SUMMIT, NJ - Clocking in at 133 minutes in length, the Summit Common Council's May 26 meeting was in comparison to recent gatherings -- especially those since the COVID-19 'era' began -- a relative marathon. The duration can be ascribed to the detail-centric agenda dominator that is better known The Municipal Budget, a traditionally painstaking process made significantly more so by the pandemic and its effects on life and the economy.
So it made sense that Summit’s municipal operating budget, as proposed and amended due to the pandemic, dominated the meeting. The Council's virtual gathering was also the first to allow residents to participate by video or audio conference, as well as by email.
The 2020 municipal budget was introduced on March 24 as the health emergency was just beginning. When the Governor’s Office extended the deadline for passage of municipal budgets to the end of May, Council deferred its vote. This gave it more time to evaluate the fiscal implications of the pandemic and amend the budget to reflect those changes. Council President Marjorie Fox called the budgeting process “a little confusing” but one mandated by state law. The public was able to comment on the original budget – though not the amendments – at this meeting and will have another opportunity at the June 9 meeting before the budget adoption vote.
City Administrator Michael Rogers introduced the budget amendments. The new municipal tax levy is an increase of 0.14% (as compared to the introduced tax levy increase of 0.75%). Amendments to the general fund create a $302,048 or 0.4% decrease, from $52,056,610 to $51,754,562 total. The municipal tax levy as introduced was $27,268,892, 1.78% higher than the 2019 levy amount. The amended tax levy is $27,103,871, or 1.16% higher than in 2019.
Local revenues are anticipated to be down $390,000 from the original budget, offset by increases in state aid and contributions from reserves to help balance the budget. Decreases will be seen in municipal court fines and costs, investment interest, hotel / motel occupancy fees, zoning board fees, and Family Aquatic Center fees.
Special item revenues from things like the reserve for the municipal debt service, general capital surplus, and reserve for sale of municipal assets is now estimated to be $405,500 higher.
Tax levy revenues are expected to be down $165,021 for the municipal tax levy and $154,863 for the school district’s obligation to the City, for a difference of $319,884.
Rogers said the Finance Committee went over the budget “line item by line item.” Savings are anticipated in areas including public defender wages, school crossing guard wages, road repair and maintenance, professional costs, and Family Aquatic Center wages. Most of the savings are attributable to overall less activity as a result of the state lockdown.
The introduced municipal tax rate was $0.859 per $100 of assessed valuation (AV), a 0.75% increase over the 2019 rate. The amended tax rate is $0.854 per $100 of AV, or a 0.14% increase over last year. That means that for every $100,000 of assessed value, taxpayers will see a $1 increase instead of a $6 increase.
The parking utility, which hasn’t been collecting fees since early in the lockdown, is anticipating $1,886,701 less in revenues compared to last year. It will use surpluses to balance its budget as well as making reductions in salaries and wages, other expenses, and equipment acquisitions. Overall, there is an amended projected budget shortfall of $947,727. Rogers said a utility like parking is expected to be “self-liquidating,” with operating revenues equaling at least what is spent in any given year. Mitigating factors could include realizing better than anticipated revenue, spending less than budgeted, federal and/or state relief, and a reduced contribution to the general fund (typically $550,000).
The Sewer Utility capital budget amended request is $2,375,000 for the City’s share of the Joint Meeting UEC flood mitigation project. It is expected that the federal government will refund up to 90% of the cost of the project, Rogers said.
The amended Parking Services capital budget request is $380,000 for the Broad Street East Garage rehabilitation. He noted that the amount already exists in the capital reserve, so no new debt would be required.
Rogers’ presentation can be viewed at cityofsummit.org/DocumentCenter.
Council Member at-Large Beth Little, as a former Finance Committee chair, observed that in a normal year, many hundred of hours go into creating a budget, “carefully assessing every single cost” and that this year, the committee did that and then went back again. “It’s smart to have taken this extra time ... We’re still dealing with a lot of unknowns, but this is a thoughtful approach.” She assured the public the City will continue to assess costs as the year unfolds.
Ward 1 Council Member Susan Hairston echoed those sentiments, adding her thanks to past Councils for passing “austere” budgets that left reserves that could now be drawn on. Ward 1 Council Member David Naidu expressed his appreciation for the decrease in the tax levy, alleviating some burden on the community. He asked if there was flexibility in case the City ended up with a continued revenue shortfall.
