SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Common Council, at its second meeting in March, introduced a 2017 budget for municipal purposes totaling $50,006,897 -- an increase of 0.84 percent.
A proposed increase in the manpower of the Summit Fire Department and its connection to budgetary considerations also was a focus of debate during much of the meeting. The manpower increase was subsequently defeated later in the meeting.
In his presentation of the budget proposal, City Administrator Michael Rogers noted that the tax rate on the average home, assessed at $410,000, would increase by $7 per $100,000 of assessed valuation due to the municipal budget.
Among City goals met by the spending plan, Rogers pointed to the following:
- Keeping the tax rate increase for municipal purposes under one percent.
- Maintaining the City’s AAA bond rating.
- Beginning work on the renovation of the Summit Community Center, due to start this year.
- The City’s Chatham Road public works facility will be upgraded.
- Both a revised Master Plan and Affordable Housing Plan have been approved.
- Improvements are being made in marketing to better promote “Summit as a brand.”
- The Summit Police Department is improving safety efforts through changes in its organizational structure.
- Improved technology is advancing the City’s parking services.
- Advances already made in customer service by all City agencies are continuing throughout 2017.
The administrator pointed out, however, that the City’s contribution to operation of the Joint Meeting Sewerage Authority will cost more than $900,000 this year.
He also said increased debt service obligations over the next few years will add to City budget.
Rogers also noted that the City’s tax base is suffering a $4.1 million loss due to the departure of Merck & Co. from the site that has been purchased by the Celgene Corporation.
The lost tax revenue, he said, would result this year in a 0.13 percent of the increase in the tax rate and a $187,000 loss in tax revenue.
Rogers further noted that, overall, the Hilltop City’s taxpayers will see a 1.88 percent jump in taxes, when the municipal, county and school tax rates are combined.
The estimated increase in County taxes this year is about 2.17 percent, while the Summit Board of Education’s proposed budget will bring a .945 percent rise over the course of the budget year or 1.442 percent in the current calendar year.
The administrator also noted that, while the County tax rate from 2012 to 2017 was up -- in aggregate -- by about 25 percent, City tax increases have averaged about 1 percent over that span. First Ward Councilman Robert Rubino also added that the City, in 2014, actually saw its first tax decrease in recent history.
As for the state spending limits, the administrator noted the proposed 2017 municipal budget would come in $1,540,906 under the cap on appropriations and tax levies would be $461,344 under the maximum tax levy increase allowed under state law.
In one of the major expenditure areas -- employee healthcare -- Rogers noted that employees would contribute $1.2 million of the projected $4.13 million cost in 2017, and $455,000 would be saved because employees have chosen not to participate in the city healthcare plan.
During the public portion of the meeting, Summit school board president and Republican councilman At-Large candidate David Dietze asked if the City could save more money on healthcare by continuing to offer monetary incentives for employees to “opt out” of the City plan -- as the school district does for its employees.
Rogers replied that the Council decided several years ago to no longer offer cash incentives to “opting out” employees, adding that the cost of “opt out” incentives was much larger before state law was changed to require employee contributions to their health plans and the employees whose cash out continues under the previous plan now receive about $5,000.
The administrator also said that employees who choose to insure through spouse’s plans and other options besides the City healthcare plans probably are saving much more by not having healthcare contributions come out of their bi-weekly paycheck than they would have under “opt out” payments.
Rogers also told Ward 2 Councilman Patrick Hurley that he wasn’t sure what Summit’s County tax rate increase would amount to when the equalization ratio is applied.
Rubino noted that the County open space tax of 1.5 cents for every $100,000 of assessed valuation on property continues, even though the county has purchased about 300 acres of open land when it said it only would be purchasing about 100 acres. Rogers noted that the open space tax probably will continue “in perpetuity.” In a referendum last year county voters decided not to do away with the tax.
The Ward 1 representative added that the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders are using the proceeds from the open space tax to pay down county debt service.
Council president Michael McTernan also said the County, in its budget planning, seems to focus on getting as much as it can right up to the state cap spending limit, while Summit tries to limit spending to get its budget substantially under the cap, if it can.
Ward 1 Councilman David Naidu, who called the proposed budget “sobering.” said that the City’s government has to focus more on “need to haves” and less on “want to haves” when considering City finances.
Naidu added that while “beautiful things” were nice to have in the City, there probably should be more focus on necessities.
The budget is scheduled for possible adoption on April 18.
When it came time to vote on the budget introduction, however, the topic of Summit fire department staffing delayed the vote for some time as that issue was debated.
Ward 2 Councilwoman and Council public safety chairwoman Mary Ogden said she believed the fire department needed two additional firefighters and would support adding funding for one firefighter in 2017 and one in 2018.
