CALDWELL, NJ -- The Borough Council Tuesday night passed the 2019-2020 municipal budget by a 4-1 vote.
Voting to support the budget were council members Francis Rodgers, Henderson Cole, Jonathan Lace and Christine Schmidt. Pasquale Capozzoli voted not to support the budget, while Thomas O’Donnell was not in attendance.
The budget, first introduced June 25, allows for $7,830,459.77 for municipal purposes, $103,264.00 utilized for Open Space Funds and $383,878.52 represents the amount that will be apportioned for library needs.
Prior to passage of the budget, during public comment, longtime resident Deborah Palmeri of Espy Road, noted her tax bill has increased $200 from May to August and asked for a detailed explanation of the increases, noting in previous years she was apprised by the prior administration issuing a “pie chart” that reflected changes in her property taxes. Palmeri went on the further question the schedules for road repairs in the borough, noting many roads are “in horrible condition. Where does the money go?” She specifically mentioned Espy Road, Ravine Avenue, Personette Street and Ward Place as needing immediate repair.
Business Administrator Thomas Banker responded that road resurfacing projects usually are on a 20-year cycle and coordination with utility companies was required so as not to resurface or repair a road only to have it then altered by repairs or upgrades to the underground utilities. Mayor John Kelley responded to Palmeri that his office will be in touch to apprise her of the schedules and to give explanation to the specific increases.
Regarding the budget passage, Schmidt remarked, in a prepared statement: “They say that nothing worthwhile comes easily. I would say that in the case of this budget. Taxpayer money is hard-earned money. I thought of the many people in our community for whom these extra dollars per month may be one increase too many. I thought about the many residents who are still reeling from their federal taxes and the cap on the state and local tax deductions. But on a closer look, there is no waste here. This budget is careful, it’s conservative and it basically comes down to the cost of doing the work of local government. It comes with a long term plan that will work towards lowering our taxes. We’ve got bills to pay and necessary repairs to our infrastructure to attend to.
“We need to make urgent repairs. When I was sworn in last January, I knew there were many things that needed doing. Every single borough roof is leaking. Court has had to be cancelled. The police keep plastic tarps over their equipment when it rains inside.
“Our wastewater plant, which serves our surrounding communities, is at 95 percent capacity, but I didn’t know that its equipment has been in need of repair for years. Caldwell Council is the Sewer Commission, so Caldwell has been responsible to make investment decisions and share in those costs. I knew the parking deck had problems, but now we know for sure that it is beyond repair. These are all necessary maintenance issues that have been delayed far too long and have grown from being minor problems into major projects.
“We need to cover the cost of statutory contractual increases. But the reality of this in Caldwell is that the increase in police salaries and wages alone represents 48 percent of this year’s increase. Add pensions, social security and equipment the police budget represents 63 percent of this year’s increase.
“We need to shore up our foundation in order to grow: All these years it’s been about no tax increases, but from what evidence I see here, there has been no investment, no maintenance and no cohesive plan. First we have to pay the bills and fix what is broken. Next, we work the plan. Now we can look forward to creating four self-sustaining utilities that will by paid for by those who use our parking, our water & sewer systems and our Community Center. Next year, we look forward to merging our police with West Caldwell so we can lower the taxpayer burden for salaries and benefits. This year’s budget is an investment in our future.”
Lace also read into the record a prepared statement: “We voted to introduce the 2019-2020 budget for public debate on June 25th, and tonight we are voting to adopt it. Local budgets reflect what we value as a community and consider to be priorities. This year’s financial realities presents us with some difficult, but necessary decisions. Simply put, we have an additional $484,712.32 that we must spend to meet our current obligations. Previous years’ budgets have sacrificed necessary repairs, adequate personnel, and an emergency surplus in order to keep tax rates artificially low.
“Essential infrastructure, personnel, and balances are exactly that, essential, and they must be maintained. But they haven’t been. Everyone wants low taxes, but no responsible government would adopt them at the expense of the physical health of our residents and neighbors. I am fed up, frankly, with hearing about previous years’ low tax rates when the underlying fiscal strategy lead directly overflowing sewage, violations of federal law, inadequate staffing, and depleted savings. I understand that residents are upset that taxes are increasing. So am I. This is not an easy decision to make. But I am more upset that we have been forced into this position. Facts matter. Math is real. Numbers don’t lie.
“We don’t have a choice of not having a functioning sewer plant because more units will be tying into our sewer system from the surrounding area in the very near future. We don’t have the choice of having roads partially collapsing or having our Police equipment requiring plastic coverings to protect it from leaking ceilings. We don’t have the choice of not having essential personnel for continued services. We have inherited this situation, and now this council must fix it.
“Elected officials are elected to make difficult decisions. Keeping tax rates artificially low with unsustainable practices is easy. Raising taxes is difficult even if done responsibly. This budget has been judiciously constructed so that taxes are used wisely to fund current operations and with an eye towards savings in the future. Caldwell must look to its both immediate and long-term fiscal health in a responsible way, and I believe the FY 2019-2020 budget is the beginning of that process.”