LIVINGSTON, NJ – While Livingston has endured its share of economic woes in the past few years, there are many reasons to be optimistic, and things are looking up, Mayor Steve Santola told those who attended the Livingston Chamber of Commerce’s Breakfast with the Mayor Thursday morning at the Westminster Hotel.
The event was also the Chamber’s annual meeting, and the new board members were voted into office by the membership. Aileen Boyle is the outgoing president, and Louis Urban is stepping into the role.
In his remarks to the Chamber members, Santola outlined some of the trials Livingston has been through in recent years, and some of the ways the city has triumphed.
“We have suffered as everyone has in this economy,” Santola said. “Livingston doesn’t struggle with our expenses, we struggle with our income and our revenue sources.”
Santola said one of things municipalities can do is find or increase income sources such as usage fees for athletic fields, building permit fees, and taxes. However, with Governor Christie’s two percent tax cap, taxes can’t go up much, and when a municipality loses a big chunk of state aid, as Livingston did, it makes it harder to balance the town’s budget.
The mayor added that over past three budgets, Livingston has cut more than $1 million in expenses.
“And we have not had to significantly reduce our services to do it,” he said. “Since 2006, we have reduced our overall employee count by seven percent, and we’ve done it through attrition rather than layoffs or firings. Michele (Township Manager Michele Mead) and her staff figured out ways to fold several departments together.”
Santola compared what Livingston has done to what many people have had to do in their businesses.
“All of us are figuring how to do what we do with less money and less people,” he said.
And the proof of the township’s success, Santola said, “is in the pudding.”
“This past Thursday we had our bond sale and through a whole bunch of extremely good planning and serendipity, we sold our bonds into the greatest municipal bond market maybe ever,” he said. “We sold them at 3.1 percent. That is an insane number. While we definitely can’t take credit for where the bond market is, we can take credit for our bond rating.”
Moody’s increased Livingston’s bond rating to Aa2, Santola said, and half of the credit for that is due to the residents and businesses, and the other half is due to the municipality.
“About 50 percent of what they look at is the community,” he said. “They look at unemployment, average income, what the community ratable base is, how local economy looks. So 50 percent of the credit goes to the businesses and residents in this town. The other half is internal at town hall. They look for a consistent surplus but not a large one. They also want to look at how the town is folding departments together, and they want to meet the managers, to see how professional they are, what kind of a game plan the town has.”
In addition to the two percent tax cap, the governor has issued a checklist of financial best practices, and Santola said Livingston scored a 92 percent before municipal officials even saw the list. Now that they’ve received it and made some changes, the town scores a 98 percent.
Santola said that when the township gets the annual budget, every department has to contribute their five-year capital budget so that everything can be laid out and accounted for, including large expenses such a new fire trucks. The tightening of the township’s fiscal belt can result in some gaps in the township – gaps that can be well-filled by volunteers. The township appoints more than 400 volunteers at the beginning of every year.
A shining example of volunteerism at work in Livingston is the committee that worked on the Camuso Holiday Display.
The holiday decorations, erected for years at the Camuso home on Burnett Hill Road, were donated to the community by the family following Ernie Camuso’s recent passing. The family donated the entire display to Livingston.
“When Camuso family came to the town to ask if we wanted the display, we may have said ‘Thanks, we’ll take it,’ without ever thinking about electric or other costs it would require. Michele (Mead) saw the potential, but we knew we couldn’t do it with municipal funds.”
Instead, municipal officials put together a committee to oversee the project, and collected more than $15,000 in donations.
“Everybody came together to fix, repair, paint, move, assemble and put adequate electric in at virtually no cost to municipality,” said Santola, who served as co-chair of the committee.
Recognizing that the display, not only sentimentally valuable but aging and delicate, would need some extra watching over, Santola said he sat down with Police Chief Craig Handschuch and said they needed more police help, but without paying overtime.
“They summoned the auxiliary police and every night, we had someone standing there just to make sure nothing happened,” he said. “I think it’s a model we’re going to see more and more as we go forward. People want to see things happen, they want to preserve their community, so they’re willing to pitch in and help. There is much to be said for community service.”
Donations were collected at the display to benefit the Barnabas Burn Center, and while Santola wouldn’t reveal how much was collected before the check is officially presented at the township council meeting next week, he said it’s “significant.”
Lou La Salle, who represented St. Barnabas, gave kudos to the work Santola did on the committee.
“Without Steve doing what he was doing, it wouldn’t have been done,” La Salle said. “The town will continue to grow this display and it will be here forever. It’s a 50-year tradition, and we have people coming from all over the state to see the displa