Township Manager Joe Martin formally presented the Verona Town Council with a budget on Monday night that will demand an additional $190 per year from the average Verona household. “It is essential for the 2011 budget be crafted with 2012 and beyond in mind,” Martin said.
The budget–$20.2 million in operating expenses and a $1.2 million reserve for uncollected taxes–came in $270,000 less that the state’s 2% budget increase cap would allow. But some of the biggest items on Verona’s budget–health care costs, pensions and debt service–are outside the state cap, and they will be increasing 5.6%, down from 7% in the preliminary budget crunching. (Explaining why the town is introducing a budget for a calendar year in June of that year would require a long digression into the inanities of municipal and state finance procedures in New Jersey.)
Town Council President Teena Schwartz had asked the town manager to come Monday night’s meeting with options for keeping Verona’s increase to zero for costs outside the cap as well, and Martin ran through some of the options in a slide presentation. He said that cutting garbage pickup to one day a week from two would save $120,000 annually, but worried about the potential for higher costs from illegal dumping. He put up a flurry of numbers for cuts to items such as field lights ($14,000), reduced library hours ($15,000), the senior bus ($19,000), animal control ($38,000), recreation programs ($35,000) and part-time summer help ($15,000), but there was no discussion within the Council as to the merits or feasibility of these cuts. Nor did the Council seek to revisit Martin’s earlier note that the elimination of one Verona Police Department shift would save the township about $700,000.
Several members of the volunteer Budget Review Committee spoke at the meeting and encouraged the council to adopt the proposed budget without further cuts, including Rich Williamson, Marion Gillespie, Tara Popowich and Dan McGinley, who ran unsuccessfully for Town Council in the most recent election.
Al De Old, also a Budget Review Committee member, praised the budget review process, but said that he could not fully support the budget presented. In the public participation part of the meeting, De Old was one of several speakers who called on the Council to look more fully into expenses, big and small, something budget participants have taken to calling “elephants and the mice”. De Old called for the Council to request a 25% cut to the general budget’s books, dues and publications line–now $17,000–and for an elimination of all employee car allowances, which he said would save $5,000 to $7,000 a year. He suggested that the decorative flower baskets that now line Bloomfield Avenue could be funded through private donations, a savings of $7,500 and called for the Council’s support for cuts to two “elephants”: a postponement of phase III of the Bloomfield Avenue streetscape project ($250,000) and a request that all municipal employees contribute 1.5% of their salaries toward their health care costs, something that Verona’s teachers have been required to do. De Old put the savings from the health care proposal at $110,000 in the current budget alone.
The newest Town Council member, Kevin Ryan, also questioned some of the budget assumptions. “Why is it $800,000 or nothing?”, he asked. “I think there is still room to cut.” Ryan suggested, in particular, cutting bulk pickup to one day a month from two. He also put the town manager on the spot to deliver next year’s preliminary budget earlier–perhaps as early as November–for better citizen and Council review, and he called for the budget, which is still not available online, to be presented in terms than ordinary citizens could understand.
The Council will make a formal vote on the budget next Monday, June 13, in a meeting that begins at 7 p.m.
Getting Verona to a zero increase outside the cap would mean cutting roughly $800,000 from the drafted budget. Martin has indicated in a previous Town Council meeting that that is roughly the cost of one entire shift of police.
I’m sorry that I could not be at last night’s budget hearing (I had a commitment to the VHS music banquet, as one of the presenters), but this is a great report. I do have a few questions:
1. You wrote that there was “no discussion within the Council as to the merits or feasibility of these cuts”. Why not? Why wasn’t there some spirited debate, questioning assumptions, additional suggestions, etc? (Next Monday there had BETTER be some debate and discussion amongst the council members.) As we all know, discussions on topics as serious as this must be held in public, otherwise accusations of violations of the “Sunshine Law” might be raised.
2. Why did some of the Budget Review Committee members endorse the budget and others did not — shouldn’t they have a unified voice and opinion? They should be careful not to run the risk of making themselves ineffective. Do they have a “spokesman” who can comment on this?
3. Town Council “President” Teena Schwartz? What happened to “mayor”?
Good questions one and all, and we’ll keep our eyes and ears open for follow up. “President” was a serious brain flub on my part. Will fix.
So much for Mayor Teena Schwartz statement at the Community Center council meeting last year that there would be a 0% increase via cuts…the crazy part is that I thought she would keep her word.
I agree with Mr. Blinder’s comment about the thoroughness of this report on last night’s council session.
I would just like to add one question: If the council approves the proposed budget with no changes, you write that taxes for the average Verona home-owner will increase roughly $190 for the year. Does this $190 include the increases that will be coming from the 2011-2012 school board and county budgets since those budgets make up a larger share of the tax bill? I believe you previously reported that the school budget will add an additional $104 to the average homeowner’s tax bill next year.
As to Mr. Blinder’s question about the budget review committee and its recommendations, I offer one observation: last night’s meeting was the first opportunity for the committee to review Mr. Martin’s options for reducing the proposed budget by roughly $800,000, which would then bring the budget in line with Mayor Schwartz’s target for no tax increase. I think there are a number of areas within the proposal that are worth further discussion, if not by the budget review committee at least by the full council. And as councilman Ryan noted at the meeting, the discussion of any budget cuts do not have to be an all-or-nothing decision.
Finally, the budget review committee did not select a spokesman or spokeswoman, nor did it meet to discuss / debate its position on recommending (or not) the proposed budget.
A few of us arrived last night at Town Hall at 6:15 pm to attend the Budget Review Committee meeting. As it turns out, the meeting was held in a small conference room, behind closed door and not open to the public.
When this committee and it’s “laws” were formed, we were told by Council these were public meetings with limited participation by citizens not on the committee.
Apparently the committee received a stack of itemized budget items, a few inches thick, which was made available to the committee yet not to the public. Why? How could the public be expected to interpret these mass budget numbers of “Other”, almost $6,000,000- yes, 6 million, and not wonder what it includes? And not have access to the information. Oh and our neighboring towns have their 2011 budgets online… but not here in Verona. Opacity rules.
None of the Director meetings were videotaped, no print versions of their powerpoint presentations or budgets were made available to the public. And at the budget introductory meeting, we received the state mandated form with no budget numbers on it!!!
Approving a budget six months into a budget year is ridiculous and contrived. Your Council Members are supposed to be ambassadors to the us, the citizens, not to the Town Manager. He reports to them. We pay him. For someone who makes 180k/year and a $600/month car allowance and is world renowned, cutting a budget responsibly is a snap. Hmmm, where could he start???
June 13th is the “hurry up and vote on the budget”… maybe there will be some discussion, maybe not.
Mark, it’s $190 plus the school increase.
I hope the Town Council will take under consideration the suggestions by Councilman Kevin Ryan, Al Deold (budget committee) and other concerned citizens at last night’s budget hearing meeting. This is their last opportunity to keep their promise to the Verona residents regarding a flat budget.
Do we have to wait until Mr. Martin retires and/or another election so we can see positive fiscal changes?
When I grew up, my parents taught me the difference between necessities and luxuries. And they also taught me I had to earn money before I spent it.
Those lessons have paid off handsomely in my life. It’s time for Verona to learn the difference between necessities and luxuries. Many citizens of the town are struggling with pay cuts, lost jobs, and unemployed children moving back home. It’s time to put the luxuries off and keep spending down.