The heads of several departments of Verona municipal government gave previews of their 2011 budgets last night. If you came wanting to hear about 10% cuts across the board, you came away disappointed. If you came wanting to hear about cost savings and cost management, you didn’t.
Actually, very few people came. When you subtracted all those with an official purpose (Town Council, Budget Review Committee and presenters) from the attendance, there were fewer than a dozen Verona citizens in the audience. A sharp contrast to last summer, when hundreds packed the community center to complain about the town’s finances.
Last night’s meeting, and the planned session tomorrow night, are workshops only. We are still several weeks away from a formal introduction of the budget and even farther from its adoption. Though we operate on a calendar year, Verona, like every other municipality in New Jersey, is still waiting for Trenton, which doesn’t have to adopt its budget until June 30. We are waiting for the so-called Tool Kit, promised by the governor last year, which municipalities need to control the costs that are outside the state-mandated 2% cap.
But, as a workshop, the meeting worked. While only the Council and Budget Review Committee saw the actual numbers, the presentations were a good look under the hood of Verona government. Police Chief Doug Huber noted, for example, that management in his department has been cut from 13 supervisors to nine over the last five years, and that one retirement is anticipated this year. He said that he is using more part-time civilians (at $15 to $20 an hour) to staff the dispatch desk, instead of police officers, who would cost us $45+ an hour. And Captain Mitchell Stern noted that new technology in our police cars means that officers can file reports and complete state-mandated training during their shifts, saving us overtime costs. Huber said the department would see a cut in operations costs of $12,000 to $13,000 but faced a $63,000 increase in salaries because of existing contracts. And there was no discussion of merging Verona’s overnight dispatch and patrol with that of Cedar Grove, a cost-saving idea that Town Manager Joe Martin has floated in the past.
There will also be a retirement in Building Inspections, which department head Tom Jacobsen said will see a “significant increase” in revenue because Cenrose is beginning the second phase of construction at the Highlands At Hilltop apartment complex. Verona last year raised the fees on building permits to bring in more revenue from the project. Jacobsen, who said that he was once again not requesting a budget increase for his department, noted that Verona is also now going to be providing code inspections in Roseland and that his department will be implementing software that will allow people to apply for building permits online.
In Buildings & Grounds, department head Len Waterman noted that this past winter’s heavy snow put pressure on his expenses. But he said that the department, which manages 10 buildings in Verona and does most of the work on those buildings itself, is participating in a state-funded energy audit that will identify inefficiencies and provide money for new, energy- and cost-saving light ballasts.
The savings at the Verona Library will come from lower salary costs. Rebecca Burkhart, who has been on the library staff for 30 years, has retired and Director Jim Thomas said that Verona’s new children’s librarian will “not be at the top pay scale”. The library has budgeted $55,000 for new books this year, which Thomas says is needed because of all the heavy readers in Verona. He noted that he has been looking into digital books, but hasn’t yet found a circulation model that is appropriate for libraries. (HarperCollins recently said that it will limit eBook checkouts to 26 times before charging a renewal fee.)
Last up last night was Jeff Hayes from Verona’s two-person IT department. He noted that there is a possibility of a second cell phone tower in Verona, which could be good news since the existing one brings in an annual $130,000 in revenue. Hayes said the IT budget would be flat this year, and that Verona will be providing IT services to Roseland.
There will be a meeting of the Citizens Budget Review Committee, which will hear from the Public Works and Sewer and Water departments. This meeting, which is open to the public, will be held in the Council chambers beginning at 7 p.m.