McTernan cautioned, however, that the 2017 Council could not bind the 2018 council to spending for the additional staff member next year.
Ogden then attempted to introduce a resolution calling for one additional firefighter this year based on the following:
- Summit has not increased the size of its fire department in 30 years.
- There has been a great increase in multi-family buildings in Summit, and fires in these dwellings are more difficult to fight than in single-family dwellings.
- The Council is considering redevelopment of a portion of Broad Street, which probably will bring more people and possibly more buildings.
- There now is assisted living in Summit.
- The Summit Fire Department now has 5.3 firefighters per shift when the recommended level is seven.
Ogden added the Summit Fire Department needed the extra manpower, and it is not safe -- for those in danger in a fire -- to wait for the arrival of mutual aid from other communities.
She said the pending retirement of veteran firefighters and their replacement by less-experienced firefighters would leave budgetary room for a staff increase.
Summit Fire Chief Eric Evers said firefighting technology was increasing every day, however, modern buildings burn faster and it requires more skills to fight fires than it did in the past.
He added firefighters are exposed to more toxins and possible causes of cancer, with tasks three times more sensitive and fires three times more toxic than 20 years ago.
Evers also said he had been using “creative staffing” to deal with budgetary restraints but there was a limit to what he could do.
He noted both Westfield and Millburn have larger departments.
Council finance chairman Steven Bowman replied that he completely understood that safety should be paramount, but said that call volume from 2016 through 2017 had not significantly increased from that from 2007 to 2008 and much of that resulted from improved fire inspection procedures.
Bowman added that the cost of two firefighters over 25 years could be about $7 million and for only one it would be about $3.5 million.
Hurley said he believed two additional firefighters, not one, were needed. However, he added that the City should look to the study done several years ago that advocating merger of the Summit and Millburn Fire Departments.
At a minimum, he said, considerable savings could be had by elimination of upper echelon positions in the two departments.
The Ward 2 representative added that firefighting and FEMA protocols now made regionalization more practical and the regionalization model was being followed by a number of County and City fire and police departments in other parts of New Jersey.
Rubino also suggested that Summit could obtain more funding for its operations by approaching communities with volunteer departments to which it provides mutual aid, such as Mountainside, and negotiating contributions to the Hilltop City fire department from those communities.
He also suggested that a possible merger with the Millburn department would help the City better consider where it would locate a new fire headquarters.
Naidu replied, however, that the first role of government was to protect life and Ogden’s proposal was aimed at protecting the safety of residents and firefighters.
He added, since Evers was responsible of the safety of his firefighters and residents the council had a responsibility to listen to him.
The Ward I representative also said he agreed with many of Hurley’s suggestions about considering regionalization.
Mayor Nora Radest noted that regionalization was an issue that required research and exploration that probably would take more than a year.
McTernan said that, although safety was, of course, paramount, the Council had to make any moves in a fiscally responsible way and it was their duty to set priorities.
He agreed with Bowman on the high 25-year cost of providing new firefighters.
The Council president also praised the high quality of the Summit Fire Department and its ability to deal with difficult situations, pointing to its outstanding performance during Superstorm Sandy and the storms that followed that year.
After hearing the discussions, Naidu made a motion to table Ogden’s resolution for an additional firefighter to give the Council more time to discuss its various options.
The motion to table was defeated as was the Ogden resolution for an additional firefighter.
A casualty of the vote against the additional firefighter was an application for a $610,862 federal grant that would assist the City in hiring four new firefighters.
The resolution approving application for the grant was pulled from the agenda after City Solicitor Matthew J. Giacobbe noted that, if the City department’s table of organization was changed to provide for 36 firefighters, and the City later decided to scale back the size of the department it might have to pay back the grant money to the federal government.
In another action, the Council approved a $226,900 contract with Pinnacle Consulting & Construction Management Services of Newark for construction management on the $6.5 million Summit Community Center renovation project.
Also approved was extension for another year of the 'parklet' program of temporary tables in parking spaces along Springfield Avenue as pedestrian gathering and dining sites.
The 'parklet' program was piloted last year but was interrupted by paving as part of central business district improvements. This year it will run from approximately April 15 until November 15.
Also authorized was the engagement of Topology, LLC, the firm which helped execute the City’s Master Plan revision, to determine which parcels in the so-called Broad Street West Preliminary Investigation Project should be designated “in need of redevelopment.”
If this determination is made and the designation is approved by the Planning Board and the Council, a private developer would be solicited to devise a future development plan for the area, which includes the area of Broad Street between Morris Avenue and Maple Street and Morris Avenue and Cedar Street, including the area around the current fire headquarters.
On another item, Radest announced she would reappoint Debra McCann to a second three-year term on the board of education and name Donna Miller to fill the seat now held by Emile George, who was appointed by Radest last year to a one-year term on the board.