I. Transparency and Community Engagement:
Continuously improving the information available to residents needs to be a goal of the Township. The community must have clear, simple access to policy, project, and financial information. Being an active participant in your town’s government is your right, and being able to offer suggestions, ask questions, and share issues should be easier.
As your Councilmen, our objectives for Transparency and Community Engagement include:
- Permanently offer every council and major board meeting with the option to attend virtually, online. It is good that Sparta was able to adopt some virtual meetings during the COVID-19 crisis. These are easier for those who have mobility issues, young children, or busy schedules.
- Provide new avenues of two-way communication with the many frustrated citizens and local business owners, making it much easier to share updates, questions, ideas, and concerns.
- Improve the readability of Council agendas. The ordinances may be required to be written in legalese, but there should be an explanatory statement in the agenda that describes (in plain English) the purpose and anticipated impact of the ordinances being discussed and up for vote.
- Ensure that agendas have proper attachments and full details. Over the past few months this has generally been the case and the practice should continue.
- Publish the minutes of all board and committee meetings online.
- Help drive improvements to the Township website so that it is easier to find information and keep up-to-date.
We have a great community in Sparta! We need to engage all citizens to continue to make it better for all.
II. Fiscal Accountability:
We have been honored to have had many conversations with Sparta residents this year. We asked hundreds if they knew that a substantially larger budget was passed by the Sparta Township Council this spring. We did not encounter a single person who knew that the new budget represents a relatively large increase, compared to last year's budget and to last year’s actual spending.
While a valid reason may exist for part of this increase, why is it not well known? Taxes are understandably a big issue in Sparta, which we heard over and over again in those conversations. We have the highest average property tax in Sussex County. We have the highest average property tax contribution to the county government. We have the highest average school tax in the county.
Sparta Township has done a good job of keeping tax rate increases low -- the municipal tax slightly dropped by 0.4% for the 2020-21 tax year. The approved municipal budget is about $28 million, an increase of over $1 million from the prior budget, and significantly higher than what was actually spent last year. The obvious question: How can we plan to spend a lot more in the 2020-21 year and yet have a slightly lower tax rate? Part of the answer: (1) Last year Sparta took in over $1.6 million (about 6%) in excess revenues; (2) We receive increased revenues from the North Village development. That is good news, but it does beg two questions: Why not decrease taxes more? Why haven't we seen any real relief from those new North Village ratables, as many of us were expecting?
As your Councilmen, our objectives for Fiscal Accountability include:
- Diligently and thoroughly understand the financial impact of proposed projects and activities, as well as overall township financial matters.
- Ensure that we have substantive discussions concerning increased spending before passage.
- Propose that simple budget presentations are publicly available when the preliminary new budget is discussed.
- Insist budget presentations contain easy-to-read visuals (proposed vs. current, spending by category and department, non-tax revenue, etc.).
- Promote website updates to include an easy-to-find link to the proposed budget and supporting information (from proposal through adoption).
- Ensure, on an ongoing basis, that substantial changes in revenue (from taxes and other sources) and expenses are described and readily accessible.
We will work for you to make sure more residents are able to meaningfully participate in the budget process, and understand how the town is spending its funding. We believe that a more open dialogue with you will make Sparta even better!