Rogers replied that the City expects to continue to evaluate the spending plan, and to seek COVID-related cost reimbursements where possible. He expects parking to be the biggest concern, though that doesn’t affect the tax rate or operating budget. He believes the revenue estimates are realistic. Questions remain whether the Aquatic Center will open, but he noted that the lost revenues would be largely offset by fewer incurred costs.
Radest said she’s watched the budget process for five years, but never one like this. She assured the public that so much thought and effort has gone into this budget. She said Summit is blessed to have a high tax collection rate and can count on residents to pay the City’s bills for the services that they require.
Opening the hearing on the budget as originally introduced, Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan reiterated his view that the job of a government is keeping its residents healthy and safe, and its second most important job is to be a responsible steward of financial resources. Referring to the budget’s goals ranging from fiscal responsibility to expanded technology to community connectedness, he declared the City’s team has risen to and is meeting the current challenges. “We now have a good idea of the effects this virus will have on our budget … but … no one knows exactly what will happen, and some further changes may be needed. But my hope is that after this hearing, residents can feel very confident that the city is acting thoughtfully… to deliver a lower tax levy in the short term without sacrificing the long-term financial health of the City.”
Council had no comments on the original budget, but several members of the public had questions.
Jim Bennet, Fairview Avenue, asked about the monthly break-even point for parking, and for a breakdown of parking usage. Rogers said monthly revenues average between $270,000 - $280,000 per month, with costs in the area of $260,000 - $265,000 monthly. Between $90,000 and $150,000 is generated in lots and garages, $30,000 in the DeForest lots, and $55,000 in the commuter lots.
Stephen Coffin, Midland Terrace, asked where the City stands with second quarter property tax collection, especially from downtown property owners. Vartan reported that as of May 26, 2019, 97.04% were collected; today, that number was 95.7%. In the SID, comprising 127 properties, in 2019 the collection rate was 98.95%; this year, 96.52%.
Kirsten McCumber, Kings Hill Court, asked if the City will have a hiring freeze. Rogers said in public safety areas, the goal is to keep the staff at the level it was in early 2020. If there’s a retirement, the City decides if that position will be filled, and if so, whether by a full- or part-time replacement. In essential areas, the City tries to maintain certain levels of staffing to ensure service levels. There may be reductions by attrition, and in other areas, there have been layoffs, such as hourly parking ambassadors. McCumber’s follow-up question was whether the City would terminate vacancy announcements; Fox said it would depend on the position.
Jenn Gross, Sweetbriar Road, wanted to know what state aid Summit receives outside the school budget. Rogers answered that the City only receives a small amount of energy receipts taxes, a statutory minimum the state is required to give municipalities.
Eileen Kelly asked the Finance Committee how often the budget will be reevaluated, and what areas they thought would be the most vulnerable. Fox said it’s reevaluated at every committee meeting, reiterating that parking and the Aquatic Center had the most at risk. Vartan added that the capital plan would be passed as part of the budget, but that’s not actually approval to spend money or take on debt. “Those things happen individually as the projects come up at Council meetings.” Fox said the capital budget invests in the facilities and services residents expect, with the council always asking if it makes sense to move forward.
Matthew Cohen, Kings Hill Court, asked which budget areas, such as fire, police or school programs, residents should expect deep cuts. Fox stressed the intent is not to slash any of those areas, but to keep all essential services in place. Rogers said the only significant cut was potentially at the Family Aquatic Center, and only for this season.
At this point the meeting took a particularly 21st-centruy turn. Normally the Council president pro tem steps in if the president is absent or there is a recusal. In this case, Fox’s Zoom connection froze resulting in President pro tem Little took charge of the meeting until Fox’s connection resumed.
Kelly continued, asking for more clarity about the Broad Street garage project. Vartan replied the Broad Street East garage serves the most resident commuters, and when the firehouse construction begins, more cars would move from the Broad Street lot to that garage. While it’s true that there are currently fewer commuters, he said, since the City has the inspection report and rehabilitation estimates, it makes sense to begin the work over the summer before the garage is being heavily used. This even presents an opportunity for savings by not having to do the work on weekends.
Returning online, Fox declared the hearing would remain open until the June 9 meeting. She then called on Vartan to introduce the Special Improvement District (SID) budget. This budget funds Summit Downtown, Inc. (SDI). The bulk of SDI’s income comes from Special Improvement District assessments of downtown businesses, and is used to advance the growth of the downtown. Summit Downtown, Inc. has a 14-member board. Its executive director, Nancy Adams, and treasurer, Claire Toth, were in attendance.
