SUMMIT, NJ—Union County Freeholder Chairman Christopher Hudak gave a presentation on county government to the Summit Common Council on Wednesday and he received a very cordial reception peppered with pointed questions and concerns about county spending.
Hudak started off by listing a number of county-initiated and jointly-administered county-Summit projects that, he said, help meet some of the obligations to the Hilltop City, which bears one of the largest tax burdens of any community in the county.
He noted that the city and the county administration have jointly worked on the addition of at least 60 parking spaces adjacent to Glenside Field in the Watchung Reservation and that the county is providing a dollar-for-dollar match of grant funds with the Briant Park Conservation for renovation of the county-owned facility on the border of Summit and Springfield.
Hudak placed the total price tag on the improvements to Briant Park at about $500,000.
He also cited county improvements to the reservation and Surprise Lake along with county provision of emergency management services, the sheriff’s office, the county department of public works, Union County College, consumer affairs and aid to veterans.
Acknowledging council concerns for Summit’s heavy tax burden, Hudak said that, during his tenure on the board over the last four years, the county has been trying harder to “get its fiscal house in order” by reorganizing county government, transferring its economic development function into the county engineering office to make it more efficient and selling Runnells Hospital in Berkeley Heights.
The $26 million sale of Runnells to a private medical facility operating company is expected to save Union County about $56 million over the next five years, he noted, and putting the hospital back on the tax rolls may bring in up to $500,000 per year in taxes to the county and to Summit neighbor Berkeley Heights, where the hospital is located.
Conditions of the sale included deed restrictions maintaining it as a nursing facility for the next century with a certain number of beds reserved for Union County patients and county residents guaranteed a first shot at jobs in the facility.
In response to a question from Mayor Ellen Dickson, the freeholder chairman said the county would have to pay down the hospital’s remaining debt.
He also added that the precise effect of the sale on the county budget was uncertain at this point, partially due to the fact that, with the sale, the county will be losing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement funds.
Continuing on the tax picture, Hudak said one of the ways the county can somewhat address the higher tax burden to communities like Summit with larger property tax valuations was to get more of the vacant, untaxed properties in the eastern end of the county back on the tax rolls.
Dickson replied that the county also should be much more careful with its spending, keeping it close to the state “cap” on increases, pay down its debt and stop taking on projects that are more costly than it can handle.
Hudak said the county operates under a cap structure that actually is more rigid than the 2 percent increase limit for municipalities. He added, however, that the county has decreased its workforce, improved its financial management and strived for smarter management overall.
Second Ward Councilman Richard Madden, although praising the county for its efforts to bring some employee overtime costs under control, said he would like to see more efforts at consolidation in offices like the sheriff’s and corrections staffs.
Hudak replied that his overall philosophy on spending was to “make reductions more with a scalpel than with a cleaver” so items cut currently would not have to be restored later.
Responding to a question from Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Lizza, the freeholder chairman said the county would be happy to offer its expertise in economic development and to facilitate meetings with local officials to help come up with new ideas to share services.
Although complimenting county improvements in public safety, Councilman Patrick Hurley said the state equalization formula, under which the county operates, is an obsolete system that is resulting in taxation policies that are causing more and more families to leave Summit right after their children finish high school.
Hudak said he shares the frustration of local officials with the equalization formula and noted property tax reform has been a continuing topic in the state for many years.
He emphasized the interconnectivity of all communities in the county and said the county will continue to provide and improve services to municipalities.
Responding to council finance chairman Michael McTernan, the freeholder board head said he wasn’t sure what could be done to lower the county open space preservation tax rate.
He added that some of the funds now were being used for historic preservation, which is very important in municipalities around the county.
In addition, Hudak said, Union County’s open space preservation tax rate is lower than some neighboring counties like Morris County.
Responding to another question from the mayor, he said that he believed that property revaluation within communities was the responsibility of each municipality, but he would consult with the county counsel about the feasibility of a countywide property revaluation.
Council president Robert Rubino praised the county for having its financial experts meet with city administrator Chris Cotter and the city’s financial experts to discuss mutual concerns.
He also invited Hudak to schedule a freeholder meeting in the Summit council chambers so Hilltop City residents could have a chance to exchange views more closely with the county governing body.
On another topic, Lizza introduced a resolution formalizing Summit’s participation in the Complete Streets program.
She noted the program, promoted by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, aims to more closely accommodate all modes of transportation with more emphasis on walking and bicycling in central business districts.
The program also will help Summit to more easily obtain DOT grants for improvements in the above areas.
McTernan replied that, although Summit already sponsors programs related to making its areas more accessible, the Complete Streets initiative will formalize these approaches and help obtain more state assistance for the initiatives.
In another action, the council authorized a state contract purchase of $55,011.21 for a 911 emergency system interface in connection with the regional emergency service communications center that Summit is instituting with New Providence.
Cotter said construction is underway on the regional center and the “go live” date is targeted for September 1 of this year.
In another emergency-notification-related move, the council approved $6,445 for switching the city’s emergency notification system from Code Red to a more advanced system sold by SwiftReach Networks.
Hurley said the new system would allow for greatly increased voice messaging capacity and interconnectivity with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter along with a host of other advantages.
Cotter said a number of city officials had researched the replacement system in other communities and were impressed with its increased capacity, even during Superstorm Sandy.
Hurley said city residents currently registered with Code Red would have to re-register with the new system, which, according to Cotter, should do into effect on July 1.
The governing body also passed a resolution allowing the Summit First Aid Squad to use a temporary emergency cut-through at the traffic island across from 233 Broad Street.
The squad is temporarily housed at the Salerno Duane automobile dealership on Broad Street while its current headquarters is demolished and a new headquarters is constructed.
An ordinance amendment formalizing the cut-through arrangement is scheduled for hearing on July 8 and the resolution will allow the squad to use the cut-through until the ordinance amendment is adopted.
On another matter, Rubino said he had complimented Rutgers University professor Charles Brown for bringing his students in to do some of the planning for the Briant Park renovations.
He also said he had suggested to Brown that the city may want to explore instituting a Summit Highline, similar to the New York City walkway, along abandoned railroad properities to give Summit residents a view of New York while enjoying some of the Hilltop City’s natural beauty.
Councilman-at-Large Gregory Drummond also announced the Cars and Croissants classic automobile exhibit will be held in the central business district beginning at 9 am on Father’s Day, June 15.
McTernan added the Police Athletic League Pet Show will be held this Sunday on the Village Green.
Dickson also announced the police department will hold its open house this Sunday from 2 to 4 pm and the city’s diversity committee will meet on Thursday, June 5 at 8 am in the Whitman Room of City Hall. Among topics of discussion are expected to be aid from the chamber of commerce for Hispanic merchants in the city and a possible proposal by the board of education for an afternoon half-day kindergarten class devoted to students for whom English is a second language.