CALDWELL, NJ — The Caldwell Borough 2020 municipal budget was introduced in a special meeting held Tuesday night.

Business Administrator Tom Banker presented the budget noting that although the budget was presented later than it normally would it was a “good news budget for Caldwell.”  Banker said that the budget met all the statutory requirements and appropriate cap levels.  

The budget as presented is .42% less than the allowable 2% tax increase. The amount to be raised for municipal tax purposes for 2020 is $7,829,509.36, while the 2019 amount raised for municipal purposes was 7,830,459.77. The previous tax rate for 2019 was .0795% and it is expected once the 2020 tax rate is calculated by the County of Essex the tax rate will change minimally. 

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The municipality also collects in a separate line item taxes that fund the Caldwell Public Library.  For 2020 the line item is $384,041.42 which represents a decrease from the appropriation of $428,283.47 from the 2019 budget. Council President Christine Schmidt who is the council liaison to the library remarked that the library funding is now down to the “bare bones” and noted because of the pandemic the annual Wine Tasting fundraiser was unable to be held this year.  Schmidt encouraged residents to consider donating to the library “to help them get through this year.”

Some of the differentials from the previous year is the structure of the payments for the water and sewer utilities as they are now self-liquidating according to Banker.  There is also a decrease of approximately $1 million for the line item that funds the Caldwell Community Center due to the facility being closed because of the pandemic. Multiple capital and infrastructure improvements are incorporated into the budget investing into long term improvements in road reconstruction, paving, signage, upgrade to the sewer treatment plan, improved parking options and repair of water mains throughout the borough.

Banker confirmed that the budget provides for no further reduction in force for municipal workers, other than the anticipated police departmental attrition.  The budget does reflect reduction in revenue in various areas, some due to lessened activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The decreases in revenue are evident in parking fees and tickets, municipal court fees, senior citizen programming and transportation, multiple smaller grants, and the municipal rental lease for the water treatment plant.  

At the same time there are areas of increased revenue for the borough.  Of significance importance is the $219,000 CARES Act grant, and the Uniform Construction Code fees also increased substantially by approximately $90,000.  It was noted that all municipal services will be maintained at the current level of activity or above the previous levels, without asking the citizens to contribute more according to Banker.  Mayor John Kelley said that although there was a reduction in revenue he was “proud to present a budget that was not asking the citizens to make any additional contributions.”

In a statement, Councilman Jonathan Lace voiced his longstanding concern regarding compensation for the borough’s elected officials.  Lace noted:  “The FY 2020 budget reduces the Sewer Commissioner stipend by $2,000 per member to $1,000, and it puts the majority of the Council salary back into the General fund, which is certainly a step in the right direction for better accountability and transparency. These two actions reduce the total governing body compensation to $5,217 and $4,717 for Mayor and Council, respectively. However, the budget also adds $3,000 per governing body member into the Water Utility budget, which maintains the excessive 2015 pay raise amount, which I believe was unwarranted in the first place. I will work to ensure that Council compensation is calculated according to a reasonable and public method to improve accountability in local government.”

Lace added, “On the whole, the FY 2020 budget puts Caldwell on better financial footing: it provides for long-term growth in our ratable base, makes necessary investments in our sewer treatment plant, increases our contribution to the West Essex First Aid Squad (WEFAS), and includes an affective decrease in the municipal tax levy. I look forward to adopting it with the aforementioned salary adjustments.”  Lace noted that the borough has increased the WEFAS allocation from $15,000 to $20,000.  Kelley took the opportunity to thank Lace for his initiative when the pandemic began by asking Caldwell residents as well as neighboring communities to support local businesses by buying meals that were then donated to the squad’s members during the height of the pandemic.

The council engaged in a brief discussion regarding the three-year capital improvement plan for the borough.  Inclusive of the plans are allocations for a new borough hall complex that will be housed on Park Avenue in the current historic United States Post office facility.  The plan is to adapt the building’s usage for the municipal offices and the police department.  A review of an analysis completed confirmed that to repair the existing borough hall, with no upgrades to the facility would be in excess of over a $1,000,000 when the study was completed a few years ago.  Banker confirmed an inquiry by Councilman Henderson Cole that the negotiations are moving forward and the GSA and USP are “willing and eager to sell.”  There will still be a retail facility for the postal service in the borough and the existing borough hall presents a potential for the site to be considered in the redevelopment plans for the borough which may offer additional ratables.

Banker confirmed that currently there is approximately $1,100,000,000 in ratables within the borough and the anticipated increase in ratables over a five to seven-year redevelopment plan would increase by $100,000,000 to $200,000,000.  Theoretically that would increase the tax base by approximately 20% if successful according to Banker and it is anticipated that the tax rate would then be reduced between 12-14%.

In other news the council voted to rescind a Resolution passed on February 4, 2020 that authorized the use of Open Space Funds for the construction of a turf field for soccer at the Harrison Avenue School.  This was to be a joint project with the township of West Caldwell.  Kelley stated “at the time we needed to get the application in, and we were not in support of the project.  We needed to preserve funds for future purposes.”  He continued stating that the monies would be better used for land acquisition within the borough.

The public hearing for the 2020 Municipal Budget is scheduled for Oct. 6.