by Frank Fleischman III (FF3), Lead Editor

“The Potato Comics: Gentrification” by Iris D, from “Life @ U of T,” the University of Toronto campus blog

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham delivered a State of the Township address which, by all rights, he shouldn’t have. As the mayor — not the Chief Executive Officer — of Belleville’s council-manager form of government, Melham is nothing more than a third at-large councilperson with limited privileges and the right to preside over town council meetings. For all intents and purposes, the title of “mayor” in Belleville’s form of government is ceremonial. The township manager, who oversees the township’s daily operations, should have delivered the speech as part of a public meeting.

Having said all this, Melham delivered a speech short on Belleville’s history and identity as a working to middle-class suburb and long on grandiose vision and promises of how the future will be. Additionally, for a man who dismisses the complaints and concerns of his so-called enemies, he spent much of the speech attempting to disprove or discredit those criticisms.

The speech was solidly in line with a mayor who claimed early in his tenure that he is “first and foremost, a Realtor.” While there is much to critique in his speech, this blog post will focus on a few key aspects.

Euphemism Kills: “Gentrification” By Any Other Name Smells Just As Bad

If politicians do one thing well, it’s making things sound better than they are in reality. The best way to do so is by renaming things. Take the concept/word gentrification. Gentrification, generally, means the process of change in a community or neighborhood as younger and wealthier residents move in. This obviously results in changes to the community’s identity, physical appearance, and so on. Gentrification often results in older or longtime community residents being forced out as wealth increases, upscale businesses move in and prices increase. Gentrification remains a controversial concept.

Soon after being elected mayor in 2018, Melham was interviewed on Comcast Newsmakers, where he proudly stated his goal of gentrifying the Silver Lake section of Belleville’s First Ward. As time has gone on, however, he has shied away from using the term, going so far as to deny in a podcast interview late last year that his approach to development is gentrification. Although Melham went to great lengths in his speech to describe essentially this phenomenon as a solid good for Belleville, he stated that his administration’s approach actually prevents gentrification. He instead used words like “revitalization,” and “re-invigoration.”

Whatever terms he uses, the results of gentrification are plain to see in Belleville. Longtime residents, those of low-income means and senior citizens can no longer afford the high taxes and living costs in Belleville, so they are forced to sell their homes and move. Some fortunate seniors might be able to get a room at the Franklin Mills senior housing on Franklin Avenue, but more often than not must leave Belleville entirely. Their houses are bought either by young, wealthy families or corporate entities who seek to convert them to rental properties. It’s all tailored to fit Melham’s favored demographics and interests: young people with lots of disposable income, and real estate developers/speculators. The older or longtime residents seem tolerated in Melham’s Belleville only for their votes.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that Melham wants young people to move to Belleville: they likely won’t know about his Machiavellian past and present, his longtime role as political gatekeeper for wealthy and powerful interests, and his status as the heir apparent of a disgraced Belleville political boss.

“Strategic Urban Planning”

In one part of the speech, Melham emphasizes his Redevelopment Team, which allegedly practices “strategic urban planning.” See the definition of urban above. Strange, because Belleville is a town, not a city.

Yet, if you take Melham’s entire speech, it sounds like the vision for a city, not a town. I would venture to say that Melham’s plan is to make Belleville an urban area or a city. There are apparently great amounts of additional funding and public monies to be had (rather, used and abused) when a town or borough becomes a city.

But Melham’s embrace of “urban” isn’t surprising, considering what he was quoted as saying as a councilman 20-plus years ago:

Melham’s Strange Shout-outs to “Mike P” and “Mike O” When Boasting About Development

Melham emphasized several new developments that he liked. He mentioned the Ethos development on Franklin Avenue, and gave a shout-out to “Mike P,” who was apparently involved with Ethos’ development, and is apparently also involved with another development on Washington Avenue, which will have a rooftop view of New York City. Melham also mentioned a new mixed-use residential development on Union Avenue adjacent to the Whiskey Priest bar and restaurant, and gave a shout-out to “Mike O” for his good work on the development.

It might seem odd to people hearing or reading the speech that Melham didn’t mention their full names. Maybe it’s because “Mike P” could be Michael Pacillo, listed as acquisitions director for Sound Development. Sound is responsible for the Ethos development, as well as the new development on Washington Avenue north of Shoprite. According to legally required campaign finance reports, Pacillo has contributed almost $10,000 to Better Belleville/Melham campaign coffers. “Mike O” might be Jersey City-based builder Mirza Otovic, who was instrumental in building The Maximillian at 527 Union Avenue. Again, according to campaign finance reports, Otovic has recently contributed to Melham/Better Belleville.

Why was Melham coy about mentioning these individuals’ full names? Maybe because he is trying to downplay an obvious truth that concerned citizens and his critics have seized upon: much of Melham’s campaign funding comes not from your average Belleville resident, but from individuals and organizations in the real estate, corporate legal, construction, finance and engineering sectors. All these fields have much to gain from Melham’s drive to make Belleville “Hoboken On The Passaic.”

In his six years in office Melham, with the help of an often-complicit town Council, has de facto ended density requirements and other planning and zoning regulations, creating a smorgasborg for real estate development interests and related professionals.

