, I think a person who had a decent plan was [former president] George W. Bush.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the DWI charges back in 2014. Do you think that hurt you in the election or is there anything you’d like to comment on it?

I blew double zeros twice, I didn’t well on the field test, but anyone’s who’s seen me walk around, it’s no surprise. I was very respectful through the whole thing. I think they should change it somewhat for older people. But, it was not good for the city and it certainly didn’t help in the election.

What do you think your legacy is?

I always tried to put the city first. For about 22 of the 27 years I didn’t take a salary. Then I just got tired of not taking it.

Well, you were certainly entitled to it.

And I would be vested in the state pension plan if I had done that.

So you’re not going to pick up a pension from this?

Can’t do the job for that reason.

That means no health or life insurance through the state?

Yes, I would have been eligible for that, but am not now.

I remember you had mentioned how Lambertville became a very different city during the McGreevey administration. 

We recruited his staff! We would go to new cabinet people there and say, “This is where you should live.” Brad Campbell, Jamie Fox along with my ex-, Karen Kominsky, who was McGreevey’s deputy chief of staff, we would have Friday night dinners at Rick’s telling people to live here. (Dave then cited this nytimes article).

So what now?

I just did a 90-day plan based on having more free time. But other things, you know, social media has made governing more complicated. It shows people have a right to be upset about whatever, but social media shows that there are a lot of people not informed about the process.

I agree with that. Before they would have to go to city hall, to a meeting, which not a lot of people do all the time, or write to the local paper! And that was still moderated. And now it’s unfiltered to a degree. 

Yeah, it affects your decision making. When we were redoing Ely Field, the grass had so many weeds because we didn’t use pesticides. Because were were concerned of social media. And we didn’t want people over-responding to it. And now we have a bunch of weeds.

Any final thoughts?

I think by any standard you wanted to apply, I left the city better than I found it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

- Steve Chernoski is a writer, film director and teacher who lives in Lambertville. Here's his website: http://stevechernoski.com.

Displaying 3 Comments
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  1. Johnmathieu393@gmail.com' John Mathieu says:

    Very well done story. Great questions, great answers. David did a great job as Mayor! As a long time local businessman and knowing almost all the political players in town over the years, I think Lambertville was blessed to have David as Mayor. It’s universally believed that business people should never put up political signs during an election and generally I agree with that principle. But I felt a need to put up David’s siigns and I gladly did. He lost. But we all won by having him as Mayor for so many years.

    I look forward to Julia succeeding him and wish her the best. Time moves on and move on with time we must.

    Thanks for your service David…
    John Mathieu

  2. taeagan@hotmail.com' Tom E says:

    I am very grateful for Dave’s service to our city. I wish him well in the future and I wish Julia well as our next Mayor.

  3. 1. Would like to thank the Mayor for his many years of work for this town. Obviously didn’t do it for the money. Much respect Mr Mayor…thank you. You’re a good dude.
    2. Mr Mayor confirmed in the interview what we all know. The LVille cops are abusive and overly aggressive. Ms Mayor should address this.
    3. I’ve been here for 10 years and seen Mr Mayor out many a night. He likes to have a cocktail and talk to the ladies…including my wife. I like that. But if you get caught driving…own it. When the Mayor gets a dui in his own town…you gotta know it’s probably legit. It will not be your legacy but rather your many years of excellent service.

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