Friday, April 12, 2024

INTERESTING FOLKS: Joanne Van Valkenburg – A Fierce Advocate for Blairstown Retires with Laudable Legacy

Joanne Van Valkenburg accepts award from Mayor Moorhead.

For the past seven years Giovanna “Joanne” Van Valkenburg sat behind the dais at the Blairstown Municipal Building. Speaking her mind and fiercely advocating for her fellow residents will be her legacy as she adjourns her position on the Blairstown Township Committee (BTC).

Since her arrival to the town in 1978, Van Valkenburg has been dedicated to its improvement. Once her boxes were unpacked, she immersed herself in the community by teaching CCD classes at St. Jude’s Church and helping to restore the Welcome Wagon program for new homeowners like herself.

In 1990, she was elected to the Blairstown Elementary Board of Education and nine years later took her talents to the Planning Board. In 2001, Van Valkenburg successfully ran a campaign for Blairstown Township Committee and began her political career.

Christmas Day of 2000, less than a month before Van Valkenburg’s official inauguration, “I got a call at 3:20 in the morning from general sanitation,” she remembers. The Blairstown Municipal Building had burned down and an emergency BTC meeting would be held six hours later. “That was quite an initiation for me.”

Van Valkenburg ran for reelection in 2003 but lost to George Joest and Ray Stevens. Stevens would later be convicted of embezzlement. Years later, however, Van Valkenburg was called off the bench. In 2015, committee member Susan Price resigned, and Van Valkenburg was asked to replace her.

She then ran in 2016 and was officially reinstated to the committee. A former accountant and current real estate agent, Van Valkenburg offered a useful perspective to every issue and every piece of legislation. She prides herself in reading the fine print and catching details others might overlook.

Current BTC committee member Debra Waldron spoke to that, “the town has benefited from her knowledge and her tenacity, and her guts, because she’s not afraid to say what needs to be accomplished and whose responsibility it is to get it done.”

Van Valkenburg’s most recent accomplishment came from the removal of the Paulina Dam. A project that would have cost the township $4.8 million dollars has been outsourced to the
Nature Conservancy through Van Valkenburg’s arrangement. The dam is scheduled to be
entirely removed by the summer of 2024.

During her time in office Van Valkenburg created the Vacant and Abandoned Properties
Program that put the onus of unattractive properties back onto the banks that owned them.
When the banks did not comply with this ordinance they were fined. These fines brought the township more than $200,000 and helped boost local property values.

A realtor at heart, Van Valkenburg drew the committee’s attention to repossessed properties owned by the township. Tax lien properties take money out of the township’s budget. “For these properties you’ve got to pay school, county and open space taxes. We don’t have to pay municipal, but we pay everything else,” she explained. After six months of property ownership the town can foreclose and look to sell.”

“So as soon as I would find out that we owned any tax liens…let’s foreclose.” Van Valkenburg remembers one property that sold for around $120,000. All sold properties end up back on Blairstown’s tax rolls.

Transparency and communication were vital to Van Valkenburg during her time on the
committee. When the town needed to introduce a municipal tax, Van Valkenburg and Waldron went out into the community to explain its necessity. Meeting at North Warren Regional High School, Van Valkenburg presented a PowerPoint presentation that broke down the budget and where the tax was needed. “The first thing I said to Steve [Lance] and all of us, we have to get to the public. We can’t put a tax out and not inform the public as to why.”

“The town was in dire straits… the town had… utilized every dime of the reserve funds, “Almost, and they were using the reserve funds as a piggy bank,” recalls Waldron. A five-cent tax was introduced to create a fund dedicated to road improvements and to pull the Township out of the red.

“I mean there’s not many people that have the type of background Joanne has in accounting that would understand this and could put it together in a way that a layman could understand it,” said Waldron.

And when the BTC sought to raise the tax rate to 25 cents it was Van Valkenburg who urged the committee to communicate with the public. When she felt as if the rest of the committee hadn’t done their part, she along with Waldron, voted against the increase. “I’m not against the increase. I’m against the way it was done.”

Van Valkenburg does not look back on her political career with rose-colored glasses. Citing
issues of communication, and in some instances, complete disrespect, Van Valkenburg claims much of her input fell on deaf ears. So, when time for reelection came around, Van Valkenburg ignored the call. “I can’t put up with another three years of no communication,” she stated.

She has, however, accepted a position as an alternate member to the Land Use Board. And as she moves forward into a new governmental position, Van Valkenburg wants to make one thing clear; she has not been defeated.

“Hey, I’m Italian. I’ll keep fighting. Bring it on,” she said.

Alex Tironi Headshot
Alex Tironi, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

A recent graduate of George Mason University in Virginia, Alex pursued a degree in journalism with a double minor in American Sign Language and nonprofit studies. She worked as assistant news editor to the Fourth Estate, the university newspaper where she reported on many things but mostly focused on campus crime and PD activity. While working for a nonprofit called the Borgen Project, she wrote about global health and poverty in third-world nations. Alex recently finished an internship writing and editing for a business consulting company in NY. Growing up in the area, she has always been active in her community and brings the same intention as a contributing writer for the Ridge View Echo.