First, let me say that as we mourn the loss of Berkeley Heights residents due to COVID-19, it’s so heartwarming to see how people in the community continue to rally around their neighbors, businesses and our healthcare workers, do their best to limit non-essential travel, and come up with creative ways to maintain human connection.
We’re all in uncharted waters. This pandemic has changed the way we all live and work, and that includes the way services are delivered to our residents. I want to offer my sincerest thanks to all of the Township employees who have gone above and beyond from Day 1 of this pandemic, to ensure government operations continue to run, to ensure resident services continue, to protect our community, and to come up with creative workplace solutions to maintain not only safety of residents but of our employees. This amazing team of people is so dedicated to Berkeley Heights; I’m proud to have each and every one of them on our “BH A Team.”
At our most recent budget meeting on April 6, we unveiled months of work in figuring out how municipal services will be provided in the next fiscal year amidst these very uncertain financial times. The draft annual Township budget for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020 was the culmination of digging in to figure out where exactly we could make cuts that would not affect resident services, yet still allow our government to operate efficiently. The presentation and authorization of that budget is the primary responsibility of the Township Council. This budget process began in late Fall 2019.
I work with our CFO and our Township department heads to review current year spending, discuss known necessary projects for the upcoming year, and determine a preliminary budget. We prioritize funding for desperately-needed infrastructure projects such as roads, drainage, and, increasingly, sewer system upgrades. Once this iterative process is completed, the CFO and I review the draft with the Mayor and Council Finance Committee. We use their input to refine the budget, then present the draft budget to the full Council for discussion during at least two public meetings. We continue to modify it as more information is received.
This year, given COVID–19, we faced extraordinary budget challenges. We initially anticipated introducing the budget on April 10th. However, with the Governor’s state of emergency declaration on March 9th immediately following our meeting and subsequent closing of the Berkeley Heights schools on March 12th, a small team of us quickly got to work on reviewing every element of the draft budget to attempt to estimate the revenues that would be impacted and to find expenditures that could be reduced. This has been a real team effort – the CFO, Mayor and our Council Finance Committee and our department heads all worked diligently to modify our budget. They all had one goal – to maintain services to the residents, including bulk pickup, while limiting any tax increase and keeping it as close to zero as possible.
This ongoing process has required both discipline and creativity, as revenue projections have dropped in a number of areas, including municipal court fees, uniform fire inspection fees, hotel tax, interest on investments, and anticipated fees on delinquent taxes. Expenditures were primarily reduced by eliminating all summer interns, delaying the hiring of the replacement Recreation Director until next year, reducing crossing guard salaries and expenses, reducing the snow removal budget, pushing off a needed sewer jet truck purchase to 2021 and a reduction in deferred charges for a New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust (NJEIT) loan.
During this budget process, the governing body was also working with the Township attorney and Connell to negotiate an expansion liquor license for Connell Park. The successful negotiation of this license is the saving component of the Township budget for 2020 and will allow us to continue to provide quality services without a tax increase. Make no mistake about this: the governing body and staff have worked tirelessly to make this happen. But we are not out of the woods yet. While the draft budget includes some provision for uncollected taxes, it is critical that residents continue to pay their taxes, as a shortfall in tax collection funds risks liquidity and affects the Town’s ability to pay for salaries, goods and services and taxes to other entities, primarily our Board of Education and County. What’s more, we recently encountered some additional major sewer costs that will have to be added into the budget.
The Township still is required to pay the full amount owed to the Board of Education and County of Union. The State has not released guidance yet on what money, if any, will be available to townships to assist with any potential loss in taxpayer revenue.
I hope this provides some insight on how we are working to keep Berkeley Heights’s budget and finances in order during this extraordinary time.
Masks for Seniors
The Township is working with one of our volunteer groups, BH Neighbors Helping Neighbors, to distribute washable cloth masks to senior citizens, our community’s most vulnerable population when it comes to COVID-19. We are encouraging any senior over the age of 70 who needs a mask to contact us at (908) 312-2066 or email email@example.com and a volunteer will drop off a handmade cloth washable mask. These masks have been hand-made by town volunteers & should be WASHED before wearing; wash as frequently as needed. The small group of volunteers who are bagging and distributing these masks are required to watch videos on proper mask and glove use - as prepared by our emergency services team - are required to follow very specific safety protocols. This is all to ensure the safety of our volunteers and residents.
In addition, BH Neighbors Helping Neighbors can also assign a “phone buddy” to residents who would like weekly check-in calls, and offers the following services:
- Connection to services for senior citizens and veterans
- Help to get groceries or other items from stores for those who cannot/should not leave their homes under the state’s current “stay at home” order
- Basic information about Township services being offered
- How residents can interact with the Township while offices are closed
- Where to get toilet paper or paper towels
- Activities for social distancing
- How to access physical activity programs for certain gyms remotely
- & more
A Note of Caution: Anyone receiving masks being given out by members of the community should NOT accept such items if the distributor is not properly protected per CDC guidelines. This means proper mask wear, as well as gloves. This is to avoid even the slight chance of contamination, particularly since the CDC has now confirmed that humans can have the virus but not yet feel symptoms - and still infect others.
The Council anticipates voting on the award of the service at its April 28th meeting. Accordingly, we are planning on the following tentative schedule and ask that you materials are NOT left at the curbside until the appropriate time. We also request that residents pay their taxes in a timely fashion, if able, so that bulk pickup can be sufficiently funded. More here.
Road Projects & THAT Light
Paving and drainage has been completed in the Rutgers, Princeton and Hamilton areas, as well as Briarwood East/West and connecting roads. Meanwhile, ground broke on Monday, April 27 on the traffic light at the intersection of Snyder and Locust. The light will be installed in about 3 weeks after initial prep work is complete, weather permitting. The light is being paid for by Garden Homes, the developer of the 55-and-over community being built at 100 Locust Avenue, across from the new Berkeley Heights YMCA; the stipulation was part of its 2017 redevelopment agreement with the Township.
We now accept online payments for a number of services. Residents can now use the website to pay for their Annual Parking Permit, Dog and Cat Licenses and Smoke/Fire Inspections (required for Change of Occupancy). The Online Forms allow users to complete the application and submit it along with the appropriate fees. This eliminates the need to drop-off or mail the forms and will allow for faster turn-around time.
Through our partner, Spatial Data Logic (SDL), you can now check or access the following Construction/Building Department activity online:
- Search permits
- Assessed property value
- Schedule inspections
- Status alerts
- Online payments
- Inspection history
- Town maps
- Other property information
Sewer Connection Fees
The Township Council on Tuesday, April 28, will have a first reading of an ordinance establishing new sewer connection fees; these primarily concern new development - such as the condos and apartments being built around town.
We started working on this ordinance soon after January 2019, to be sure we adjusted the fees if necessary before all of the new development of condos came online (old Berkeley Theater, Berkeley Florist, Stratton House, etc.), to ensure we could realize the potential increase in revenue. This ordinance raises the current connection fee from $4,285 per connection to $6,500 per connection. This does NOT impact individual residents/homeowners who currently live in their homes. It will ONLY impact future buildouts/construction.
This revenue ideally will help offset other revenue losses suffered as a result of COVID-19, and will help us continue services without dramatically increasing the budget.
Questions, comments or concerns? Please feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please stay safe everyone! We are all in this COVID-19 era together; and we will pull through stronger because of it!