Despite the change in venue from Town Council chambers, the ballroom at the Verona Community Center was not nearly big enough for the crowds, estimated by the Verona police at totaling about five hundred, who turned out for last night’s meeting on the 2010 budget. The cars filled all the VCC parking lots and lined Linn Drive and Oakridge Road all the way to Chestnut. Inside there was more spillover, with all the chairs filled and bodies lining the walls and floors and jamming the vestibules.
The residents’ anger bubbled over too; the public comment portion took over three hours as a steady stream of townspeople spoke to the Council, offering their opinions in strictly enforced six-minute allotments, sometimes in angry tones. The crowd reacted with occasional laughter, murmurs or outbursts of frustration. One woman, ostensibly faint from the heat, had to be helped out by Verona police officers.
The meeting began with an awkwardly timed announcement by Town Manager Joseph Martin that the town needs a new fire truck, which will cost $513,000. Martin and the Council members followed with a defense of the 2010 budget, which includes a 5.9% tax increase. Martin listed his reasons why he believes the budget is “reasoned and reasonable.” Many Council members emphasized that only a small part of the budget is discretionary and that the budget year is two-thirds over. “This budget is 75% encumbered,” said Mayor Teena Schwartz. “There is very little left that can be done.” They pointed out that, unlike many surrounding towns, Verona has not had to seek a waiver to exceed the state-mandated 2% spending cap and is, in fact, well under.
Mayor Schwartz did acknowledge the pain that the economy is inflicting on townspeople. She said she’s developed the coping mechanism at her job in the County Welfare office of learning to “turn off” the hardship she sees when her workday is done. “I apologize for not realizing that there are people in my own hometown who may be feeling the very same pain,” she said. At residents’ urging at the close of the meeting, she and other Council members promised to strive for a zero-increase as they begin work on the 2011 budget. The council is also recommending the re-institution of the Citizen’s Budget Review Committee and asked that interested residents send their resumes to Martin at Town Hall.
At the conclusion of the nearly four-hour meeting, the budget was passed unanimously. (Ken McKenna abstained from the vote on the grounds that he is soon moving out of the township–to a town with a more than 9% budget increase, he added.) But first, the residents had their say. You can also view Liz Knoop of Sunset Avenue make her statements in the video below.
- John Carroll, a resident of Wayland Avenue, started off the public portion by asking the council to consider worker furloughs to cut costs. “If Mr. Martin took every Friday off for 52 weeks, we’d save 20% of his salary,” he said.
- Paul Newman of Sunset Avenue also called for cutbacks, saying that as s a small business owner, “I’ve fired an employee. You guys are supposed to represent me.”
- Michael Desiderio of 421 Bloomfield Avenue spoke for the town’s condo owners, whose taxes have gone up about $1,500 on average: “To me that’s disheartening.”
- Hans Schmidt of Sunset Avenue suggested incentive programs where town employees could earn bonuses for cutting expenses.
- Tom Armenti of Green Acres Drive read from a letter issued by Parsippany’s mayor outlining efforts made there to contain the budget and suggested that Verona officials might also inform their citizens directly of their efforts.
- Alex Roman of Amy Court, like several other residents, detailed an unfavorable comparison between Cedar Grove’s municipal spending and Verona’s, concluding that, “It’s 49 percent more expensive to operate in Verona than in Cedar Grove.”
- Susan Montanile of Sunset Avenue called for municipal pay cuts: “I make $25,000 less than I did in my last job and I’m just happy to have a job.”
- Al De Old of Howard Street called for the town to eliminate bonded debt, except in matters of health and safety. Like several residents, he had examined the town budget proposals carefully. “$30,000 for a riding lawn mower–that’s some lawn mower.”
- Stacey Dastis of Forest Avenue also talked of the “astounding percentages” in a comparison with Cedar Grove, citing high Verona librarian salaries for one. “There’s no way it takes $161,000 to do that job,” she says. (That salary figure was corrected by librarian Jim Thomas, who was taping the meeting for VTV, as being closer to $130,000.)
- Walter Steinmann of Hillside Avenue pointed out that 50% of the budget goes to the schools. “Yet only 800 people vote for the school budget. I went to VHS and Colgate. We don’t see that many kids in town going to the best schools. We’re getting hammered; we’ve got to work together.”
- Kevin Ryan of Elmwood Road: “I really had to go digging to find out what comparisons were used for my revaluation. The website (for reval information) needs to be more accessible.”
- Santi Condorelli, a former Town Council member, said, “For thirty-five years I’ve volunteered my time and I can think of no other place than Verona to raise my kids, and now my grandkid. It’s not a popular position in this room but I’m not interested in being popular. I’m here to tell you it’s my town, I love it and I think they are doing a great job.”