Town Council Candidates Question 4: Municipal Budget

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In Verona, the township manager works with the town’s chief financial officer to establish our annual budget, but it is the responsibility of the Town Council to vet their work and approve or reject the budget. So the fourth question the MyVeronaNJ.com posed to the five people running for Town Council this year was this:

Verona’s municipal budget accounts for 26% of our tax bills and the Town Council’s recent budget workshops have given us a preview of what those might be in 2021. What concerns you about the new budget and why?

You can read all the answers to Question Four below, and zero in on a specific answer by clicking on a candidate’s name in the list below, which is ordered by their position on the ballot.

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Cynthia Holland
Jason Hyndman
Christopher Tamburro
Jack McEvoy
Michael Nochimson

Right now, Verona is waiting to hear what we might get in the way of aid this year from the state budget. But you can see the proposed spending for 2021 here.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF8033″ class=”” size=””]Closing down on Main Street is a significant concern and ultimately will have an effect on the budget[/perfectpullquote]

Cynthia Holland:: What concerns me about the new budget isn’t so much the budget itself: I do feel, after watching the workshops this past winter, like a lot of effort has been put into a thoughtful budget but what concerns me is going into the future. So not necessarily our current budget, the one that the Council is going to act upon before I would even take office. What concerns me is going forward. What you would have heard in some of those budget hearings is the potential for tax appeals and some of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on economic growth and actually economic decline because of the closings we’ve had to do because of this extraordinary public health crisis really hurting revenues going forward seeing more businesses. Closing down on Main Street is a significant concern and ultimately will have an effect on the budget. And if we look back to the economic downturn that we had around 2008 with housing crisis, it was a little bit after the bubble burst that it really started hurting New Jersey and in particular northern New Jersey. I don’t know if we’ve actually hit that peak yet, or bottomed out yet is maybe the more appropriate way of saying it. I think with tax appeals and others we might still see more of an impact even next year after I’m on the Council and this was particularly concerning for me. Read more Cynthia Holland answers here.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF8033″ class=”” size=””]Does it make sense to make more hires because it’s cheaper to hire a new staff member, rather than paying time and a half and overtime?[/perfectpullquote]

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Jason Hyndman: I have to commend [Township Manager] Matt Cavallo and CFO [Matt Laracy] in preparing this budget in such an uncertain time. They did it under immense constraints in terms of the lost revenue, and the increased costs having to deal with COVID. It’s, it’s great that we are getting a little over a million dollars from the recent federal recovery legislation. We’re still waiting on guidance on how we can spend that money so there’s still uncertainty there. But some of the things that concern me in that budget are, again, dealing with the loss of revenue, dealing with some of the line items for overtime for example, those are situations where it may make sense to look into that to see what are the staffing issues looking like. Does it make sense to make more hires because it’s cheaper to hire a new staff member, rather than paying time and a half and overtime? So those are things that we could look into. One thing that concerned me was with the sewer utility budget. There was a $3 million “other expenses” category, like miscellaneous expenses. That’s something I would like to see more clarification on. What goes into that category? Because it’s hard to critique or revise a budget when you don’t know what those line items are going into. Read more Jason Hyndman answers here.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF8033″ class=”” size=””]We have some really amazing opportunities in Verona to engage in some cost savings through things like shared services[/perfectpullquote]

Christopher Tamburro: I think the town has generally done a good job with budgeting. Most of what the town budget is is non-discretionary spending. That’s a really big piece that everybody, and the voters, need to understand. It’s always certainly concerning to everybody to have taxes go up. It’s difficult to say that taxes will go down. That’s one of those things that becomes relatively unsustainable when that happens. But I think there are a couple things that we can potentially do in the future to look at reducing any tax increase that we have. I caution everybody, number one, to really consider what smart budgeting now does for the future. if we engage in practices that don’t take care of maintenance, that don’t address issues now, that don’t deal with the compliance that we need to deal with, it’s going to cost us more in the future. At the same time, we have some really amazing opportunities in Verona to engage in some cost savings through things like shared services. We do it really well in Verona, and the voters that I’m talking to are often in agreement that we have a phenomenal Public Works Department if you compare ours to neighboring towns, just based on snow removal and they do so many other things, where we are steps ahead. So what can we do to potentially share those services with other places? We have shared services agreements with respect to building inspection. We have shared service agreements between the township and the school district for field maintenance and snow removal. They’re relatively unofficial in a lot of cases, but we absolutely have those, we share services with Montclair Board of Health for our health services, we have the Wayne Animal Control Department to deal with our animal control issues. So we have a lot of that already. The town invested money in redesigning its police dispatch center. It’s, it’s beautiful and very well thought out. And there’s a potential, because we engaged in some very smart infrastructure planning, to change our police-fire EMS radio system to a state-level system that other towns like North Caldwell and Essex Fells are signing on to, Montclair, it’s in certain pieces. But it’s becoming more and more common; you may see Cedar Grove migrate. Once we have that it’ll be a lot easier potentially to share dispatch services as well and to bring maybe multiple municipalities together, and it wouldn’t really be that much of a capital outlay for us because we’ve built that in so there’s an option. One of the most significant drivers of any budget is personnel, and we have great staff in Verona, everybody from the town that I’ve ever come into contact with has been professional and helpful and truly dedicated to this town and a lot of our municipal staff of course live in town and really take pride in that. So there’s a lot of praise to offer there. My experience as a union leader but also a professional negotiator, I negotiate contracts for other for teachers and custodians, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, administrators, throughout Essex County, Hudson County sometimes. And as a result of that, I’ve been able to really engage in very positive discussions with boards of education, board attorneys, and to really bring together the labor and management, to develop creative solutions that save the municipality, or the school district, money, but also really benefit the employees. So things like really taking time to evaluate healthcare. I don’t want to say that we make healthcare worse or not as generous or something like that, but we can design healthcare plans that can really meet the needs of the staff, potentially, while reducing costs. And that’s something that we’ve successfully done in a lot of other places. That’s a big driver and those healthcare costs go up, you know 10% sometimes, and even worse. The New Jersey State Health Plan a couple years ago increased by like 17%. It was very difficult and now that’s controlled by some benefit reform in those circumstances. But those are some ways of really doing that. And I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of really great feedback from governing bodies that I’ve worked with, and their attorneys. in the ability to reach the other side of the table. In order to come up with deals that really benefit everybody and that’s an experience I think I could bring in, in order to control some of those costs, while maintaining excellent benefits for our staff that really reward them. But build that conversation, so that it’s collaborative between the management and the staff and everybody could potentially benefit. So that’s one place that we can absolutely look at it and really engage in some creative solutions. If you look at the police budget, so much of it is subscriptions and things that we must continue with, you know, the servers and records maintenance systems. dispatch systems. We have body-worn cameras in Verona, and there are software associated with that. So a lot of those costs are out of our control a little bit in that way. And as a result, it puts us in a position where, you know, there isn’t as much funds to spend on other things that we might want to do. Those are some things to look at, look at all our contracts, look at things that have been around for a long time, and really start to think about what they can be going forward. I tend to think everything is negotiable, and that we should, as much as possible, be negotiating or renegotiating. Read more Christopher Tamburro answers here.

