MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Township Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to provide for various capital improvements with a $9 million in appropriations and an issuance of bonds totaling 8.6 million. It then passed a first-reading ordinance setting a public hearing on the budget, scheduled for the council’s March 24 meeting.

The Council received Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao and financial consultant Bob Benecke for their presentation of the 2020 municipal budget, the last budget to be presented under the Mayor Robert Jackson, who announced that he would not seek a third four-year term in the May 12 municipal election.

The budget, which totals $93.1 million and does not include a tax increase, continues the town’s debt reduction, a cornerstone of Mayor Jackson’s leadership of the council. Benecke said that the focus for the 2020 budget was to finance information technology updates requiring funding for data processing, which would rely on added surplus funds.

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He said that reliance on the surplus without a tax increase was not, as some have charged, a way to bandage the budget together. “What we’re doing [is], we’re using surplus revenues that have been generated from valid state sources in cash to cover cash outlays for 2020,” he said. Rao added that, per a council resolution passed in 2017, the budget uses no more money in the surplus that has already been generated, and any additional revenue generated later would cover unexpected costs.

The township has received an AAA bond rating in part for its debt reduction from $223 million in 2012 to $164.7 million in 2020 and for economic growth that has increased revenue, along with strong budgetary flexibility with an available fund balance, allowing for a 1.71 percent spending increase from 2019 without raising taxes. Non-tax revenues, led by Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) agreements and the surplus, have added $1.38 million in additional funds. Benecke said that growing reserves can mitigate concerns over rising pension and postemployment benefit costs. A reserve of $3 million is to be used for cash-flow purposes to ensure that the school system receives all of its tax dollars, and a $2.6 million tax for the library system is included.

The proposed 2020 library budget stands at $3.5 million. Mayor Jackson was especially appreciative of the PILOT agreements, noting that the increased PILOT funds would generate $150,000 for the arts community, which would provide a community benefit in the form of amenity. Benecke was quick to cite the recently negotiated labor contract with the police, which gives the township labor stability, and he hopes that the council can achieve the same with other unions to allow the township to work with unionized workforce on various issues in good faith.

Acting Township Manger Tim Stafford added that three unions are currently in negotiations for new contracts with five long-term contracts, and talks have been commenced well in advance to get terms favorable to all involved, which Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo was pleased with. “I’ve never seen this type of long-range contract stability with our labor unions,” he said.

Five departments gave presentations of their programs and goals, though none of them asked for a specific amount from the operating budget. Fire Chief John Hermann, flanked by Deputy Chiefs Brian Wilde and Rob Duncan, gave the council an overview of his department’s activity, saying that he is getting two new members to join his 89-member staff and later hopes to hire seven more members of the Fire Department. He said that the department responded to 2,199 alarms, with 21 structural fires, five of them being two-alarm fires with one three-alarm blaze. In 2019, two new engine companies were formed with upgrades to technical rescue capabilities, and hoses and nozzles were upgraded as well as department software. Chief Hermann said that he looks to upgrade Station #3 in the coming year. A fifth new fire vehicle is planned for 2021, which would be an engine to replace one at headquarters.

Next, Sue Portuese of the Health Department reviewed some of the initiatives her department has been pursuing in 2019 and in 2020. She said that she is increasing the efforts of the nursing staff to monitor the coronavirus outbreak, including passive monitoring of residents having returned from China, with no cases reported so far. Open childhood lead cases have doubled in the past year, and the Health Department has obtained a $307,000 grant for its lead poisoning prevention program. Water quality was the focus of Utilities Director Gary Obszarny’s presentation to the council, saying that his needs included upgrades to check for pollutants on a quarterly basis. He noted that he is looking more at parts per trillion rather than parts per million, as a result of tighter regulations. Obszarny also said that the mains in the area including Parkside to Valley Road and down Godfrey Road to Valley Road, as well as future projects such as increased pumping capacity. He hopes to get additional funding for the elevators at the Crescent Deck, and he is working a on a plan anticipation of the construction of the Midtown Deck while continuing the raving of lots.

Steve Wood of the Department of Community Services (DCS) said that his priorities included planting new trees and removing old ones. The department removed 312 ash trees and 349 trees of other species in 2019, with bids going out for planting of 250 trees. A total of 470 trees were planted in 2019, with a goal of 500 plantings for both spring and fall. Wood also noted that 125 catch basins were rebuilt and paid for with the overtime budget rather than having it farmed out to contractors in order to save the township money. Finally, Police Chief Todd Conforti testified that the Montclair Police Department has seen a 16 percent decrease in crime since 2016, even as traffic summonses are up as thedepartment emphasizes traffic enforcement.  Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller asked Chief Conforti if there was anything he needed, and the chief replied that the department would soon be hiring four new officers, and that the positions are already funded. He assured Councilor Spiller that the Police Department should be fine.

In public comment, Antonello Terrana, an avid skateboarder, asked about two tennis courts in Rand Park possibly being retrofitted as a temporary skateboarding area, after a conversation he had with Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager and Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville back in November to discuss the idea. Dr. Baskerville then suggested that the council move to do so, and Manager Stafford said that, if such a motion were to be passed that night, he could get representatives of the municipal joint insurance fund meet with the council as early as the following day to start the evaluation process. The council then approved Dr. Baskerville’s motion unanimously.

Before voting on budget-related ordinances, the council received supporters of rent control in public comment, with members of a local tenants’ organization thanking the mayor and councilors for their attention on the issue and offering to help draft an ordinance to address it.