BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — The $33.2 million 2021 Municipal Budget was introduced at the April 6 meeting of the Township Council. This was slightly higher than the draft budget which was discussed at the end of February which came in at $32.9 million. The meeting can be viewed on YouTube here.
The budget increased 2.6 percent over last year’s, said CFO Eugenia Poulos. The owner of the “average” home with an assessed value of $314,400 can expect to pay an additional $66 a year to pay for municipal services, she said.
A copy of the “User Friendly Budget” can be found on the borough’s website, here.
The township is “using $935,000 in surplus in this budget to compensate on revenue shortfalls,” said Poulos. For instance, in the area of “hotel taxes,” these have not yet hit the level of 2019, she said.
Some “capital items,” those that have a useful life of five years or less, are now being funded out of current operations to give the township better control of debt service, she said.
There were some changes made in the budget including the addition of two part-time employees and a summer intern. One position is for a Public Information Officer (PIO), at a cost of $18,000 a year, a second is for a part-time IT Technician — a person who is already employed by the borough, who will be used to help with technical items during evening and weekend hours, when the municipal complex opens and people, including seniors, are using audiovisual and possibly computer equipment to make presentations.
Township Administrator Liza Viana said the “money is set aside for a tech-savvy employee who has to work extra hours” to teach new users how to get a presentation going in the meeting room, etc.
Another $5,000 has been allocated for a summer intern in the finance department.
The bulk of the budget is made up of “non-discretionary costs.” Non-discretionary operational costs make up 8.10 percent of the budget; non-discretionary fixed costs such as fixed salaries, group health insurance, utilities, etc., make up 90.78 percent of the budget. Only 1.12 percent of the costs, $372,497 in the 2021 budget, are discretionary.
Some details on what is included in the non-discretionary categories can be seen above, in some slides presented by Poulos, or on the YouTube video from the meeting.
Council members Alvaro Medeiros and Stephen Yellin, who later in the evening voted against introducing the budget because of the inclusion of the extra employees, had questions about these new positions.
Medeiros asked why a summer intern was needed in the finance department and was told by Poulos said it was because of the need to “prepare for the police contract” negotiations that are coming up.
Yellin questioned why the township wouldn’t use its contracted professionals to handle this. “We’ve taken out other capital items (from the budget). I haven’t heard about this position before,” he said.
Residents had questions about whether there were funds included in the budget for the Westside Drainage Project. They were.
Margaret Illis and John Sincaglia asked about stimulus dollars - where they fit into the budget and how they would be allocated.
Viana said the amount is not officially set but when it arrives, it will be used to offset costs related to a public health emergency and infrastructure. The township should have until December 2024 to spend the money.
Sincaglia encouraged the council to use those funds for “one and done” projects not for ongoing projects.
Dr. Tom Foregger asked if the PIO position could be cut from the budget for one year, and, with almost $617,000 in the capital improvement fund, how much debt will the township be authorizing?
Poulos said the town would be authorizing $1.9 million for roads, drainage and sewers.
When it came time for the council to vote on introducing the budget, Yellin said he would vote no because budgets “are not just about dollars and cents, but priorities.” He questioned how the council could turn down the budget requests of the first responders, including a request for a new police officer, and say “we prioritize $5,000 for a summer intern?” He said he agrees the town could use a PIO, but “to turn down an officer and have a PIO” seems to forget what the town’s priorities are.
Medeiros said he agreed with Yellin and wondered about “the dichotomy between cutting budgets in anticipation of a difficult year” and then going ahead and hiring new people.
Council President Jeanne Kingsley asked for a clarification about whether it would be possible to “modify any line items” after the budget is introduced and learned changes can be made the night of the final adoption.
The council voted 4-2 to introduce the budget.The public hearing on the budget will be held on May 4.
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