SUMMIT, NJ - The fourth, looming Nor’easter couldn’t cut short the Match 20 Summit Common Council meeting, which clocked in at three hours. Dominating the agenda were the 2018 municipal budget and affordable housing.
City Administrator Michael Rogers presented an overview of the City’s proposed operating and capital budgets, which have been under development by department heads and the Finance Committee since August, 2017. The budget is designed to achieve eight key goals, including:
- demonstrate fiscal responsibility and sound financial management;
- expand technology to create business opportunities and increase customer convenience;
- maintain and upgrade critical City assets and infrastructure and promote safety;
- increase emphasis on smart planning and redevelopment;
- build community connectedness and expand communications;
- leverage talent, ideas and creativity of Summit's municipal workforce;
- offer innovative solutions to ongoing municipal challenges; and
- retain and reinitiate customer service and accessibility.
Rogers highlighted some of the key actions that would help Summit achieve those goals. At the fore are building the 2018 City operating budget with a stable municipal tax rate and maintaining the City’s AAA credit bond rating. Rogers noted that Summit is the only municipality in New Jersey with a triple-A rating from all three major rating firms.
Investment in technological advances figure prominently in many areas. Actions and enhancements intended to benefit residents including online permit tracking; body cameras for police to increase transparency in police interactions; and improved communications and responsiveness through the City website, social media, and SeeClickFix.
The budget also addresses City employee development, training, and communications.
Significant capital projects include the Community Center expansion/renovation, the Firehouse feasibility study and action plan, the Free Market building at the Transfer Station, the Broad Street West redevelopment, and an affordable housing plan as part of future development and redevelopment efforts.
The total proposed General Fund budget of $55,363,116 represents a 1.04% increase over 2017. The Sewer Utility Fund of $4,840,000 is a decrease of 5.65% from last year, and the Parking Services Utility Fund total of $3,659,867 is down 6.72% from last year. 2018’s proposed total $63,862,983 budget is an increase of 0.03% over 2017.
The budget anticipates no change in the municipal tax rate, small increases in the school district and county and open space taxes, and a small decrease in the library tax. The components of the 2018 estimated property tax rate are the public library (1.74%), county and open space (29.13%), local school district (50.07%) and municipal (19.06%). Based on the average residential net assessed valuation of $413,000, this year’s total tax bill amount is $18,304.16, representing an estimated tax effect increase of $276.71, or 1.53% for the year. Rogers noted that Summit has the lowest effective tax rate in Union County.
The budget anticipates new revenue of $794,500 in Overlook Community Support, increases on interest on investments and municipal court fines and costs, and decreases in Family Aquatic Center fees.
The capital budget allocates funding for such diverse expenditures as replacing SCBA breathing air packs for the fire department, the police headquarters renovation, multiple field house improvements, four major road improvement projects, and replacing the library roof.
The public hearing on the budget is scheduled for April 17.
A resolution to adopt an affordable housing trust fund spending plan and to request judicial review and approval of the plan was introduced by Ward 2 Council member Marjorie Fox. The plan has been reviewed and approved by the court master assigned to Summit pursuant to the settlement agreement between the city and the Fair Share Housing Center in 2016.
As of the end of last year, there was a balance of approximately $1.8 million in the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Much of the funding comes from residential and on-residential development fees. It’s estimated that between 2018 and 2025, nearly $3 million will be generated by these fees. The plan anticipates the use of funds to rehabilitate 131 units and to provide funds for Habitat for Humanity to construct 12 affordable units on the Italian-American Club property on Morris Avenue.
Vito Gallo, Sheridan Road, chairman of the Union County Housing Advocacy Team and former Summit Housing Authority Executive Director, has been following this process since October of 2016, when the Council unanimously approved the settlement agreement. In public comments, he expressed concern that there has been very little input on the spending plan, noting that the plan had been amended as recently as that day. “What I see here is a process where you’re relying on consultants to do this…and your consultants are letting you down. You’re paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Pointing to the $900,000 line item for administration, Gallo called on the Council to “give this more oversight than you have.” He mentioned that there had been several missed and extended deadlines, and that this plan now needed to be approved by the end of this month. He stressed that he wasn’t criticizing the Council, but rather their consultants for “dragging this out till the last minute.”
Gallo reminded the Council of its commitment to 50 scattered affordable units in 10 years, and to working with “mission-oriented” builders like Habitat for Humanity and Our House. Unlike other measures like the overlay zone on the business district and zoning requiring inclusionary housing may never result in any affordable units, this is tangible, he said.
He questioned whether the City should be allocating $1.3 million to rehabilitating 131 existing units, pointing out that the Housing Authority has a surplus. Referring to the $1.2 million allocated for a dozen Habitat for Humanity units, he asked how the city could reconcile a commitment for 50 units with a plan that only funds 12.
Council president David Naidu acknowledged the enormousness of the fair housing issue and the importance of discussing it fully, and said it “is to our credit” that the town has addressed it “without rancor.” He asked Paul Cascais, director of community services, to speak to Gallo’s concerns. Cascais said the administrative fees fund any work that is done to draft the plan, but also for the management of the rehabilitation program, the affirmative marketing program, the affordability assistance program, and other elements. He said the City has been working with the court master and in July of 17 sent responses to the court master regarding several conditions, but didn’t receive a response until October 2017, and worked diligently with the court master to put together a spending plan.
