MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council dove into the 2021 municipal budget in a virtual meeting on April 6. Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao and financial consultant Bob Benecke presented to Mayor Sean Spiller and the councilors a spending plan that took the COVID pandemic into account, while leaders of different departments explained the programs and initiatives of their respective departments.
The 2021 budget calls for $93.8 million in appropriations, a $79,000 increase over 2020. Rao and Benecke said that they had to withdraw $9.45 million from the surplus in concert with a 2.48 percent increase in tax rates to balance the budget, with vigorous refinancing of debt service reduction costs. The police, fire, and health departments, along with senior services and code enforcement, were given top priority, and the budget continues to make investments in capital infrastructure while minimizing service reductions. A strict hiring freeze remains in effect for all departments except for those related to public safety.
Benecke also said that the township must be sure to return $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 to the surplus, which will be reduced to $6,500,000 for this year. Otherwise, he said, it could lead to an automatic tax rate increase. The budget also recognizes the need to keep up with state-driven pension and insurance costs, with a 1.74 percent increase in employee compensation. Rao said that she expects the township to possibly get additional funds from the COVID relief law, but not before the summer, though the funds should be allocated in installments. She hopes to soon receive guidelines for how to allocate the money.
Six different department heads went before the council. Fire Chief John Hermann went first, explaining that the fire department is currently staffed with 79 personnel between three engine companies and two ladder companies with one battalion chief. There are six probationary firefighters currently going through the fire academy. Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis asked for a comparison of staff with years past to get a good budget overview, which Chief Herrmann said he could provide. Sue Portuese of the Health Department was very comprehensive with her presentation, noting the diligent work the nursing staff has done to vaccinate Montclair residents against COVID and particularly get the vaccines to seniors. There were 8,461 seniors participating in programs through virtual services, a jump from 2019. She said that her department has been able to get grants totaling $460,000 to offset overtime costs as well as additional money to offset the cost of computer access for seniors even while continuing to find adoptions or pets in the animal shelter and assist over 300 families with affordable housing.
Gary Obszarny of the Water Bureau and Sewer Utility and the Parking Utility emphasized his department's need to upgrade sewers and storage facilities and dealing with unfunded mandates, and he let the council know that the Parking Utility saw revenues plummet due to COVID. He did, though, say that the Parking Utility was able to repaint and upgrade the decks with so few cars using them. Steve Wood of the Department of Community Services testified that his department has continued to plant trees and remove diseased ash tress while replacing two thousand street signs and paving streets, and also maintaining the parks. He told Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager that he would he happy to give her a report on where trees were planted and how many.
Tony Fan also testified on behalf of the Information Technology department, saying that his office has been working diligently to train his subordinates and step up cybersecurity, and he also credited his vendors for providing free licensing for IT series at the start of the pandemic, later giving licensing deals at a discount. Chief Todd Conforti of the Police Department went last, explaining how the police had been challenged throughout 2020 with both the pandemic and demonstrations related to racial justice and the election. He cited the police's help with drug addiction helping the homeless, and he also expressed the departments need for body cameras. Chief Conforti thanked the community for donating PPE during the COVID crisis.
At least two councilors had problems with the budget, setting the stage for possible confrontations over the budget later. Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams asked if perhaps capital improvements could be delayed until 2022. Benecke replied that delays of any projects could cause costs for raw materials to go up in the interim and that it made more sense to spend the money now on street repaving and re-curbing. Councilor Yacobellis wondered if it was prudent to spend money on Belgian-block re-curbing when a simple repaving of streets would suffice a time of high unemployment. Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo thought so, saying that he thought the rehabilitation of the streets would last longer and pay for itself in the long run.
When the time came to vote on a first-reading ordinance to exceed the municipal budget approbation limits and to establish a cap bank for the 2021 calendar year, however, Councilors Price Abrams and Yacobellis still had questions about the budget process and abstained from the vote with the rest of the council voting yes. A subsequent resolution introducing the 2021 budget was made with similar resistance from Councilors Price Abrams and Yacobellis. It passed 5-1-1, with Councilor Price Abrams still abstaining and Councilor Yacboellis voting no on the grounds that he needed to look more closely at police requests for body cameras and new vehicles. Mayor Spiller, for his part, praised the financial team for drafting a budget that he felt strikes a sound balance at a difficult time for the township. The budget will have a public hearing at the council's May 4 meeting.
Perhaps in recognition that questions about the budget could be addressed then, members of the public commented mainly on other topics, the main one being an endorsement of a permanent skate park in light of the success of the one established on Forest Street. Resident William Scott asked Township Attorney Ira Karasick about the rent-control ordinance suit, and Karasick replied that the township has filed a motion to appeal the decision forcing either a referendum on or a repeal of the ordinance. He is still waiting how the ruling will go, as it will decide whether or not there will be a referendum soon.
The meeting lasted nearly 4½ hours. Councilor Schlager lamented the length of the meeting, saying that it would have been better to divide the budget hearings into segments in separate meetings in light of the great detail involved and adding that the length of the meeting was a problem for her.