By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
The theme for Donald Burden the last two years has been ‘falling.’
In 2009, just two months before he was set to retire after 47 years at McGraw-Hill, Burden was cleaning his gutters when he took a fall from the roof, leading to four surgeries on his legs and a slight gimp.
Then, last year, Burden, who was Shrewsbury’s council president, was approached by then-Mayor Terel Cooperhouse, who said he wasn’t running for re-election and asked Burden if he’d like to take the spot on the ticket.
It wasn’t something he expected or envisioned when he moved to town in 1976.
“I just fell into it,” said Burden, a Republican who was elected mayor in an uncontested race in November.
With three months under his belt, Burden can readily declare his borough and his legs, to a certain degree in good shape for the future.
In a sitdown with redbankgreen, Burden gave an overview of his first three months at the helm, and what lies ahead for Shrewsbury, which he called, borrowing a characterization from local historian Randall Gabrielan, the “cradle of civilization in Monmouth County.”
“It’s been a learning curve, certainly,” he said. “There have been some fine moments, like welcoming some new businesses, like Trader Joe’s, to town.”
With the closing of auto dealerships along Shrewsbury Avenue, Burden said the addition of Trader Joe’s may help compensate for a loss of visitors to the borough.
“It was such a delight to see Trader Joe’s come in because that’s traffic for everybody,” Burden said. “And of course The Grove’s just a gem that’s the envy of every town around here.”
With those two big names just blocks apart on Broad, vehicle traffic will remain a top concern for the borough council. Shrewsbury is also a conduit to the Garden State Parkway for people coming from Oceanport, Little Silver and Rumson, “so traffic continues to build. And it’s not going to get any better.”
Because the borough is bounded by state and county roads, it’s limited in its abilities to do anything about relieving the traffic in town, which at times can come to a standstill.
“Shrewsbury becomes a very, very active traffic community during the day, and at night resorts back to a sleepy little borough. At Christmas time I’ve seen Broad Street just lock down,” Burden said. “So anytime you want to do anything you’ve got to coordinate with these other units (the state and county). You can’t just put a traffic sign or stop light.”
The name-brand mainway of Broad Street, with the shops at The Grove, plus Trader Joe’s, Staples, A.C. Moore et al, help, but Shrewsbury is still dealing with the pressure-inducing economy. There’s a vacancy at an old filling station just over the railroad tracks on Broad, and nearby, on Newman Springs Road, a white elephant of a grocery store, neither of which Burden is sure of plans for.
And with the pending closure of Fort Monmouth, there’s worry that many of the offices in town that cater specifically to Fort employees and services will see a significant dropoff in business, perhaps forcing them to leave, Burden said.
What’s key to all this, Burden said, is maintaining a long view and planning for the future.
Rather than rush to fill a vacancy, borough leadership wants to bring in businesses that they believe will stay for the long haul a practice that’s paid off, he said, with a mix of small businesses like BagelMasters and big-box stores like A.C. Moore, he said.
“We don’t want to get into a position where there’s such large open space where you get into a flea market mentality, when you’re in for a month or so, then leave,” he said. “We like to get something in there that’s viable.”
Then there’s the budget, which Burden said has been “just difficult for every town.”
While the finance committee is still crunching numbers, he said, this year’s spending plan should be palatable to taxpayers.
Shrewsbury is fortunate in that its infrastructure and facilities are in decent shape, Burden said, leaving room for costs in health insurance, benefits and retirements always the main drivers of tax bills, he said.
The borough has saved in several retirements, and outsourcing its trash collection two years ago, financially was “the best thing that’s happened to us.”
With the down economy, the increase to public employee costs and upcoming negotiations with school staff, Burden said now is the time for Shrewsbury to get hold of its spending and prioritize. Gone are the days of coming across a need, putting out a bond package and moving on with business as usual, he said.
“Despite the complexities of it, there’s been a benefit of it, when a town like Shrewsbury has rapidly come to realize that they’ve only got so much to spend and they’ve got to live within their means,” he said. “So what we’re doing now is we’re spending what we can afford and that’s it.”
Burden’s goal for the rest of the year is to get a consistent message from the state on budgets, benefits for employees and the rules on affordable housing. Those, with hopefully a sign of an economic bounce-back, will help shape the future for Shrewsbury, and the rest of Burden’s term, he said.
“I think it’ll all pick up,” he said. “We just have to get out of this mess we’re in.”