On “PILOTs,” Melham’s Record Of Development, And Its Consequences For Belleville

Seemingly sensing that Belleville residents have, over the years, tired of seeing development after development take over Washington Avenue and other areas, Melham has created a shady narrative about his development record. Melham would have everyone believe that because some of the larger developments were approved before he assumed office, his administration had little to nothing to do with their success, and that the developments approved under his administration have been smaller and better for Belleville.

What Melham leaves out of his narrative is that he and the Town Council have provided these same developers generous financial agreements where they pay few to no taxes on the improvements (building) they do on the property. More than a few of these agreements last 25 to 30 years! So while those agreements are in effect, Belleville is losing out on needed tax revenue. As costs rise, taxes must be increased, and guess who pays the difference in the revenue shortfall?

Melham tries to play off that fact (“hey, your taxes always go up a bit, right?’) by saying his Redevelopment Team negotiates “givebacks” from these developers — essentially lump-sum payments for the Township to do what they will. Some of those givebacks have apparently paid for things like dog parks, park improvements etc. The unanswered question, however, is whether or not those givebacks are equal to, or would even roughly approach, the same amount of revenue the Township would collect in property taxes.

The speech wouldn’t be complete without Melham attempting to disprove the idea that new developments would bring in more schoolchildren, which has become a point of contention between Melham and outgoing schools superintendent Richard Tomko. In the past two years, Tomko has expressed support for redevelopment in Belleville, but has pointed out school enrollment trends that threaten Melham’s favored narrative.

While it may be true that the new developments Melham mentioned have no schoolchildren in them, they are very new, so time will tell. Also, just because these new developments consist mostly of studio or 1-bedroom apartments doesn’t mean tenants won’t try to bring in more family members, roommates, etc. My father was a fire subcode official for a major New Jersey city, and he saw an infinite amount of ways multiple people could live even in a 1 bedroom apartment.

In his speech, Melham says claims of Belleville schools bursting at the seams with students are untrue; that would be news to many Belleville residents with kids in the school system.

On “Getting Rid” Of The State Education Monitor

For the past few years, a small group of residents have criticized Thomas Egan, the New Jersey Department-appointed education monitor for the Belleville Board of Education. Mr. Egan has not been physically present at a Belleville Board of Education since at least February 2020 and has seemingly approved every financial decision the Board of Education has made in the past few years. Melham, arriving late to this particular party has called for Mr. Egan’s removal, saying in this speech that “this Board would be much better at managing our affairs than unelected state bureaucrats!”

A quick history of why Mr. Egan was appointed as monitor. In 2014, the Board of Education notified the New Jersey Department of Education and disclosed to the public a nearly $4 million deficit. This was after months of citizen protest and questions about the school district’s finances. According to a report filed by the Office of the State Auditor, the deficit occurred because of bad business practices, improper procedure and possible criminal acts. Something that Melham may not want the public to know is that some of the individuals who may have been responsible for this deficit were allegedly aligned — sometimes strongly and sometimes tacitly — with the then-out-of-office Melham and his erstwhile political mentor, Richard Yanuzzi.

The report detailed some shameful actions that occurred in the district, but others didn’t make the report. For example, a 2013 purchase order for over $30,000 paid to a Belleville company for website design services, with seemingly no paperwork showing the work was completed or, in the event the work hadn’t been completed, that the money had been returned to the district.

To cover the deficit, the state department of education floated the district an interest-free loan (for which the taxpayers are, to this day, paying upwards of $400,000 annually) and as part of the arrangement appointed a state monitor, for whom the district also has to pay. Mr. Egan, in conjunction with then-new superintendent Tomko, quickly went to work righting the district’s finances. As time has gone on, Mr. Egan’s silence on the board’s financial decisions, or his reversals of some key school board decisions, has not gone unnoticed.

There are strong arguments for asking the state to remove a state monitor from Belleville, although It’s strange how Melham is railing against Egan. After all, since all school board financial decisions seemingly had to be approved by Mr. Egan, it stands to reason Egan approved the ethically questionable lease of Melham’s commercial property on Union Avenue for school district administrative space. Two of Melham’s Better Belleville candidates voted to approve the lease, which provides a six-figure windfall of taxpayer money for Melham. But then again, maybe it’s not so strange that he believes that this board can “manage our affairs” and that Mr. Egan is no longer needed: his Better Belleville candidates now comprise the board majority. Based on the vote to lease his property, he may feel he now has even more to gain in the school district.

Better Belleville’s guiding philosophy seems to be that what’s good for Melham is good for Belleville.

Conclusion: Dancing A Little Sidestep

There is a lot more that can be said about Mayor Melham’s speech. There are other things I can poke holes in, such as the claim that municipal positions have been redesigned and their salaries reduced (what wasn’t said that many of those positions have been filled by Melham’s loyal supporters and friends, who now can access Cadillac-level health care benefits on the taxpayer’s dollar.)

Melham’s vision for Belleville leaves the town’s fate in the hands of his favored interests: developers, financiers, builders and their hired legal guns. And the residents? He feels he can placate them with town events, feel-good spin and the old Belleville politics in more attractive packaging.

Melham’s vision requires the dismantling of Belleville’s working/middle class culture and character and the slow ushering-out of longtime Belleville residents who take up space in his gentrified Belleville. That’s the truth, and no amount of charitable donations, letters of intent from hip stores or celebrity name-droppings will change that.