MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council had a brief, largely pro forma meeting on April 21 in contrast to the previous meeting in which the rent control ordinance was debated and passed. As with the previous meeting, Mayor Robert Jackson and the two councilors vying to be his successor – Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller and Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville – attended in person at the Montclair Municipal Building, while Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo, Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, First Ward Councilor William Hurlock, and Deputy Mayor Rich McMahon attended by phone due to ongoing COVID-19-related restrictions that closed the meeting to the public.
There was little phone-in public comment on the agenda, and those who made the effort to call the Washington State-based number provided were faced with technical difficulties. One caller repeatedly tried to phone in but the result was only static, forcing Acting Township Manger Tim Stafford to disconnect the caller. Councilors Schlager and Russo, at different times, found it hard to hear the meeting.
The agenda centered largely on salary ordinances on second reading and the approval of the Montclair Business Improvement district’s budget for 2020. The council addressed the ordinances first, unanimously passing with little debate an ordinance setting salaries for police offers bearing the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain through 2027. Dr. Baskerville, though, had a concern about the other ordinance, which sought to establish salaries between 2019 and 2024 for non-union management township officers appointed by the council, including but not limited to the Township Manager, the Chief of Police, the Fire Chief and the Deputy Fire Chief, the Township Attorney, the Director of Utilities, the Director of Planning & Community Development, and the Deputy Township Manager.
Noting that salaries for the council-appointed managers and staffers covered by the ordinance are usually discussed on an annual basis, Dr. Baskerville said that she was concerned that the current council was setting these salaries for a four-year period, with only a little more than two months before it disbands, without being sure what the future holds - and that such appointments would devolve upon the next council. She explained that she had reservations about this, mainly because she knew that COVID-19 would definitely have an effect on the economy in the near-future.
“These positions are council appointments, which means that we may decide, when we look at where we want the budget to go after we have to adjust things, maybe because of the shift in the economy . . . we might look at them and decide that we don’t want to keep raising the salaries on those particular individuals that the council has an appointment on,” Dr. Baskerville said.
Mayor Jackson said that the ordinance was a guide, and that the Eleventh Montclair Township Council, which will be in place from 2020 to 2024, does not have to raise salaries according to the ordinance if the economy makes such raises prohibitive. That satisfied Dr. Baskerville, who voted along with the mayor and the other five councilors in favor of the ordinance. Councilor Russo praised the ordinance, saying it was good for the long-term stability and that it would save the taxpayers money.
The council then considered the annual budget for the Montclair Business Improvement District (BID), with BID director Jason Gleason joining in by phone for the hearing. The budget as proposed totaled $726,010, with the bulk of that figure – $665,760 – coming from assessments, the rest coming from contributions and program service revenue ($60,000) and interest income ($250). Expenses specified in the budget include $10,000 in holiday decorations, $15,000 in beautification and landscaping expenses, $18,000 in advertising and digital expenses, $14,000 in music programs, $5,000 in the parklet program, $113,700 in office expenses, and $456,560 in total administration payroll and payroll taxes. A full itemization of expenses is available on the financial information page at the township’s Web site.
Despite a separate hearing for the BID budget, there were no comments from the public, and the council passed the budget unanimously. The council also approved the Board of School Estimate’s $120,625,307 budget for the 2020-21 school year.
The only public comments that were made came from two residents on behalf of the Tenants’ Organization of Montclair expressing thanks for the April 7 passage of the rent control ordinance, with one of them expressing hope that the council will consider a rent freeze during the pandemic, as Montclair clergy and the local NAACP chapter have suggested, and expressing anticipation of the council’s defense of the ordinance “with great fervor” against a landlords’ lawsuit challenging the ordinance. The suit was announced on April 16.
Manager Stafford reported the latest local COVID-19 figures, announcing 310 confirmed cases in Montclair with 28 deaths. He also alerted viewers to the job portal at the state’s COVID-19 Web site, which now has 66,466 jobs from over 743 companies have been posted. He also said that the mail-only ballots for the township’s municipal election should be mailed out on April 22, and that anyone who does not receive a ballot in the mail for the May 12 election any time soon should contact Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin to request a replacement second ballot by going to the County Clerk’s Web site at essexclerk.com and completing and submitting the form at the site. Second-quarter tax payments are due on May 1, with a grace period lasting until May 11. Online transaction fees for municipal taxes, sewer payments, and water payments continue to be waived, Manager Stafford said, and the township will credit all bill-payment transaction fees on future bills, including credit-card and electronic-check payments for property taxes and utility bills paid online.
Councilor Spiller expressed hope that the curve of COVID-19 cases in New Jersey continues to be flattened, but he added a caveat. “Given the testing situation, given the situation where we don’t have a vaccine yet,” he said, we certainly we know that challenging times remain ahead of us.” He vowed to continue working to get whatever federal aid is available.
Dr. Baskerville used her time at the end of the meeting to focus attention on members of the Montclair clergy for their efforts to help residents get through the loss and to provide comfort for their parishioners.