WEST ORANGE, NJ – After a three-month review period, the West Orange Township Council officially approved the 2017 municipal budget containing additional taxes and services. Taxes will increase by approximately $65 per household to meet the expenditures that now exceed $79 million.
All council members with the exception of Council President Joe Krakoviak voted in favor of the budget at the council’s meeting on Tuesday at West Orange Town Hall.
“I don’t think we should adopt the budget,” said Krakoviak in explaining his vote. “Revenues are going up, but so is our spending.”
Krakoviak questioned whether the $124,000 surplus increase was needed, and if it could be eliminated or greatly reduced. He questioned John Gross, chief financial officer, as to whether this would be a way to reduce taxes.
“The surplus is considered a revenue, so if you reduce it by $124,000 you would have to find that amount in cuts to reduce taxes,” said Gross. “Once you drop the reserves, your credit ratings drop. We have to protect our AA rating.”
Gross said any further delay in approving the budget would cost the township more money. He said the township would have to send out an estimated tax bill in July, and then have the additional cost of sending out a second tax bill when the final budget would be approved.
“The only way to reduce spending in the budget is to lay off people,” said John Sayers, business administrator.
He added that a great deal of the budget costs are “uncontrollable” due to spending increases brought about my contracted salary raises and increasing pension costs controlled by the state of New Jersey.
Sayers said that healthcare costs have also been rising for employees over the years, but they were actually reduced this year thanks to the township negotiating a better deal with a healthcare provider.
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said that residents must also consider the extra services they are receiving for a relatively modest increase in taxes. She said that among the improvements made possible by the 2-percent tax increase are expanded jitney services, improvements at the Ginny Duenkel Municipal Pool, repairs needed in firehouses and additional equipment and more.
Councilman Victor Cirilo said the council has been “conservative” in its spending, turning down many projects and services that residents have asked for in order to save money. He said additional revenues would be needed to add more senior services, renovate the firehouses that are aging and improve the municipal parking lots, among many other things.
During public comment, resident Mariel Clemensen, a financial advisor, asked the council to postpone the budget vote to get more input from the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee she has helped to create. Clemensen expressed concern about the township maintaining its AA credit rating, and that it should be doing a better job of reviewing its capital spending plans and debt policy.
All the council members except Krakoviak said the time to vote on the budget was now. Councilwoman Susan McCartney said that Krakoviak was contradicting himself by asking for a delay.
“We all voted for the budget in the March meeting by going line by line to approve the personnel requested,” she said.
Councilman Jerry Guarino said his biggest concern is making sure the township has an adequate capital expenditure going forward. He said that the township has let many needed capital projects linger for too long.
“We need our equipment to be ready,” said Guarino.
On a related matter, Guarino said he was pleased that the “much needed” traffic signal at Alisa Drive/Lakeview Drive is moving forward, with the council approving the township’s payment of a third of the signal’s $350,000 cost. The county has agreed to pick up another third, and the final approval is contingent on the board of education agreeing to pay for the final third, according to the council.
This light would be near the parking lot where many West Orange High School students park.
“We are happy to move this process along for the safety of our students,” said Guarino.
Lenny Lepore, municipal engineer, said the traffic signal would have a camera that will ensure that traffic can move safely off Alisa Drive/Lakeview drive during peak periods—primarily when school lets out.
Lepore also provided the council with an update on the new jitney route that will service the Pleasantdale and Redwood sections. He said this route will have four main stops along the major corridors in this part of West Orange.
According to Lepore, it will travel along the Pleasant Valley Way corridor with stops at the Wilshire Grand Hotel and B’nai Shalom before turning onto Woodland Avenue with later stops near the Redwood Elementary School and on Mississippi Avenue. There will be four runs in the morning and six at night, divided between Orange and Brick Church stations. Jitneys holding up to 40 people are due to come in during August.
The council authorized the execution of a license agreement with B’nai Shalom for the use of 25 parking spaces that will be used as a park and ride for people using the jitney. As part of the lease agreement, the township will cover the cost of snow plowing the synagogue’s parking lot. Lepore estimated that this will cost the township approximately $6,000 a year.
In putting the route together, Lepore said the township tried to focus on key locations where people can drive to if they are beyond walking distance. He said a few stops might be added later along the major corridors if needed.
The next council meeting will be on June 13.