The court master had an opportunity to review the plan and “felt the non-residential fees were somewhat conservative and he wanted us to look at another way of developing that.” Although Cascais disagreed, the City did take the advice of the court master, who approved the plan being presented tonight. He noted that 50 units is a goal, not a commitment, and the spending plan can be amended at any time. In 2020, the will require Summit to look at revenues taken in since 2016 and amend the plan accordingly. He also believes the overlay zone will help the City achieve its goal.
Reverend Denison Herrield, Board Street, pastor of Wallace Chapel AME Zion Church, thanked the Council for signing the settlement agreement in 2016, but expressed his concerns about the spending plan. “The master plan was wonderfully done and included it the City’s commitment to providing affordable housing.” He suggested that there was inadequate money allocated to building, and wondered if revisiting the spending plan would entail hiring an attorney, diverting further money from building projects. Herrield suggested the consultants be told, “We want you to put together a spending plan that is doable, that it fair, that represents our intentions to accomplish what we said in the Fair Share Housing agreement,” and that if they’re needed again, the City would call them.
Cascais assured him that approving the spending plan is the final step to allow the City to disengage the attorneys. He also said, “we have a good view of proposed projects…and we will be capturing units. We’re on our way to meeting our goal of 50” beyond the spending plan. He also confirmed for Beth Little, Council Member At-Large, that units in the overlay zone would count towards the 50 without incurring costs to the City.
Ward 1 Council member Mike McTernan, who had been Council president at the beginning of this process, expressed his gratitude for the community’s passion for affordable housing. “Recent Councils have done yeoman’s work in pushing this forward…in a very collaborative, transparent, and sincere way. I give credit not just to Council but to the entire community.” He called the process “completely screwed up, and we’re trying to do the best we can to navigate the process.” Recognizing that the numbers in the plan are simply a “best guess,” he asked, “are you confident that the people who manage this process have the best interest of achieving this goal of 50 units?…I do have strong confidence in the willingness of this community to back these types of projects and do everything in their power to achieve this goal.”
The resolution passed.
A second resolution introduced by Fox an amended Housing Element and Fair Share Plan, clarifying that 10 homes built by Our House are not deed-restricted and therefore not applicable towards the City’s affordable housing obligation, although they are and remain affordable housing. When Gallo suggested this was another example of how the consultants required better oversight, Naidu responded that this really underscores how complex the affordable housing issue is. The resolution passed.
Public hearings and a Council vote were held on four ordinances. The first, introduced by Fox, standardized the setback and screening requirements for outdoor air conditioning condensers. The change will streamline the approval process for residents while protecting those in adjacent properties.
Council member Little moved an ordinance to allow the City to exceed the state mandated municipal budget appropriations limit for 2018 and “bank” any unused funds for the next two years in case of emergency. McTernan noted that, while a similar ordinance is passed each year, he wanted the public to understand that there is no actual “bank” of funds and that -- if it were ever used -- the City would have to raise taxes or borrow money.
Ward I Council member Matthew Gould introduced an ordinance to allow the Fire Department to recoup fees for rescue services from insurance companies. McTernan asked for clarification of “technical rescue standby.” Scott Ruf, Executive Director of the Mountain Valley Emergency Communications Center, explained that the provision applies to off-duty fire department personnel who are on site at the Celgene facility to comply with a law requiring emergency personnel on standby when workers are operating in certain kinds of enclosed spaces.
Finally, McTernan moved an ordinance to reduce the number of members of the rent commission to facilitate scheduling and improve its ability to reach a quorum.
Each of these ordinances passed.
Council approved two resolutions anticipating better weather. The first, introduced by Little, permits restaurants downtown to set up sidewalk seating. Henry Bassman, Hartley Road, shared his experiences last year on Springfield Avenue where he observed that the space left between trees and café fencing was less than the required three feet, and consequently not wide enough for strollers or wheelchairs. He requested that the Council have somebody periodically check for compliance to ensure “a pleasant place for people to walk down our sidewalks.” Cascais assured him that members of the property maintenance staff do check on the restaurants’ ADA compliance, and will continue to do so this year. He also pointed out that the violations are usually unintentional. Mayor Nora Radest said the Summit Downtown, Inc. is aware of the issue and would remind its member restaurants to stay in compliance. McTernan suggested that noncompliant restaurants could be addressed anonymously via SeeClickFix.
Also approved was a resolution presented by Fox to place a parklet seating area in two-metered spaces on Springfield Avenue in front of Batavia Café and Tito’s Burritos from April 15 to November 15. The only cost to the City will be for plants in the barrier planters. The parklet concept, creating a small sidewalk extension as a public seating space, was first rolled out in Summit in 2016.
Radest proclaimed April as Autism Awareness Month. She was joined by Zachary Brooks, a Summit teen who’s worked to raise awareness of autism throughout Summit and New Jersey. His passion is fueled by the fact that his twin brother was diagnosed with autism when they were 3-years-old. The CDC reports that the incidence of autism is one in 68 nationally and one in 41 in New Jersey; it affects boys disproportionately.
[The meeting was adjourned at 10:35. Councilmember Mary Odgen was not present.]