SUMMIT, NJ - A 23-point list of Summit Common Council goals, presented at Tuesday’s governing body meeting, was seen by some as too general and others as a necessary starting point for further discussion.
However, the majority consensus was that more specific metrics were needed to measure the success of the goals as the city moves forward into 2014 and beyond.
First Ward Councilman Thomas Getzendanner, who will be leaving the council at the end of this month, said he was disappointed that the document resulting from the October goal-setting session did not include more of his suggestions which, he said, would be “more granular” in helping run the city more like a private business.
Getzendanner said the document showed there was a “lack of political willpower” to make the real decisions that had to be made and demonstrated “an absence of strategic leadership in city hall” and many of the goals “let the city administrator off the hook.”
For example, he said the document should call for continued fiscal austerity, not just seek “fiscal responsibility,” especially in light of the fact that Merck & Co. Inc., one of the city’s largest taxpayers, will soon close its Summit facility.
He also renewed his call for a citywide revaluation, which, he has said on many occasions, will make property taxes more realistic and give the Hilltop City a better shot at a fairer share of the Union County tax burden.
Although not in complete agreement with Getzendanner, Councilman Patrick Hurley supported Getzendanner’s call for more measureable “metrics,” citing specific dates by which certain goals should be met. For example, he said, for two years, the council has spoken about making its meetings paperless but still has not done so. He held up a copy of a Union County community block grant application which stretched over a number of pages.
Council Finance Chairman Dave Bomgaars, who also is leaving the governing body this year, replied that, although the goals should be specific, councilmen needed more succinct “bullet points” they could easily present to their constituents as they walked around the city.
Bomgaars said the city department heads should be responsible for developing specific metrics and explain to council what they were doing to meet these measurements.
Hurley replied while simple goals were good for a reference point numbers were needed to back them up and council should be presented with a “quarterly scorecard” about how metrics were being met.
Councilman Robert Rubino said the goals list presented on Tuesday gave governing body members a “snapshot” to work with, while pages could be added to the document fleshing out the specifics.
Speaking about the county, he noted the council should seek help from the freeholders in using some of the revenue received from Summit in marketing it as a destination city in order to bring in more hotel occupancy taxes.
Mayor Ellen Dickson noted city departments brought in reductions of about 20 percent in the last several years.
She held out little hope of reducing county taxes, but did support aiming for a zero increase in school taxes.
Council president Richard Madden urged incoming councilmembers Mike McTernan and Sandra Lizza to give reports based on their study of the proposed goals.
McTernan also said the measures should be more quantifiable and specific.
For example, rather than saying the council should continue to work with the Union County freeholders on limiting county tax increases, he said the Summit governing body should push for the county to stick to the same two percent “cap” on taxes imposed on municipalities by the state.
Instead of just urging the board of education to limit increases in the school tax, he said the council should move the school body toward a zero tax increase.
He also urged a specific goal of raising alternative city revenue sources by two percent and aiming to obtain a certain amount of grants in connection with Summit’s transit village designation rather than just “leveraging” the designation.
McTernan added that it was more beneficial to have a conversation about how the city tried to attain certain goals but was not able to meet them, rather than not specifying exactly what the metrics were.
Lizza said, for example, rather than just aiming in general to improve pedestrian safety the council should endorse a specific program to do so, and rather than just aiming to have the joint emergency dispatch center with New Providence up and running, it should more specifically outline the fiscal impact of the joint center on Summit.
She also agreed city department heads should present quarterly progress reports to council on meeting metrics set for them.
Councilman Albert Dill, Jr. said, however, that councilmen need to work to accomplish items to which they have committed and demonstrate these accomplishments. For example, he noted he is working with parking director Rita McNany to standardize parking meters around the city.
Madden urged his colleagues to work on refining the goals and said if another goal-setting is needed it could be scheduled.
On another matter, when Getzendanner pressed for the city to obtain payments from private property owners for “paper streets” turned over to them, instead of just having the city vacate them, city solicitor Thomas Scrivo advised that, while the city could accept voluntary payments for street vacations it could not set up auctions to obtain funds for excess plots of land.
Madden also noted that the city did profit from turning the plots over because the receiving property owners were assessed at a greater rate due to the increase in the value of their property due to the additions.
Getzendanner said this further emphasized the need for city administrators to make a greater effort to sell unneeded assets to private developers.
Although the council on Tuesday acted on several street vacations, it postponed until Dec. 17 action on a plot between 121 and123 Passaic Ave. because Merck wants to research its legal right to the plot.
Mr. and Mrs. Walter D. Hluch, who at one time owned the property at 121 Passaic Ave., raised the issue that Merck often used it as a pass-through to water service equipment for its Summit facility which is located adjacent to the property. They also said Merck mowed the grass, removed fallen grass and planted trees and shrubs on the plot.
Mrs. Hluch said at Tuesday’s meeting she would not mind obtaining the property from the city but did not want to pay for it.
Summing up some of his concerns on leaving the council, Getzendanner said he was disappointed the city had settled the Ameripay payroll tax case for only “cents on the dollar,” saying Summit had left “$500,000 on the table.”
He also said he regretted that the city had not pressed at least senior management employees to switch from traditional healthcare plans to plans including healthcare savings accounts.
The plans, he said, gave employees more control of their healthcare dollars and would save the city money. He added by having senior management enrolled in the plans first other employees would be encouraged to do so.
Responding to Getzendanner’s comments on the Ameripay case, Madden said all council members but the outgoing First Ward representative voted for the settlement and, had Getzendanner been a witness in any trial resulting from the case, the city could have “lost it all.”