SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A "skeleton" 2020 South Orange budget passed on first read at the May 11 Board of Trustees meeting.
Village President Sheena Collum gave kudos to the finance committee and the whole governing body for turning around the budget in six weeks from its original numbers as the pandemic changed the economy of the Village. “We’re on our A-game here,” she said. She added later in the meeting that “we are getting this as close to a skeleton budget as humanly possible… There’s no joy in doing a budget like this.”
Village Administrator Adam Loehner gave an overview of the budget; the full budget presentation can be seen here. Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton is Finance Committee Chair, and Walter Clarke and Donna Coallier are the Trustee Representatives.
Loehner noted “drastic reductions in our revenue,” from sources such as “a 40 percent hit” in construction fees and, although the municipal court is partially running virtually, the Village will “probably see a 50 percent loss in court revenues,” he said.
“We are having to change the way we do business going forward” to account for social distancing, so recreation programs and pool revenue “are taking quite a hit,” Loehner said. “We’re not exactly sure how all of those are going to play out,” he added.
In response, to keep the budget increase under three percent, several roles originally expected to be hired for will be put off for the year. The overall tax levy increase in the proposed budget is 2.72 percent. With the average South Orange home valued at just under $584,000, the tax increase on the local municipal portion of the property tax bill would be $143.
Still up in the air is the two percent pay freeze for the next two years requested of municipal employees in collective bargaining agreements. “Non-union employees, they have to accept it,” said Collum, and thanked them for being “gracious…in a global pandemic.” For the unions, “it’s a little bit different of a situation,” she said. “Due to our desire to have a balanced budget there wasn’t the normal months of negotiation” and they have pushed back.
“We put out a very, very reasonable, reasonable good faith offer of taking a two percent freeze,” for two years. “To date, I will say, it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster…but it does seem” that there are “good faith efforts to try and get an agreement.”
At this point Collum seemed to aim her remarks to the unions directly: “But [the township attorneys] have already been empowered through the actions of the governing body during our last meeting [that] at the next meeting you’re either going to be adopting memorandums of understanding or memorandums of agreement between each of our collective bargaining units,” which include the Police and Fire Departments and Teamster employees, “or you’re going to be authorizing a demotion and layoff plan that will go to Civil Service…. That is what the board will be charged with at the next meeting. Hopefully we’ll have all those MOA’s ready to go and the Village spirit and everybody being a team player.”
The public hearing and second read for the budget will be May 27.
A cap bank for the municipal budget was passed on first read. It allows any monies budgeted but not spent in a fiscal year to be available for use in the next fiscal year if needed. So far, Collum said, South Orange has not had to use its cap bank from the previous year. “It is an additional cushion…to rely on in a worst case scenario,” she said.
The Board also passed an ordinance for first reading that approved the 4th and Valley Redevelopment Plan; Collum explained that the plan had been adopted previously, but “The reason we have to readopt the redevelopment plan is actually quite administrative in nature.” The location was originally named as “in need of rehabilitation, and now that designation changed to an area in need of redevelopment.” The public hearings and second readings for the cap bank and redevelopment plan will be May 27.
Other ordinances passed include one tightening vaping items sales’ regulations. As the South Orange website says, “Retailers seeking to sell vaping products must obtain a license to do so, authorize only those over the age of twenty one (21) to sell the products, and obtain proof of age, regardless of perceived customer age, before selling the products. Retailers must also install cameras and retain video surveillance that can be used to spot check compliance with state law and local ordinance requirements,” assuring that merchants secure proof of age prior to the sale of vaping products.
The sale of the Taylor Place parking lot, with deed restrictions in place, was also finalized. It is part of the Vose and Taylor Redevelopment Plan approved on April 27. The developer is hoping to get the parking garage replacing the surface parking lot “up and running” by November 2021, Collum said.
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