SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Common Council has introduced a 2015 municipal operating budget with appropriations of $49,102,504.73, with the resulting property tax increase on the average Summit home, assessed at $410,000, increasing by $18.43 or about one half of 1 percent.
According to council finance chairman Mike McTernan, the actual amount to be raised by taxes in support of spending for city purposes would actually be down 0.1 percent under the proposed spending plan, but the decrease in ratables -- due to the city’s settlement with Merck & Co. Inc. for a lesser assessment on its Summit headquarters -- caused the need for the per-person property tax increase.
In his summary of the budget, City Administrator Christopher Cotter noted that the net valuations in the city were down 0.6 percent. Cotter said that, under the proposed budget, city purposes property taxes on the average city home would increase by $3,705, which includes the budget for the Summit Public Library.
Cotter added the majority of the tax increases -- about $12 of the $18 -- is attributable to the 3.5 percent increase in the city allotment for operation of the library, which is set by statute and increases when the total assessed value of city properties increases.
Property taxes attributable to city schools would increase by about 1.47 percent under the board of education’s proposed budget and the Union County budget is expected to increase about 3.2 percent over last year.
During his budget briefing, Cotter noted the half percent increase in taxes met one of the council’s goals for 2015, which also include providing for the renovation of the Cornog Fieldhouse, which will be funded through the capital budget; filling of a human resources position in city hall, authorization for replacement of the city’s fire headquarters and a ladder truck; construction of a new parking deck, which is expected to be authorized later this year; renovation of the Summit Community Center, renovation of the city’s website, and completion of Phase I -- from Morris Avenue to Broad Street -- of the Summit Highline.
Increases in the proposed operating budget include $200,000 additional in surplus, $54,000 more in trust reserves, a $16,481 boost in the city’s contribution to Hometowne TV, and $80,000 more for snow removal to deal with the aftermath of this winter’s record snowfall.
The budget also includes a $51,000 savings for health insurance due to the transfer of fire dispatching to the joint emergency dispatch center in New Providence, and a $30,000 reduction in notes and note interest.
Cotter noted the recent refunding of a number of city bonds will result in a $30,000 savings every year for 10 years.
He added total general appropriations are up 3.38 percent.
Property taxes take up about 63 percent of the revenue picture, the administrator noted, while, on the spending side, salaries and wages make up 42 percent, debt service 15 percent and utilities, pensions and similar accounts take up 18 percent.
At one time, Cotter added, municipal and county spending each took up about 20 percent of the total spending for Summit, while the schools made up the other 50 percent. Now, he noted, the county takes up 29 percent and the city 22 percent with the schools making up the rest.
Outlining the 2015 capital plan, the administrator said the tab would include $5.2 million for renovations to the community center, department of community services projects, including $3.9 million from infrastructure, $484,000 for vehicles, $395,000 for buildings and $195,000 for technology; $1.2 million in the fire department for replacement of the ladder truck and $350,000 for radio equipment; $10 million for construction of a new parking garage, and $960,000 for sewer improvements.
The city’s gross debt, he added, now stands at $54 million for the schools, $41 million attributable to the municipality, $7 million for the sewer utility and $2 million for the parking utility.
At the meeting, the council also adopted a temporary 2015 capital budget which includes $$72,500 in equipment for the joint dispatch center, and $97,500 for an updated records management system for the police department, which will help it function more efficiently in line with the joint dispatch center.
Spending by higher levels of government -- while the municipality strives to keep a tight rein on its purse strings -- again drew the ire of council members.
Second Ward Councilman Patrick Hurley said at one time he would never have dreamed of county spending exceeding that of the city, but, if current trends continue, with the county and state property equalization formulas, the Hilltop City could cease to exist in 20 to 30 years.
First Ward Councilman Albert Dill, Jr., saying he was “flabbergasted” by the Union County budget, called for support of a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz of Summit to do away with county government.
Council president Robert Rubino, Jr. said, with this past year’s sale of Runnells Hospital by the county, he expected to see a county budget that was flat or with no increase instead of it going up by 3.2 percent.
McTernan said. with equalization, the average Summit resident could wind up with as much as a 6 percent increase in property taxes in support of county government this year. He urged residents to show up more frequently at freeholder meetings to demand an accounting for county spending practices.
Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Lizza said one of the best ways of dealing with county spending was for city residents to vote in greater numbers in freeholder elections.
On another matter, the council decided to extend, until April 28, a public hearing on a proposed ordinance restricting parking on Kent Place Boulevard between Madison and Passaic Avenue from 7-10:30 am on school days, after a number of Summit High School parents opposed the measure in a letter to the governing body and at the council meeting.
