SUMMIT, NJ - In what is likely to be its modus operandi for the near-term, the Summit Common Council 'met' in circumstances defined by the times -- which is to say select City officials were spread out throughout the City Hall Council Chamber while others participated remotely from their homes.
Physical attendance at the meeting was closed to the public, proceedings were livestreamed and broadcast to viewers, who could ask questions or comment via email. In spite of those limitations, Council was still able to introduce the proposed 2020 City budget and transact other essential business.
Part of that business was introducing and passing a resolution which authorized the City of Summit Parking Services Agency to temporarily waive the need for a parking permit and daily parking fees at street meters and in all municipal parking lots and garages in the downtown Central Retail Business District through April 28.
City Administrator Michael Rogers, conferencing in from home, gave a brief overview of the proposed 2020 budget. His full presentation can be viewed at cityofsummit.org/DocumentCenter/View/3834/2020-Budget-presentation-FINAL. Acknowledging the current atmosphere of uncertainty and the possibility of not meeting certain revenue projections, he assured the audience that the City will make decisions to allow it to maintain the service levels residents expect.
The municipal tax rate increase has been held to 0.75%.
Key figures: The operating budget is $52,056,610, up 0.14% over 2019. The capital budget is $4,189,500, down 75.3% over last year’s budget, which included the new firehouse, and is the lowest in a decade. The subtotal, $56,246,110, represents an 18.42% decrease over last year. The sewer utility fund ($4,388,838 operating and $710,000 capital) is up 7.6%. The parking services utility Fund ($3,981,271 operating and $50,000 capital) is down 5.7%. The total budget, $65,376,219, is down 15.9% from 2019. Staffing rates are expected to be flat.
David Naidu, Ward 1 Council Member, asked if the Congressional stimulus bill might provide revenue to offset some anticipated shortfalls; Rogers expressed optimism that it might provide a lifeline for small business, for example.
Council President Marjorie Fox asked Summit Fire Chief Eric Evers to speak as one of the deputy coordinators of the Office of Emergency Management. Summit is currently working with County and State officials, Westfield Regional Health Department and within the City, and there has been coordination between all the first responders as well as Overlook Medical Center. Evers assured listeners that plans are in place to stay ahead of the current situation. He added that if businesses or individuals had N95 masks to donate they could be dropped off at the fire station, and they would immediately get to Overlook.
Naidu asked if there were plans for a second testing facility in Union County; Evers replied that currently there are not. Naidu also wondered if there were things that could be done to help Overlook in the event of a need for extra capacity. Evers replied that if the hospital got overwhelmed, the City has both resources and a plan. Vartan asked how the virus was changing departmental operations. Evers said that the Fire Department is still “open for business” as usual, merely cutting back the number of officers it sends to non-life-threating calls. It is also isolating crews for social distancing between changeovers. Similarly, the Police Department has modified its personnel schedules to minimize possible cross-exposure.
There was a lively public comments segment facilitated by email. Claire Toth wanted to know how the City is coordinating with Overlook to plan for a potential need for excess capacity. Evers replied that if that occurs, the City will reach out to County resources. Further, Summit has shelters and warming stations dedicated for disasters, but any decisions would largely depend on the hospital’s needs. Evers emphasized there is no need at the current time.
Eileen Kelly asked about the effects of the virus and the resulting loss of parking revenues. Fox deferred to the upcoming resolution which would address parking later that evening.
Patty Staunton and Daniel Harrison both commented on the challenges of homeschooling and working from home when landscapers’ equipment is making considerable noise. Could this be somehow curtailed for the present time? Fox pointed out that the governor has classified landscaping as a permitted “essential service.” The Capital Projects committee is looking at longer-term issues surrounding landscapers, but Fox agreed to ask the committee to see if anything could be done for the near term. Naidu suggested this is an example of a problem that should be worked out by neighbors talking to one another to work out an interim solution.
Diane Sotille thanked town officials for their hard work and frequent communications, but found the online process for signing up for COVID-19 notifications opaque. Further, with no virus-specific category, it was unclear which alerts would deliver COVID-19 news. She also wanted to see a listing on the website of local organizations providing assistance. Mayor Nora Radest promised to talk to Amy Cairns, chief communications officer. Sotille expressed surprise at not receiving an automated call on Saturday about the governor’s new stay-at-home rules, and said the list of open businesses received from her Council Member was out of date. Radest replied she doesn’t want to flood residents with robocalls so they become “white noise,” and that she also wanted to listen in on the governor’s conference call for mayors on Sunday. Susan Hairston,Ward 1 Council Member and chair of the Safety committee, added that with information changing daily, “timely is going to have to be a relative word at this time.” She asked for residents’ patience. The committee is sifting out misinformation and sending the right information to the mayor so she can share it, as well as providing sources so residents can check for updates themselves, Hairston added. Naidu pointed out, “there’s no handbook for how to handle this,” and reminded listeners of the tireless activity taking place behind the scenes that the public doesn’t see.
