SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- The Scotch Plains Township Council discussed its proposed 2016 capital budget in a contentious conference meeting on Tuesday evening.
Township Manager Al Mirabella put together to $4.2 million proposal of capital expenses after seeking input from the municipality's department heads, including the fire, police, DPW and recreation departments. Big ticket items include $1.2 million for a new fire truck to replace one that is over 30 years old, $550,000 for interior improvements at the Shady Rest clubhouse at the Scotch Hills Country Club, and more than $200,000 for upgrades at the Frazee House/Terry Lou Zoo property on Raritan Road.
The budget also calls for $190,000 to upgrade the HVAC (heating and air-conditioning) system at the Scotch Plains Public Library and proposes nearly $130,000 for the purchase of three 4x4 SUVs for the police department. Additional capital expenditures will be made in order to replace the current police radios with digital ones, which Scotch Plains Police Captain Ted Conley said will provide sharper broadcasting signals and improved radio coverage.
The capital expenditures also include $50,000 for the downtown improvement, which a dismayed Colleen Gialanella said “doesn’t put skin in the game.” The Councilwoman believes more must be done to improve sidewalks. She also wants to bury the electrical wires she said are "particularly hideous.”
Llewellyn Jones called for a much smaller capital bond ordinance of $1.8 or $1.9 million.
"We need to live within our means,” Councilman Jones said in voicing his opposition to the currently proposed $4.2-million capital figure.
"There are a lot in here that is good. We are moving in the right direction, but I am not comfortable with this amount of debt spending," said Jones, echoing Councilwoman Gialanella's position that the $50,000 allocated for downtown improvements is simply not enough.
Councilwoman Rose Checcio said that although she is fiscally conservative, she believes replacing the fire truck is necessary and that "no one wants to spend $150,000 at the DPW building, but it is needed."
During his discussion of the budget, Mayor Kevin Glover had sharp words aimed at Councilwoman Gialanella.
"I'm concerned when someone says the number item is downtown. I want to see it successful," Glover said. "My priority is to address woefully neglectful behavior of previous administrations. OSHA was closing down the DPW a few years ago. It took $100,000 to shore it up. Our employees should be our concern."
"On my watch public safety will come first. Anyone who wants to reprioritize that, go ahead," Glover said.
"It's easier to finish when you're not being interrupted. Budgets are essentially a negotiation," Gialanella responded. "You need four votes to bond, and you don't have them."
The mayor responded that "This government body is not going to be held hostage."
In an interview with TAPintoSPF following the budget discussions, Councilman Jones said he was concerned about the amount being spent. "Capital budgets require issuing bonds, and the interest payments make the amounts more than what's on paper. Eventually, the taxpayers have to pay off these debts."
"We may have a zero increase operating budget, but we are kicking the can down the road if we issue bonds to pay things off with interest. It'll cost the taxpayers more down the line," said Jones, who expressed frustration that the first time he got to see the proposed capital budget was during the meeting.
"The zero increase operating budget with a $4.2 million capital bond spending that will cost us more in the long run is clearly an 'election year budget'."
The capital bond ordinance will be discussed at the next Scotch Plains Council meeting on April 19. With Jones and Gialanella already expressing opposition to the budget, it is unlikely to be passed in its current form. Two years ago, the council rejected a $1.5 million bond ordinance with both Glover and Gialanella voting against the measure.