Frustration on the part of town officials that it is mid-year and they still lack clear budget guidance from the state. Frustration on the part of residents that, in the midst of the worst economy in decades, Verona is looking at a budget increase of at least 4%. Frustration on both sides of the dais that so much of Verona’s budget planning is controlled by Trenton and not us.
“Why are we not budgeting flat?” asked Alex Roman, a resident who spoke at the meeting, after the hearing was over. “That’s what the private sector is doing now.”
Ah, but once you get past the basic need for balance, a municipal budget is anything but the private sector. Sixty-five of Verona’s 90 municipal employees are covered by contractual agreements negotiated elsewhere, with guaranteed salary increases (4% for Verona’s police force) and health and retirement benefits that private sector workers haven’t seen in years. Of the $7.3 million in Verona’s general budget for salaries and wages, $3.8 million is for the police.
Of course, since most of Verona’s police force lives in Verona, they will be paying the higher taxes that the current budget will engender along with the rest of us. We seem to be looking at a total tax rate of 2.422 per $100 of assessed value if everything else holds on the county and state level. Big if: Township Manager Joe Martin noted at the meeting that Verona has already lost $300,000 in state aid. Martin, by the way, said he will recommend no increase to his salary, which could have been raised under his current employment contract. Martin will likely introduce the salary resolution in August, after the state budget is finalized.
It may not have helped the general mood in the room that, at the same time as the budget increase was being noted, the council was also considering bond ordinances to raise funds for a variety of other improvements. The council authorized $491,000 for upgrades to the Verona Pool, which will fund its first resurfacing in more than two decades. There was also $628,000 in bonds for improvements to Verona’s water and sewer system, and a bit over $2 million for a variety of other projects, including $628,000 for a new pumper for Fire Station #2 and $483,000 for bleachers and a press box on the west side of the Centennial Field.
“We as taxpayers cannot be held hostage,” said resident Elizabeth C. Knoops, who spoke at length against the budget at the meeting. “What’s happening in California is going to be happening to us too.”