Radest applauded the SDI board for being “uncommonly broad and open in its vision,” helping, informing, and empowering businesses, and now even those beyond the downtown.
Naidu said the public should understand that trying to reopen is very difficult, and will take time and hard work, and that there’s “no magic light switch.” “We had a very good, functioning business community in this town … based on how everything was integrated, put together over 100 years.”
Adams thanked “everybody for working with us and trusting that we have valuable input,” citing the mutual respect between government and businesses. She specifically thanked Parking Services Manager Rita McNany for assistance at the farmers market, with parking enforcement officers helping to keep the public safe. She also recognized the community for their donations to support local businesses, mentioning the thank-you notes she’s received from local businesses who are “frightened, and rightfully so.” She mentioned that the budget allocated for now-canceled events will be applied to doing what is needed to reopen.
Toth reminded listeners that SDI is funded by assessments on business property owners, not by tax dollars. The budget includes $267,878 in assessments and $100,000 from the farmers market. Originally earmarked for marketing and events to bring people downtown, the SDI has pivoted to use that money to support local businesses. Some $6,700 not spent on canceled events is being used to help open up businesses. Toth anticipates there will be outdoor Summer Sounds in June, bringing people downtown to hear music with safe social distancing and perhaps pick up dinner.
Fox asked if the revenue from the farmers market will be near what is projected. Toth replied that is unlikely. On the up side, the SDI has a cushion this year because the City collects the assessment and SDI only received its payment for the last quarter of 2019 early this year.
During public comments, Elliot Fishman, Webster Avenue, asked how “work from home” rules have impacted the provision of City services. Fox said that while City Hall remains closed to the public, some staff is still working there, while others are working from home. Staffers are reachable by phone, and a table is set up on the City Hall courtyard from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. during the week for permits and other DCS matters. In fact, the City has issued about the same number of permits this year as last.
Eileen Kelly, Woodland Avenue, asked if there were new planning assumptions related to the Broad Street West redevelopment. Fox said conversations are continuing with the redeveloper regarding the terms of the process for moving forward, but that the redeveloper remains very interested in working with the City. Any changes are likely to be a reflection of changed market demands.
In resolutions, Naidu introduced one from the Administrative Policies & Community Relations Committee to establish the rules that govern how the public may provide input at virtual Council meetings electronically. He noted that the current meeting was already operating under that process. He observed the Council was “trying to replicate as best we can a Council meeting … [with] public input, in real time, by telephone or Zoom … [as we] try to be as inclusive and transparent as possible.”
The 2020 budget amendments were introduced as a Finance resolution by Vartan, and approved by a unanimous roll call vote, clearing the way for the amended budget to be heard and voted on at the June 9 meeting.
Vartan then moved a resolution to adopt the Special Improvement District budget; this also passed on a unanimous roll call vote.
In addition to the two budget matters, Vartan had six other Finance resolutions. Two of them authorized temporary appropriations, presumably for the last time this year, to the municipal operating budget ($778,200) and Sewer Utility budget ($47,000). These will cover operating expenses until the adoption of the new budget next month. Both passed on unanimous roll call votes. Another resolution set the schedule of school levy payments to the Board of Education, a total of $32,436,321 spread out in six payments between July 1 and December 2. His next resolution authorized the tax collector and City treasurer to issue estimated tax bills for the third quarter of 2020.
He also moved to authorize incoming (now) Police Chief Andrew Bartolotti to manage the police department’s petty cash account following Chief Robert Weck’s retirement on June 1. Finally, Vartan moved a resolution to amend how payroll is managed so that payroll changes can be approved “in bulk” quarterly instead of voting on each individual change.
Hairston moved three Health & Safety resolutions. The first confirmed the mayor’s appointment of Lieutenant Rick Proctor as police captain, filling a vacancy created by Captain Andrew Bartolotti’s promotion to Police Chief. Proctor, a Summit native, has 18 years on the force and is well-known throughout the community. Her second resolution authorized the Police Department to accept an unrestricted $1,200 donation from Temple Sinai as a token of its appreciation. Her final resolution authorized the Police Department to apply for a grant from the US Department of Justice Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program for the purchase of new body armor. The grant request is $2,462.50 and requires a 50% match.
Ward 1 Council Member Danny O’Sullivan had a single Community Programs & Parking Services resolution to extend once again the temporary parking rules in the Central Retail Business District through June 30. Time limits and illegal parking restrictions will continue to be enforced. The changes, to assist businesses and their customers downtown by waiving parking fees at meters and kiosks, were originally approved March 24 and extended on April 28; they will be reexamined in June to determine if another extension is warranted.
