LIVINGSTON, NJ – A heated discussion took place as the Livingston Township Council presented the 2011 budget during Monday night’s meeting, with a resident and several members of the Council accusing Councilwoman Shapiro of playing politics over the budget and questioning her affiliation with a charter school.
Township Manager Michele E. Meade led led the budget presentation and began by providing an overview of the economy overall as well as Livingston’s economy in recent years.
According to Ms. Meade, a great deal of what has happened in Trenton has impacted the town, including the spending cap, the tax levy cap, and health benefits and pension reform. “So what do we do?” She asked, “How do we continue to meet the challenges of maintaining services” that residents have grown accustomed to, “at a reasonable price while maintaining the fiscal stability of the town?”
In recent years, staff levels have been reduced without reducing services or implementing layoffs. Instead, when someone has retired, the position has not been filled if it has not been deemed a necessity. As a result, Livingston has reduced 20 positions since 2005.
To enhance stability, Livingston has adopted a long-term focus with the implementation of a long-term financial plan. Quick fixes will be avoided, and long-term solutions will be explored whenever possible. Meade also explained that repairs will be made more quickly so that replacements can be avoided, to reduce overall spending.
Discussions are ongoing with other municipalities regarding the possibility of shared services. An energy audit was also done last year, and an improvement plan was recommended by which the Town should save $63,000 per year.
In addition to these tactics, Livingston has also established reserves. For example, Livingston will plan for the worst case scenario to protect the taxpayers from instability and spikes in the budget. This was evident in the case of snow removal this winter. Whereas many surrounding towns, including major cities like New York, ran through their snow removal budgets before January was over, Livingston used the reserve and was able to continue efficient snow removal for the entire season.
In comparison with other towns in general, Livingston continues to do well. It has remained far below inflation levels for discretionary expenses for the last four years. It also has the 14th lowest local property tax bill among the neighboring communities.
No cuts or changes were made to services in the 2011 budget. There are no increases proposed for water rates or sewer fees.
The budget does include a 1.9% tax increase, which means an additional $45 per household for the average $600K home.
Many residents shared comments and questions during the Public Comment section of the meeting, and some shared their appreciation for all the work the council members had done in trying to work out the best budget possible. One man began by saying, “I don’t often congratulate elected officials, but I’m going to do so this year.” He did suggest that the budget could be tighter, and that less paper could be wasted for town mailings. To this, Deputy Mayor Stephen Santola, responded that they are beginning to reduce mailings and use email, adding that the reduction could be helpful.
One resident, equipped with 13 pages of handwritten questions, fired off questions regarding the salary increases, salary steps, and the energy decrease of $63K, among others. The man stated that he was more than willing to receive a written response to his questions to save time and had requested an informal meeting, which he said had been either denied or ignored. His requests were not addressed, but the Township Manager did try to answer as many of his questions as she could. She did say she would not respond to what she felt were his opinions.
Another man began by thanking the council committee for its work and delineated some of what made Livingston so great including many of the things that have been done to improve the town. His pitch changed, however, when he began to discuss the importance of keeping “politics in Trenton and in Washington.” He said that Councilwoman Shapiro was “playing games” and “fooling around with $6 here or $10 there” in seeking not to increase municipal employees’ wages. He also felt that her affiliation with a charter school board was her political motivation.
Ms. Shapiro requested a moment to respond, stating, “I am dedicated to making sure taxpayers are not further burdened.” She went on to point out that the charter school board of which she is a member has nothing to do with the budget and that she, “resents the implication that [she] is playing any kind of politics.”
It became clear during the vote to adopt the budget that the resident was not alone in his opinion about Ms. Shapiro’s alleged “politics.” Councilman Michael Rieber, first to vote, voted “No” on the budget, explaining, “Almost is not good enough for me.”
Ms. Shapiro was next to vote, with “an unequivocal no.” During her statement, she described the budget as “continually miscast as” one of a $45 tax increase, adding that the taxes have increased $11.1 million over the last ten years. One of her suggestions for further reduction was to have municipal employees pay more health benefits. She claimed that Town employees pay much less for health benefits than their counterparts in the private sector. She also suggested, while admitting that she did not want “to be the Grinch who stole Chanukah,” that the Town should not host holiday parties for its employees since these parties are expansive, and employees are paid for attending.
In his comments on the budget, Councilman Schneiderman made a reference to charter schools as being a motivation for Ms. Shapiro's budget position. Ms. Shapiro spoke up during Mr. Schneiderman’s statement, asking “What the hell do charter schools have to do with anything?”
Santola then echoed Mr. Schneiderman’s sentiments regarding Ms. Shapiro’s motivation regarding the budget. He said, “When elections are over, politicking must end.” He added before correcting the alleged misstatements Ms. Shapiro made regarding the percentage of health benefits paid to municipal workers who opt out of the benefits and the per household average of $45 tax increase, that, "For this year, I will chalk it up to inexperience."
Santola and the Mayor voted yes on the budget. The Mayor stated that “We can get to a zero increase, but we have to decide what it is that we won’t provide to residents anymore.”
In other news, Mayor Rufino “Rudy” Fernandez, Jr. began the meeting by asking if everyone could take a moment of silent meditation and in light of the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, a moment of remembrance for all who perished during the attacks on September 11th, 2001, especially the seven residents of Livingston who died on that day.
A representative from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation then spoke about the upcoming race and invited everyone to participate. The race, which will take place at the Essex County South Mountain Recreation Complex on May 15th, promises to bring a large crowd. As of now, 5000 people are registered, and the group anticipates eight to ten thousand participants in total. The event will include many activities for children as well as Livingston High School cheerleaders and other Livingston groups.
Township Manager, Michele E. Meade presented an award to the Engineering Department in acknowledgment of Public Service Recognition Week, an event which began in 1985 and has been celebrated in Livingston since 2009. Jeannette Harduby, Assistant Engineer, and Jennifer Hernandez, Public Works Inspector, accepted the award for their department.
Ms. Meade highlighted the importance of this department, especially in terms of the role it will play in the coming months during the many public works projects planned. The department has recently hired brand new staff and now has a new focus on road improvement.