CHATHAM, NJ - In what sounded like an early April Fool's joke, the Borough of Chatham Council called an emergency meeting on Monday to vote a second time on the 2014 municipal budget that it had passed a week earlier on March 24.
James Lott, borough attorney, explained that because the original vote taken on March 24 was 3-1, it did not count because it did not represent a majority vote of the entire six-person council. Therefore, the emergency meeting was required to pass the budget and temporary budget.
"For the purposes of the record, we couldn't take action," Lott said. "By statute, the adoption of the budget and temporary budget require an affirmative majority of four. I regret the error."
Council member Alida Kass was the "no" vote on the original vote on March 24, requiring the emergency meeting. If she had voted yes, it would have been a legal vote.
John Holman and Jim Lonergan were the council members missing from the March 24 meeting. This time the vote was 5-1 in favor of the budget and the temporary budget. Kass was the lone dissenter.
The amended temporary emergency budget is $3,547,933. The 2014 municipal budget is $14,094,778. The public hearing on both will be held April 28.
According to Kass' previous objections, she felt that some salary raises to public employees were too high and that an extra $165,000 in grant money received after the budget was completed should go towards reduced borrowing for the capital portion of the budget.
After the vote, council members asked pointed questions of Kass about her objections.
"Just for the public record, what are the suggestions you have to reduce the budget," Holman said. "Something you submitted to the budget committee that we might have used. I don't remember seeing anything."
Kass noted that increases in discretionary salaries created a higher baseline going forward: "To that extent, there should be cuts made elsewhere," Kass said.
"The statement that you made was that the increases should match the economy. The general economy salary increase is three percent. The increase of our employees is 1.5 percent," Lonergan said. "So the increase to the salaries here are half. Let's get this straight so that we're dealing with reality here. The majority of the increase in salary in union driven. We have not choice on it. It is what it is. That's just a fact."
Police Chief Phil Crosson is near the top of his pay scale with a 2014 salary of $145,883. The minimum for the position is $112,826 and the maximum allowed is $146,000.
Among the highest paid borough employees are Vince DeNave, engineering, code enforcement, zoning official at $146,385; Robert Falzarano, borough administrator, at $165,685; Tony Torello, deputy director of public works, at $103,013, and Robert Venezia, director of public works, at $116,987.
"The fact that you added them up altogether and divided by the number of employees and come up with 1.5 percent is irrelevant," Kass said. "Irrelevant is a strong word, but it doesn't answer the question of creating five or six percent increases elsewhere."
Council Member Alida Kass explains her "No" Vote on 2014 Budget in video below
"I understand that certain positions have been taken away and others have been asked to do more," Kass said. "I understand that and certainly appreciate it. The reality is that there are people in town that are happy that they are the ones that still have a job and are asked to do more in their jobs. I don't have statistical analysis, but, anecdotally, I know that it's true.''
Holman answered with what the council has done during his tenure to reduce the budget and keep taxes as low as possible.
Over the last four years we've had 11 different initiatives to reduce the budget," Holman said. "In our first few years alone, we cut our budget by 10 percent. You have to agree that's noble. With that, we changed union jobs to non-union jobs. We consolidated the court system, that's 100s of thousands of dollars in savings. I think this would be very helpful, for you to know that in the first year we cut $236,000 off our budget. We don't have public comments from you on how we should have done it. Tell me what you would have done?"
Council member James Collander also pushed back what Kass was asserting.
"I served on the budget committee for nine years," Collander said. "I think your point is well taken. We could choose to never increase salaries. What we've done in this down is that we've gotten the personnel in the town to where we can't reduce it more.
"When we did increase salaries slightly for certain people, that was to pay them for what they did. I've paid people for 30 years. I've never said 'they've done a good job, but I'm not going to pay them.' I don't know what you would do. Would you simply not grant increases to anyone going forward?"
Kass responded that she would rather see a bonus or stipend for those employees rather than create a new salary baseline.
"I'm just one vote," Kass said. "Last week my no vote wound up making us being here tonight. I gave my perspective at the time. When you look at it, and it accounts for a significant amount of the tax increase."
"We have reduced our budget and personnel," Collander said. "We have a lot of quality people. I don't think that we should tell them for the forseeable future you're not going to be paid more. We don't want to punish them for doing more. We want to incentivise them."
Kass also objected to the use of an extra $165,000 in grant money, which was put toward street repairs on Summit Avenue, Red Road, Division Avenue and Edgehill Ave.
"To the extent we borrowed more than we needed for last year's capital budget, the additional amount this year could have been used as an opportuntiy to borrow less," Kass said. "It should have gone into the budget instead of adding to it. We should have stuck to our original plan. To the extent we had money allocated in the budget before we knew about the 165,000, we should put that toward what we budgeted for rather than add more projects on top of that."
Holman explained that the additional road work could be done with money borrowed at 1.5 percent, rather than wait and pay more later.
"We would be under one and a half percent if we do it now," Holman said. "Rather than wait and pay five percent. Interest rates are not going down. It's better to take care of it now than wait."
Council President Victoria Fife added: "If the list that doesn't get done this year, it will be in the budget for next year. They can be fixed this year rather than let them deteriorate further. We think the engineer's (Vince DeNave) decision is a good one."