Ward 2 Council Member Steve Bowman bundled two of his Law & Labor resolutions authorizing annual license agreements for sidewalk dining at Summit House Restaurant and Bar Bacoa. He also moved a resolution authorizing the extension of paid sick leave for an employee in the City Clerk’s Office.
Ordinarily the consent agenda of miscellaneous resolutions is voted on as a unit without discussion. This evening, Little pulled a Capital Projects & Community Services resolution out of the consent agenda for an individual vote. It authorized a change order for the New Providence Avenue improvement project, a refund of $14,113.64 due to the use of less material than anticipated.
All resolutions passed.
Pride Flag at The Summit Community Center
Also discussed outside the consent agenda was a Community Programs & Parking Services resolution, moved by O’Sullivan, approving a request to fly a pride flag at the Community Center. He noted that the City held its first Pride event on the Green last year, but that activities this year would be prevented by the pandemic. By flying the flag, “we are reminding everyone that Summit is welcoming to all.”
Bowman dissented, pointing out that Summit historically doesn't recognize special groups, and that not consistently applying a policy “opens the floodgates.” He related that a request to place banners recognizing first responders on the Green was turned down. Nevertheless, the resolution passed by a 6-1 vote.
Office of Emergency Management Update
Don Nelson, Summit’s OEM coordinator, provided a brief update on his office’s COVID-related activities. Kean University is the county’s main testing site, and CVS and other pharmacies are gearing up to perform testing as well. While hospitals are seeing a downward trend in cases, New Jersey continues to stay near the top for new cases, number of hospitalized patients and deaths per 100,000 residents. The OEM continues to coordinate with city departments and first responders and work with long-term care providers to facilitate the acquisition of needed supplies. Another facet of its operation is vetting vendors of PPE. The OEM is assisting the Summit Interfaith Group in its assistance grant pursuits with FEMA. Fire Chief Eric Evers continues to coordinate with Overlook Medical Center, while (now) Police Chief Bartolotti is the interface with the Westfield Regional Health Department and public communications officer.
Radest, in her mayor’s report, solicited donations to the Summit Police Department’s food drive benefiting the GRACE pantry. The drive-through, contactless collection will be held at Summit High School on the weekends of May 30-31 and June 6-7 between 9:00 and 5:00. Pre-pandemic, GRACE aided no more than a hundred families a week; it’s now serving about 500.
The mayor said the governor’s Executive Order 144 means the upcoming primary election will be done primarily via vote-by-mail, although a limited number of in-person polling places will be open in Union County. All registered Democratic and Republican voters will automatically receive a postage-paid vote-by-mail ballot, while all unaffiliated and inactive voters will receive a postage-paid ballot application.
Freeholder Angela Garretson informed Radest the City will receive 3,000 masks for residents and City workers. The mayor’s office is coordinating with various City organizations for distribution.
Rogers’s administrative report opened with some good news, that the Transfer Station will reopen on a Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule beginning June 2, from 9:30 to 2:30. Appointments are no longer required. It will not be open at this time for commercial use, however.
The Summit Police Department again urges residents to remove all valuables from their vehicles nightly, and ensure those vehicles are locked and the key fobs taken inside. Garage doors should be closed and exterior house doors locked. For added security, homeowners should turn on outside lights and install a motion detector. He noted that all property reported stolen from vehicles came from unlocked cars and trucks, and all stolen vehicles had the keys left in them.
The deadline for dog and cat license renewals has been extended from May 31 to August 31.
She noted the city is making plans in anticipation of receiving guidance from the governor about reopening. Staff are looking at ways to reopen City facilities including the Family Aquatic Center with modifications in place to minimize health risks. Elected officials and staff are working with Summit Downtown Inc. and both downtown and neighborhood business owners downtown on ways to assist them once the go-ahead to reopen is received. Ideas being discussed include using sidewalks and parking lots for dining and to display merchandise, expanded use of parklets, and possible street closings. The Law & Labor Committee is also looking at sidewalk cafés and ways to expedite approvals for their operation.
In another piece of positive news, Fox reported that NJ Transit and Amtrak will be receiving almost $100 million in federal funds for the Portal Bridge replacement project.
In closing remarks, Naidu mentioned that this is the last council meeting with Robert Weck as Summit police chief. He testified to the chief’s “extraordinary leadership” during two particular events, the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the ripple effect it had on worshippers locally, and when Council Member Matt Gould passed away.