Asking about outside gatherings she’d witnessed, Sottile suggested the Board of Education should close playgrounds. Fox said if a resident sees a group of more than ten congregating, they can call the police non-emergency number. Radest added the playgrounds had just been closed.
Natalie Bergman asked what to do with garden refuse while the transfer station is closed. Rogers suggested it be stored in an inconspicuous spot on the homeowner’s property for now.
Resolutions and Ordinances
Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan followed Rogers’s budget presentation with a series of Finance resolutions, the first being the introduction of the 2020 municipal, parking, and sewer operating budgets and setting April 28 as the hearing date. At that time the public will have the opportunity to ask questions or comment. Besides the budget being online, a budget snapshot will be mailed to all homes.
Vartan’s second resolution introduced the 2020 Special Improvement District budget of $385,478 and established an April 28 hearing date. A third authorized the transfer of $7,500 from accounts with a balance to those with insufficient funds until the new budget is approved. Vartan’s fourth resolution authorized “emergency” temporary appropriations in the temporary municipal operating budget in the amount of $1,251,300. He pointed out that “emergency” in this case is a quirk of budget terminology and is unrelated to the pandemic; this process is an annual one allowing the city to pay bills until the new municipal operating budget is approved. Similarly, $5,193.63 in emergency temporary appropriations were authorized for the sewer utility. Each of these resolutions was approved by a unanimous roll call vote.
Vartan moved an ordinance to authorize the City to increase its final budget appropriations by the statutorily permitted 3.5 % and to allow the City to bank any unused amounts for the next two years. He explained that the cap is a contingency tool, not an expenditure, that allows the City to be prepared for future unexpected expenditures. It passed on a unanimous roll call vote.
Two Safety & Health ordinances, dealing with stop signs and parking restrictions, had been scheduled to be introduced. Fox requested a motion to table these introductions until a future date to allow for public comment. Hairston did so and the motion passed.
Council member at large Beth Little, also at home, had a half-dozen Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions. The first established the 2020 fees for operating and maintaining the sanitary sewer system at $289.00 per household, a slight increase of $18 over last year. Fox pointed out that maintenance is an essential step, and that Summit’s fees are among the lowest in the area.
Two resolutions authorized 30-year deed restrictions for a three-bedroom affordable unit at 123 Summit Avenue and a two-bedroom affordable unit at 412 Morris Avenue along with a $100,000 payment to the affordable housing fund by the developer K&R Real Estate. A two-year contract was authorized for curbside collection and marketing of recyclables by the City’s current contractor, F. Basso, Jr. Rubbish Removal. The cost, $1,015,200 – a 123% increase – reflects the global downturn in recycling markets. Also authorized was a contract extension with Jersey Mulch Products for vegetative waste grinding. It increases the authorized amount to a maximum of $65,000. This allows the City to grind fallen trees and other storm debris for use as mulch. Finally,
Little introduced a resolution to support Year Three of the City’s 'Hometown Heroes' program, adding banner locations on Morris Avenue between Kent Place Boulevard and Broad Street, and keeping banners on display until August 15.
Stephen Bowman, Ward 2 Council Member, moved a pair of Law & Labor resolutions to extend sick leave with pay for two employees in the Department of Community Services and the Department of Public Works.
Ward 1 Council Member Danny O’Sullivan was also attending via teleconference. He moved a Community Programs & Parking Services resolution from the floor, temporarily waiving parking permit requirements and daily parking fees at street meters and in municipal parking lots and garages in the Central Business District from March 24 to April 28. Time limits and illegal parking will continue to be strictly enforced to encourage turnover of parking spaces. This includes enforcement at all 15-, 30-, and 90-minute and two-hour street metered spaces, in the Bank Street Lot, and on the ground level of the Tier Garage. Also created are designated parking spaces for curbside pickup at restaurants and stores. These changes are all intended to make life easier for residents and downtown businesses during the pandemic.
All resolutions passed.
In her mayor’s report, Radest acknowledged the past “eventful week,” with the statewide stay-at-home order and closing of non-essential businesses. “It is imperative that people follow health department recommendations. It is the only way we can control the spread” of the virus. She warned the Summit Police Department would begin issuing disorderly conduct citations to groups of ten or more people who are not following safe social distancing practices, stressing, “We need to take this seriously.” She encouraged residents to continue supporting local businesses with take-out dining, shopping by phone, or buying gift cards to use later.
Overlook Medical Center is looking for people to sew surgical masks and donate Crocs.
She again urged residents to complete the 2020 census, aiming for 100% participation.
She closed by urging everyone to support one another – from a distance, and quoted Maya Angelou: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.”
Rogers reminded viewers that all public facilities are closed until further notice, and that City offices are operating on a modified schedule. The Library is also closed, and the book drops locked. Materials are not due back until May 12, and no fines will be imposed.