Verona’s Town Council probably should have chosen a larger venue for Monday’s meeting. While attendees at previous council meetings on the budget generally had plenty of room to stretch out, last night, more than five dozen people packed the room and spilled out into the hallway and down the stairs into the lobby.
They weren’t there to applaud the designation of the old freight shed on Depot Street as Verona’s first landmarked property. They weren’t there to hear the annual report of the Verona Environmental Commission. No, they were there to vent about property taxes and the proposed 5.9% increase in Verona’s municipal budget.
Speaking in impassioned tones, some 20 people from the audience approached the microphone during the public comment section of the meeting to call for drastic changes to the town budget. Some, like Susan Montanile of Sunset Avenue, talked of property taxes that had shot up 50% on houses they couldn’t sell. They called for a flat budget or for a 10% cut in the town’s discretionary spending. They called for municipal salary cuts and an end to fireworks and summer entertainment. They wanted fees imposed on groups using town fields, and mocked the spending on Wi-Fi at the pool and flower baskets on the lampposts.
“I keep hearing how important the plants are,” said Julie Lachappelle of Sunset Avenue. “I wonder how important the residents are?”
They were angry and not mollified by assurances that they were now paying their fair share in taxes, or that the cost of the town’s summer entertainment–$15,000–had been defrayed by $10,000 in sponsorships and donations. They seemed unmoved by the report by Verona tax assessor George Librizzi that only 5% of the owners of Verona’s 5,000 properties had filed appeals on their assessments, the lowest number of appeals in our area. Or that, while Montclair re-assessed its properties at the top of the real estate market in 2006, Verona’s revaluation came while the market was heading down, producing more realistic valuations. They did not want hear that Verona’s budget was rising by less than neighboring towns or that our property tax increase would be less than the 2% cap agreed to by state legislators on Monday.
They were angry. “A whole town has come out to speak to the board tonight,” said Glen Road resident Lori Ruzich. “Five point nine percent? I don’t think so.”
Lenny Shriber, a resident who is the broker and sales manager at Prudential New Jersey Properties‘ Verona office, said he has had a steady stream of people coming into his office saying, “I’ve had it and I have to get out”. “We can no longer afford the municipal salaries in Verona,” said Shriber, who later in the meeting pointedly asked Martin why he was not taking a salary cut. (Martin had said at a previous Town Council meeting that he would ask the council to not increase his salary as called for under his three-year contract.)
The town council members were visibly shaken by the angry outbursts and promised to revisit the attendees’ concerns at the next meeting on August 16. “I will commit to looking at the budget,” said Mayor Teena Schwartz, “and looking at where we can cut and save.”