Under the leadership of a new president and vice president, members of the Toms River Township Council said during their annual reorganization meeting Wednesday that they will continue to work toward recovering from Hurricane Sandy.
"In 2012, we had a difficult year for Toms River. The town as we know it was fundamentally changed by Sandy," said George Wittmann, who was elected to lead the council as its president in the new year.
"In 2013, our focus has to be on how we rebuild the town in a thoughtful way that allows our displaced residents to get back into their homes as soon as possible," he said.
Councilwoman Maria Maruca was elected to serve as the council's vice president and said that the township will work with state and other officials to get residents the answers that they need as rebuilding continues.
"This is uncharted territory that we're in right now and we're going to get through this," she said. "I say without a doubt that 2013 will be brighter for this town."
Former council president Mo Hill said that 2012 ended "on a sour note" because of Sandy, but noted that the township had some accomplishments including the groundbreaking of a new animal shelter and the opening of a softball complex. Hill noted that officials continue to work on Sandy recovery efforts, which some residents — especially those in Ortley Beach — have said are not going quickly enough.
"It's moving," he said. "Maybe not as fast as everyone would like, but we're doing it in a safe manner."
Wittmann offered praise for township administrators and department heads for their response to the storm and continued recovery efforts and outlined "high level" goals for officials to focus on in the new year:
- Determine the feasibility of an ordinance requiring that all ocean-front properties in Toms River comply with FEMA dune guidelines. If the township cannot legally pass an ordinance requiring these property owners build a dune, Wittmann said that state legislators may be called on to pass a bill. The township currently is seeking easements from beachfront property owners so that the Army Corps of Engineers can replenish dunes to prevent future flooding.
- Recent flooding in bay areas must be evaluated "quickly," Wittmann said. Mayor Thomas Kelaher has sent correspondence to the state Department of Environmental Protection calling on those officials to help, as a report states that sand displaced by Sandy may have found its way into the bay.
- The township will seek guidance on flood maps issued by FEMA. "There are inconsistencies that may cause our residents to make the wrong decisions as they rebuild their homes," Wittmann said. Some residents at the meeting Wednesday told the council that they are unsure of how to proceed with rebuilding because of the questionable maps.
- Officials will seek increased aid to communities like Toms River that are losing ratables because of Sandy damage to avoid a tax hike. "It's time Toms River residents got their fair share of aid," Wittmann said.
- The township may consider creating a part-time ombudsman position lasting six-to-nine months to aid residents as they rebuild. The ombudsman would be on duty after normal work hours so residents would not have to loose time on their jobs while seeking guidance.
The council president said that he is "proud" of the township's response and looked forward to the upcoming year.
"Certainly if we work together as a team the town will be in very good shape," he said.
Kelaher wished those at the meeting a happy new year and offered words of hope for those residents who still are unable to return to their homes.
"My prayer would be that mother nature gives us a break in 2013, get people back into their homes and return to normal as fast as we can," he said.