January 23, 2013 at 6:45 AM
SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Common Council’s first look at the 2013 proposed municipal budget shows appropriations of $42.4 million with the portion of the total tax bill on the average home attributable to city expenses estimated at $16.
The first look at the budget was presented Tuesday at a governing body budget workshop session that drew a capacity crowd to the Whitman Conference Room in city hall.
One of the primary items of concern was municipal government support for the Summit Public Library.
A number of speakers told the council not to merely allocate the minimum funding level required by state statute, which is scheduled to decrease this year. They urged the governing body to allocate additional amounts to bring the total to around $75,000 in order make it possible for the library to again remain open on Thursday evenings and Sundays.
Vivien Hardy, who served on the city’s library board of directors from 1995 to 2000, noted that the city had augmented the statutorily required minimum support for the library in the past and said it was not a good practice for a new library director to face funding challenges as soon as she came on board.
She added the loss of Sunday hours was taking away from family time for many households in Summit, noting “this is just a tiny bit more for the library so the town can provide services to the public.”
Resident Carolyn Baldacchini added that Summit was a wonderfully economically diverse community, but the public library provided the “equalizer” for those unable to afford on their own some of the expert services the library provides.
However, Thomas Garvey, president of the Summit Taxpayers Association, said that if Union County would stop removing so much money from Summit because of its high taxes the city could more easily afford the $75,000 needed to restore the library services that had been reduced.
He added that county taxes could go up another $3 million to $4 million in 2013.
Many of the council members urged stronger support among residents for Summit’s position at the county freeholder meetings in Elizabeth.
Councilman Albert Dill, Jr., who rejoined the governing body this year after an absence of more than 10 years, said he had been fighting county spending since 1991.
He urged residents to tell their stories as individual to county officials in order to get their feelings across.
Council President Richard Madden said in order to give Summit a fairer tax picture, city officials are working with state officials to change the county equalization formula that seems to work against the communities with higher property values.
Councilman Thomas Getzendanner said while maintaining pressure to reduce county spending was a good idea Summit should do a citywide revaluation to bring its assessed values up to date.
Mayor Ellen Dickson also said she agreed with State Senator Thomas Kean Jr. that New Jersey should think about doing away with county government.
Another resident, Kathryn Werlein, who said she only had lived in the city five years, suggested the city could bring in more revenue by marketing its “brand” more effectively to bring a broader selection of businesses into the city and aiming to bring the kind of downtown vibrancy Westfield has to Summit’s central business district.
She encouraged council to look less at “austerity” and more at “smart budgeting” with an eye to improving the city’s infrastructure and making sure improved technology is done right.
In his presentation on the budget proposals, City Administrator Chris Cotter said the city was looking to spend a great deal on increased technology, bringing a fulltime communications staff member into the department of community programs and increasing the training budget for the fire department.
Additionally, Cotter said, the budget called for an additional part-time assessor in the tax assessor’s office, employment of a qualified purchasing agent, maintaining the police department’s vehicle replacement program at the same level as last year and instituting e-ticketing for violations that would allow certain information to go directly into the administrative office of the courts. This, he said, would save the time of city employees who currently process that information.
The administrator the fire department needed to increase its maintenance budget for the fire headquarters due to the age of the structure, which may be replaced in the next few years.
Also, possibly in reaction to damage caused by Superstorm Sandy and the previous year’s storms, Cotter said the budget for contracting tree trimming services would be increased by $20,000 to $100,000.
He also noted the city would request funds to add another part-time health inspector and the community programs department would seek funding for more part-time staff to handle the increased youth program workload that came about due to the sale of the city’s Walnut Street building that previously housed youth programs.
At the same time, Cotter said, fulltime staffing in the city would total 199 positions for 2013, compared to 223 in 2003.
Getzendanner, however, said he would like to see appropriations reduced to a flat $42 million with reduction of another $300,000.
Council Finance Chairman Dave Bomgaars replied the governing body should not “just land” on the $42 million figure without carefully examining all the budget proposals.
Dill said the city should look to make needed improvements in infrastructure while looking for other places in which reductions can be made.
Responding to a question from Councilman-at-Large Gregory Drummond, Cotter said the city expected to receive full reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for expenses resulting from Sandy.
Councilman Robert Rubino said the city should get a clear idea in six to 12 months about how much “head count” it was saving due to increased technology.
He also suggested a keener eye to raising revenues by, for example, conducting seminars on cost savings for other municipalities. This, he said, could bring in revenues from seminar fees and increased hotel occupancy taxes from those who stayed overnight in the city.
Cotter noted the hotel occupancy tax was one of the few taxes permitted for localities in New Jersey other than property taxes.
He also said the city could look at general revenue bonding to finance the expansion of buried power lines around major city buildings. Bonding, he added, would still be a cost to Summit taxpayers and the feasibility of the power line proposal still is being studied.