BRIDGEWATER, NJ - With residents and businesses feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, municipalities are suffering too, and Bridgewater Township has had to take some drastic steps in the way of layoffs and position eliminations to balance its 2020 budget.
A number of layoff notices were sent at the beginning of June, with termination dates of June 30, for a total of 14 people laid off, nine in the Department of Public Works. Other layoffs came from the construction department and the municipal court.
“Just like any family that is struggling right now, the township will have to do more with less,” said deputy township administrator Wells Winegar. “We fully expect to continue to deliver the services that Bridgewater residents expect and deserve.”
In addition to the 14 layoffs, the township eliminated 10 positions in the clerks office, code enforcement, engineering, fire, planning, Department of Public Works and recreation.
Winegar said those eliminated positions were previously funded in the budget, but were and are currently vacant.
For example, he said, one was a deputy superintendent of recreation. The person most recently in that position was promoted to superintendent of recreation after Christine Schneider retired, so they have eliminated the deputy position.
“The rest of them were vacant ones that we would have liked to have hired, but that isn’t a possibility now,” he said.
These changes were all necessitated by budget shortfalls due to losses of revenue during the pandemic.
According to Winegar, in terms of the layoffs, because of union contracts, the township was required to lay off the most junior employees first, keeping the more senior employees.
One former employee with the Department of Public Works said they didn’t expect so many people from their department to be laid off.
Winegar said the layoffs were based on internal discussions, in places they felt they could reduce the workforce and still provide the necessary services.
With nine layoffs coming from the public works department, that department was the hardest hit by the layoffs. Winegar said it is the biggest department by far in the township, with between 60 and 70 people.
“The individual people were selected, and it was not performance-based,” he said. “We had to follow the union contract.”
To balance the budget and account for a loss of $2.1 million in revenue since the start of the pandemic, Winegar said, they settled on those 14 total layoffs in an effort to minimize the tax increase that they were forced to implement this year.
“We tried to pick the minimum amount we could and pass on the minimum amount to taxpayers,” he said. “We hope to have the positions back one day.”
The budget was introduced in mid June, and will have its public hearing July 20. It is set at $43,259,860.
Taxpayers will see a 1.94 percent municipal tax increase this year, which will translate to about a $3 increase in the average tax bill. There is also a 4 percent decrease in municipal spending from 2019, among $1.5 million in reductions that were made.
Mayor Matthew Moench said during the budget introduction that the tax increase on town residents would have been in the double digits if the loss of revenue had been incorporated into the budget, with all the uncertainty still going on, and that it had been a challenge to still provide expected municipal services in a responsible fashion.
“The positions that were subject to budgetary layoff were decided over months of analysis and discussion with all the department heads,” Winegar said. “The decisions were made so that we could have the least interruption in services while limiting the exposure of our taxpayers.”
“It’s painful and difficult to lose any member of the Bridgewater family, but difficult decisions needed to be made,” he added.