March 7, 2014 at 2:52 AM
LIVINGSTON, NJ - A preliminary meeting to tease out township budget issues for the 2014-15 fiscal year was held at Livingston Municipal Court on Thursday night. Mayor Michael Rieber, Deputy Mayor Michael Silverman and Council members Rudy Fernandez, Alfred Anthony and Deborah Shapiro exchanged ideas with Township Manager Michele Meade. The biggest concern for both parties was how to avoid raising taxes, while simultaneously preserving the quality and functionality of civic services that Livingston currently enjoys.
Finalizing the Livingston Township budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year is “really an issue of philosophy,” according to Shapiro. “If we do nothing, there’s a tax increase. The [increase] is not necessarily due to rampant spending… but due to decreased property values across the township.”
The negative property growth, driven partly by the decline in value of commercial property in the wake of the national economic downturn, has hampered the ability of the township to increase revenues under tax rates.
Another constraint is the Township’s debt service for capital works and engineering projects. The internal threshold for debt service is 15 percent of the total budget. The current debt service allocation is at 14 percent of the budget.
Rieber discussed the possibility of cutting costs by reducing the allocation, perhaps to 12 percent. Any reduction could potentially reduce costs in future budgets.
Three services that received consistent focus were the Livingston Express Shuttle, Community Policing outreach (including the DARE Program) and Senior, Youth & Leisure Services (SYLS).
“I think the shuttle is a superb idea,” Shapiro said. “I’m not saying we should cut the shuttle, but make the shuttle pay for itself. Everybody coming up to us is saying, ‘no matter what the cost, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread,’ so charge an extra buck for each ticket and people cover it themselves.”
Mayor Rieber cautioned against change regarding the shuttle.
He said, “My understanding is that if they charge more, people aren’t going to use it—they feel priced out. If they’re not going to use it, it will defeat the purpose and the shuttle is not going to grow.”
The Council also discussed cutting or downsizing its community policing service. Community policing is a policy that focuses on building strong ties between the police department and the community that it serves. Livingston has used three officers to run its community policing program in the past.
The retirement of two senior officers has resulted in two vacancies in the department. The Council discussed eliminating those two positions, as opposed to laying officers off, which could potentially result in greater savings.
There was also debate regarding the efficacy and necessity of the DARE program.
“I’ve seen studies that say DARE doesn’t work, but I’m sure you could find studies that say that it does,” Meade said.
Council members also discussed the possibility of pruning specific programs from SYLS.
“If you’re retired, you can be doing activities from eight in the morning to eight at night,” Shapiro said. “It’s the same thing if you’re a child—when you include all the sports and extracurriculars, you could do things all day and just never stop. I think that’s wonderful—but do our programs have to be so robust across the board?”
Fernandez pointed out that the SYLS programs serve an important function in keeping Livingston residents, seniors specifically, active and involved in the community. He emphasized the necessity of SYLS as an outlet for community members and as a bonding tool.
“For our seniors on a fixed income, this is what they do,” he said. “They’re not going into Manhattan to see plays. This is their leisure. People come up to me all the time and say that one of the things they love most about Livingston is the programs we have.”
Rieber emphasized the need for selective improvement and prudent choices going forward.
He said, “If it’s not broke, we don’t need to fix it. But clearly, we need to fix some things.”
“At this point, you’re not going to make any huge changes without chopping a limb off, so let’s try at least to make little trims wherever we can and maybe those trims will add up to real dollars that will save money,” Shapiro said.
The Town Council will continue to discuss the budget in meetings on Thursday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Monday, March 24 at 8:00 p.m.