Responding to the letter from the parents, Dill, who is the council’s public safety chairman, said there were parking problems near all schools in the city. He added he sided with residents in neighborhoods adjacent to the schools, and urged the parents to show respect for their neighbors by supporting the parking restrictions.
He also said perhaps additional parking for Summit High School students could be arranged near Tatlock Park, noting that previously there had been no crossing guard near the park to help students cross safely on their way to school after parking there but now a police officer was on duty near the park.
He added previously posted parking restriction signs would not come down, although the council would continue to press for a more permanent solution to the continuing parking problems, which, he said, would come not this year, but possibly next year.
Resident Susan Sidebottom replied the parents were concerned with the safety of their children walking to school after being dropped off on busy Kent Place Boulevard instead of parking on neighboring streets.
Sidebottom said the council should consider students and employees of the high school their neighbors, especially in light of the fact that student parking affected 900 families, with a total of 1,400 people, including school employees and 1,232 students in the school.
Next year, she added, 17 parking spots would be eliminated from school property with 300 seniors and larger classes coming after that.
The resident also noted 80 percent of 942 people contacted on Power School responded to a survey on the situation, and 70 percent of the respondents said they dropped their children off on Kent Place Boulevard.
Traffic at the school entrance, she said, included groups picking up students for afterschool activities, school buses waiting in line, and district delivery trucks in addition to school food service staff members.
Crowding more people into smaller spaces was not safe, she said.
Parent Colleen Manion said the council should abandon the two-hour parking restriction in favor of alternating parking on opposite sides of the street on odd-and-even-numbered days.
She also said a suggestion that the high school provide space for parking on its Lower Field was not feasible since the city, not the schools, owned the field.
Police Chief Robert Weck replied that residents in the streets surrounding the school had opposed the odd-even-system because those on each side of the street wanted the restrictions on the opposite side of their streets.
Addressing another alternative to student parking on residential streets, he also said that city police, including himself, often had substituted directing traffic on Weaver Street when the county police officers signed up to work in their off hours on the street were not available.
Dill also said he was afraid the odd-and-even-system on residential streets near the high school would unfairly penalize guests or healthcare workers wishing to access neighborhood homes.
Councilman-at-Large Gregory Drummond suggested that the council establish ownership of Lower Field to determine if it could be used as an alternate parking site.
City community services director Beth Kinney said, however, that Lower Field belonged to the school district and not the city.
Suggestions that students carpool were seen as unrealistic by some parents and also some council members, because state law prohibits drivers under 18 years of age from driving with more than one other youth under 18 in a car.
Although generally in favor of the ordinance, Hurley, the previous council public safety chairman, said the problem had been pushed further and further from the school for the last few years and he had predicted that it might reach the point it had gotten to with the ordinance proposed for Madison and Passaic Avenues.
Several parents also complained that, despite council statements that they wanted to continue studying the situation, the governing body seemed more concerned about passing the latest restrictions rather than continuing discussions.
Hurley said perhaps it was time for more voices to be heard on the matter.
Dill said he was willing to wait, but did not want to wait too long because residents on streets near the school felt a solution was needed soon.
The council finally voted to continue the hearing in order to give all parties a better chance to work on solutions.
On another matter of concern to school parents, the council passed a resolution that -- due to the fact that the Union County Board of Elections had determined that, of 47 recommended alternative sites for voting in Summit school buildings, only two, Brayton School and the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School, were feasible -- the city school district should be approached with alternative solutions.
The council-recommended alternatives are:
- Continue voting in public schools with strengthened security provided by Summit police where needed.
- Investigate removing students from school on election days, by either scheduling staff in-service days on election days or closing schools on those days.
McTernan said, “if we are not removing voting from the schools, we should remove the kids from the schools while voting is going on.”
On another matter, the council officially appointed Rosemary Licatese as city clerk to replace David Hughes, who has retired.
The council also heard a presentation by Police Officer Matthew Tarentino on the police department’s new Senior Safe Program, which provides senior citizens with information on detecting and finding resources to combat ID theft and other forms of fraud.
Those attending the meeting also were treated to a presentation on Summit’s new theme song by musician and singer/songwriter Kenny Woods, who received funding for development of the song through the city community programs department under a grant from the 2014 county HEART (History, Education, Arts Reaching Thousands) program.
On another matter, Hurley announced the city will honor the 70th anniversary of World War II and veterans of this war on Memorial Day. Information on the event will be available on the city website.
He also urged all political candidates to refrain from politicizing events in the city on Memorial Day.