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[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF8033″ class=”” size=””]I’ve been on the Council for four years and I paid attention to the budget for five or six years prior to that[/perfectpullquote]

Jack McEvoy: I’m going to start by correcting you. I believe the municipal end of it is 24%, but we can look at that later. I’ve been on the Council for four years and I paid attention to the budget for five or six years prior to that. There was always back and forth, things taken out of the budget or moved around. This was truly the first year that I would say, overall, the entire council didn’t have a problem with the budget. We thought it was going to be a lot higher because of lost revenue last year due to COVID. However, it came in at two and a half percent. But we were happy it was 2.4% because we expected three and a quarter or three and a half. So as far as the budget goes it we–when I say we, it’s really our manager and our CFO that present the budget to the council–I think they’ve been really above board, and really putting the budget, you know, tightening it up and giving it a good look over before they present it to the Council, because they know how strict we have been. I think this year, there really wasn’t too much that we took out of the budget, and I really compliment our CFO and our manager for their work on that. Read more Jack McEvoy answers here.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF8033″ class=”” size=””]What concerns me, just in general, is Verona has never created a reserve[/perfectpullquote]

Michael Nochimson: What concerns me, just in general, is Verona has never created a reserve. I’ve always talked about reserving for future expenses. We always know there’s a problem that’s going to happen, whether it’s a field that has to be repaired or a roof. You have to reserve for every item, and those reserves should continue to reserve, year after year. We need to reserve for fields, knowing that fields will only last 12 to 15 years and Centennial has to be replaced. We know roads need to be replaced. I’m not sure why we bond for roads, when we can actually begin to save for roads in each budget cycle, we can save for buildings and grounds. Any responsible homeowner always has a reserve available for them. Running a building, which I do, on the West Coast, we do have reserves for taxes, we have reserves for extraordinary expenses, we have reserves for vacancies. These are just responsible things to do so you never have a cash call to a partner. You always have money available and the cash call with a municipality is higher taxes, or, you know, requesting a referendum to raise money, because you’re short of dollars. But, whether it’s the Rescue Squad or the Fire Department we know we need to get a new fire truck every eight to 10 years. We know the Rescue Squad needs a new ambulance every three to five years, because they’re constantly on the road. Why aren’t we reserving $50,000 to $100,000 each year in preparation for this expense. It’s responsible budgeting, it’s responsible reserving for future expenses that we’re fully aware of. And by the way we have a wonderful Rescue Squad, wonderful Fire Department and wonderful Police Department. We’re getting a new police car every year, we should be reserving you know, $30,000, $40,000 a year for a police car so we don’t have to say, all of a sudden, we need another police car. We’re prepared for it. And that should all be within the budget, that should be understood. And the same thing I’ve talked about the downtown. We should be reserving monies for the downtown, each and every year so we can constantly renew and rebuild and refurbish and maintain what we have, because an asset is only good if it’s useful, and it’s maintained, and it’s beautiful. Just like we would do at home, we have to treat the taxpayer’s money, and the town’s assets, the same way. We purchase things that are useful and we maintain them, and we keep them beautiful. And the only way to do that is maintenance and reserves, so we don’t have to basically say we’re short money, we don’t have money, we’re not prepared. It’s responsible budgeting, one on one, and I understand that well. Read more Michael Nochimson answers here.

The full interviews with each candidate are here:

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Now back in Verona, she contributes to a variety of publications and Web sites, and consults on social media. In Verona, she serves on the Verona Environmental Commission and HBW SCA, and has been part of many other civic and religious groups in town. A graduate of Rutgers University’s Environmental Stewards program, she has also run an after-school program on the environment for elementary school children here. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]

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