SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — With a sense of urgency as the community faces mounting losses in the public and private sectors during the coronavirus crisis, the South Orange Board of Trustees are working toward presenting a budget for a public hearing in May. And they are asking the union-represented employees of the Village for a “shared sacrifice” to get there.
“Right now, in the middle of a global pandemic, we are not going to go above three percent” in budget increases, said Village President Sheena Collum.
During yesterday’s Budget and Board of Trustees meetings — streamed with trustees attending from home and not without technical difficulties — Collum laid out how the finance committee, faced with a projected $1.8 million deficit, got to a budget with modest 2-3 percent increases instead of the 5-6 percent increases they were planning. “The board as a whole has decided that we are not going to kick the can and wait” for what monies might be coming from federal and state governments, she said. “We have have pretty good, trued-up actuals as to where our losses in revenue are due to COVID-19 and these items are likely not going to be reimbursable,” such as losses of parking ticket revenue, uniform construction fees, interest on investments and deposits, and recreation department income including the possible loss of the summer camp program and pool fees.
South Orange is also “anticipating a reduction of one percent in tax collection, which amounts to a whopping $250,000. So we are looking at [losses] related to COVID-19 being close to $1.8 million.”
By early April the finance committee “put the brakes on” the budget they were working on, which would have included money for new employees for a growing community: a deputy engineer in the engineering department, a community development coordinator, and an information officer/communications director, among others; those new hires have been put on hold, saving some $300,000 in salaries. South Orange Fire Department hiring was scaled back as well, from six new hires to three.
“Keeping the exact same budget” they were planning pre-coronavirus “in our assessment would be very irresponsible.” The five to six percent increases they were planning became 11-12 percent after adding in the lost revenue. Collum said the budget committee began working “feverishly” on how to have a balanced budget and address the shortfalls.
These are not potential losses, Collum stressed. “We’ve essentially lost [and] going to be losing a quarter of revenue that’s expected, and as we go into the summer months it will be above and beyond a quarter of the revenue that the municipality normally receives.”
Also removed from the budget was $800,000 in capital projects and improvements. Department managers, directors, and non-union personnel are to receive a two-year salary freeze, and $50,000 in merit increases for municipal employees was also stricken. “Anything we can’t cut is [put] on our taxpayers, which is not acceptable,” Collum said.
Acknowledging that it is “a sensitive topic,” Collum said these reductions, and leaving vacancies unfilled, “avoid layoffs and keep everyone gainfully employed.”
For the collective bargaining groups of employees — in police, fire, and public works — Collum asked for “shared sacrifice.” While not taking back anything already agreed to, she said, “if everybody can contribute a little bit, we can get to the number we need to.” She said she communicated to the unions, “we need to freeze you for two years at what’s equivalent to two percent.” Affected would be employees’ “steps,” which would be lowered by two percent, so that if a fire fighter or police officer were to have received an eight percent step up in salary, it would be curbed to a six percent step. This would create parity with other employees, Collum said.
“I believe what was offered was incredibly reasonable, in order to keep our team together,” she said. “Our employees are like family” and “incredibly valued right now” and Collum said she wants to avoid furloughs or layoffs.
Only the police officer’s union has agreed to participate in this plan. Collum gave “a big thank you” to them for understanding the need for shared sacrifice.The other unions, however, did not communicate agreement by the Monday deadline.
Collum stressed that this was not a negotiation. “We operated in good faith,” she said, as they have to present the budget at the next board of trustees meeting. That means going forward with plans for “demotions, furloughs, and layoffs” to make the budget numbers balance. If the other unions would agree to what she called the “modest proposal” then “none of this would be on the table.”
The board directed Village Administrator Adam Loehner to commence with the paperwork necessary for arranging for the demotions and layoffs from the civil service employees. “I find it very unfortunate, and I am hoping that those unions in a very quick fashion contact us and say ‘no, we’re on board and willing to share in this relatively small sacrifice,’” said Collum.
Karen Hilton, chair of the finance committee, agreed. “We are up against a wall… This is the way we have to proceed.”
As “one last good faith attempt from the board of trustees,” Collum asked Loehner to reach out to each union and give them until the morning of Wednesday, April 29, to revise their answer. “Let’s be optimistic that maybe the unions will step up.”
The 2020 budget will be presented at the May 11 Board of Trustees meeting.
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