Verona votes for two seats on the Town Council on Tuesday, May 12, and the closer we get to the polling date, the more heated the exchanges are becoming in what is supposed to be a non-partisan race. So we thought it necessary to another fact check, this time on the major bones of contention:
Tax Increases: Two candidates–Frank Sapienza and Rich Williamson–say taxes have been flat, and two others–Michael Nochimson and Alex Roman–say they have increased. That’s because they are talking about two very different ways of looking at taxes.
Sapienza and Williamson base their claims on a three-year view of the tax levy–the amount the government raises through taxation. After increasing in the first three years of the recession, the tax levy was flat in 2011, 2012 and 2013 because the budget stayed at $14,865,208 in each of those years.
The tax rate is used in an equation with the assessed value of your property to calculate your tax bill. The recession lowered the value of all taxable properties in Verona–our “ratables”. When assessed values decline, the tax rate must go up to raise the same amount in the levy. Verona’s tax rate was 2.416 in 2010. It rose every year thereafter to hit 2.946 in 2014. Had the Council chosen to keep the levy flat or even decrease it during the recession, the increase to the tax rate probably wouldn’t have been so steep. And while the levy was flat for three years, it soared 28.7% from the start of the recession in 2008 through 2014, while inflation only rose 9.75%.
This year, if the budget is approved as proposed, both the tax levy and the tax rate will be flat. But this is an election year, so we need to think about whether our luck will hold. One recent step is promising. At the election forum that MyVeronaNJ.com co-sponsored with The Verona Observer, all of the candidates hailed the new rules on police salaries, one of the main drivers of the budget. Salaries remain a problem elsewhere: They have risen by a third since Town Manager Joe Martin was hired even though Verona now has 14 or 15 fewer employees.
Nochimson and Roman want Verona to use zero-based budgeting, in which every salary and every expense are justified anew every year. Sapienza and Williamson have said that it is not possible to cut the budget without cutting “essential services”. But while the federal government has had to define “essential services”–things that must function even if government is shut down–that hasn’t been the case at the municipal level. And during the recession, companies learned to deliver services at lower cost by outsourcing or automating them.
Fighting Words: In a strongly worded half-page Verona-Cedar Grove Times ad on Thursday Deputy Mayor Jay Sniatkoski asserts that both Nochimson and Roman “…have gone so far as to make a reckless accusation of ‘self-dealing’ towards other Councilmen. Self-dealing may be a crime and to make this sort of unfounded accusation is disgraceful and irresponsible.”
The term “self-dealing” is most often used to describe misconduct in financial or legal services, and an investment advisor or lawyer who engages in self-dealing can face sanctions or fines. But “self-dealing” is sometimes used outside those industries to refer to a conflict of interest in general.
Roman has made no such accusation. Nochimson affirmed that he used the term in this email, so we asked him to explain his choice of words. “As councilmen”, he said on Friday, “we should make decisions after consideration of all of the facts, based on what is in the best interests of our citizens. Unfortunately, whatever the motivation, the three-person majority of the Council have made a number of decisions not based on what is in the best interests of the people of this town, but instead based on what has been dictated by the town manager, and what advantages a select group of people in this town.”
Sniatkowski said in a text message on Friday that he purchased the ad because Nochimson called him a “puppet” in a campaign email. Nochimson confirms that he sent the March 26 email, which reads in part, “Joe Martin gets what he wants through the three puppet votes of Frank Sapienza, Bob Manley and Sniatkowski.”
Are any of Nochimson’s remarks actionable? We placed a call to Michael Gannaio, Verona’s township attorney, on Friday, but he was in court all day.
Debt: When Roman presented an alternative to Verona’s budget last year, he asserted that municipal debt service was up 42% since 2008. Sniatkowski says in his ad that bond debt is down 4% since 2010, a statement that Mayor Bob Manley echoed in an email with the subject line “The Truth About Verona’s Property Tax.” Sharp eyes will notice that the two camps are using different terms concerning debt and different time periods.
“Debt service” is a very precise term used in budget reports to indicate the money needed cover the repayment of interest and principal on a debt. Verona’s debt service, documented in Verona’s budget and filings to the state, rose 42% from 2008 through 2014. Looking at just 2010 to 2014, the same time period that Sniatkowski and Manley used, the increase was 37%.
There is, by contrast, no line item for “bond debt” in Verona’s budget or state filings. Sniatkowski said he got the calculation from Verona’s finance director, Matt Laracy, and asserted that it was a more accurate reflection of the debt burden on taxpayers because he said it was what Verona was actually spending on bond-funded projects in a given year. Sniatkowski likened bond debt to the amount an individual charges on a credit card even though his credit limit might be higher. He conceded that bond debt could fluctuate and said he chose the 2010-2014 time period because that was when Nochimson came to office. Nochimson’s first term actually started in July 2011.
Roman would still like to know what is included in Sniatkowski’s term. “The use of bonded debt to finance improvements to public facilities and infrastructure is a necessary and normal part of government operations. It is the way we pave streets, rehabilitate buildings, and purchase equipment. I do have concerns with past practices of the township including the failure to close outdated debt authorizations and their recent attempt to use debt for short-lived items such as desktop computers. We should improve those practices to ensure that any capital spending is necessary and subject to proper review.”
“Careful management of capital spending should stabilize our debt service costs and reduce their overall impact to the taxpayer,” Roman added. “I chose to focus on our debt service cost because it is reflective of the overall impact of our use of debt and our borrowing costs in each year and directly affects residents’ property tax bills. The growth rate in debt service has outpaced many other categories of spending which marks it as a concern to manage better along with our other major cost centers.”
There are many other differences of opinion among the candidates, and voters can explore more of them through the videos recorded at the April 27 election forum. While four videos shot that night had audio problems that MyVeronaNJ.com has not been able to fix, there are eight other videos from that evening posted to YouTube. You can watch them here. The polls are open on Tuesday, May 12, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
So Debt is not up 40%. We just increased out “credit line”. Our actual debt on the books is down since 2010? Roman and Nochimson were trying to mislead the voters again. I would bet Roman did not bother to look into the nuances of Municipal Finance before spreading the 40% around. I would be surprised if it was intentional, just lazy. At least he was not Nochimson who was complaining about the “increased” debt while being the one responsible for the “increase”. It sounds like he voted for almost every debt ordinance since he has been on council.
The misleading financial data, absenteeism for a third of the executive sessions and a void of participation in community activities and committees have sealed my decision for this election. I just can’t trust the Nochimson – Roman team and applaud Jay Sniatkowski for bringing this to light.
Thanks Don for exercising your right to vote. We looked into Jay’s assertion about missed private sessions and found that Michael was late to two 6:30 sessions since July. He was absent for one entire meeting in addition. Only Mayor Bob Manley has had perfect attendance since July. Unfortunately we were not able to fact check prior meetings because the minutes are not online and we were told we would have to file an OPRA request. It takes 7 to 10 days to hear back on them, which would have been after the election.
Your assertion is false. The article clearly states that Verona’s debt, as reported to the state from 2008-2014 rose 42%. This is fact. The increased percentage quoted by Mr. Manley and Sniatkowski was only 37%, but does not take into account years 2008 and 2009. Mr. Nochimson nor Mr. Ryan were responsible for the increase as they do not have the majority vote. If you have ever attended a council meeting you will find that Councilmans Nochimson and Ryan are more often than not, roadblocked by the 3-2 vote. Mr. Roman is a very intelligent and very well prepared concerned citizen who does his homework before speaking at council meetings. To say that their reporting of facts was intentionally misleading or lazy is absurd.