The Municipal Budget (letter 1 of 3) – Successes and Failures/Proposition 2 1/2
This letter addresses the status of our current 2010 budget and the governor’s proposal of an inflexible 2 1/2% cap on property taxes in 2011.
First, the good news. This year’s budget represents a sea change in the way we “do” government in Montclair. Last year, several of us on the Town Council made an unsuccessful attempt to cut costs by restructuring departments and changing the way we operate but the former Township Manager was not up to the challenge. This year, under the leadership of Marc Dashield, these changes have become a reality. This restructuring includes closing a department, up to twenty layoffs, and shifting personnel in several areas, steps that will lay the foundation for reduced costs for many years. If done in 2009, we would have been in far better shape going into this year’s budget.
Even with these changes, our huge revenue shortfall and cuts in State aid have forced us to increase the portion of our taxes used to fund Municipal services. The total tax increase will end up being around 6%, a painful number. The Municipal portion of this will be around 10%. Because of cuts in our State aid and other revenues, along with huge increases in State-administered pensions and heath insurance, your Municipal taxes would have gone up 8% even if we had kept our spending FLAT.
The savings from keeping spending FLAT would have been less than $100 on the average bill. This, however, would have decimated services, endangered public safety and closed many more departments than the one slated for closure.
Last week Montclair was granted a waiver that allows us to levy this tax, which exceeds the 4% tax levy cap imposed on municipalities. This increase will be about $400 on the average tax bill, which will increase a little over $850 when the School and County Taxes are included. Fortunately, the waiver will allow us to maintain basic services for the remainder of the year. It does illustrate for me how devastating the proposed 2 1/2% cap would be on Montclair. Property taxes ARE too high in New Jersey. Local governments, however, are not the main culprit in Montclair’s woes.
We are doing a lot this year, changes that will help in the future. Although some would tolerate more cuts in services and funding for institutions many think we’ve cut too deeply already. I believe a 2 1/2% cap would have endangered public safety while also seriously impacting basic quality of life here.
Here are the main areas in which some residents have suggested further cuts:
‚Ä¢ Police – We are several officers below the level that allows us to do “Community Policing”, which includes a number of services in which police patrol visibly and interact with the public. Ideally, the Council would like to restore this but we accept the need to keep expenditures down.
‚Ä¢ Fire – Because the force size depends on fully staffed crews rather than individual firemen, our choices are either to take a truck out of service or close a firehouse. The Council considers this a last resort and accepts the guidance of professionals that such actions would prevent us from confidence that fires would have the response that State guidelines demand. We also do not want to jeopardize the almost $1 million arrangement in which we provide fire protection for Glen Ridge.
‚Ä¢ Library – The current cut is likely to be around 11-13%, severely curtailing services that had been increasing even with years of frozen or reduced budgets.
‚Ä¢ Recreation – Full and part-time staff cuts have already reduced pool hours and scaled back town events. Most programs are run by volunteers but administered by township staff.
‚Ä¢ Early Childhood Education – It’s likely that a cut will be made in the range of 15-20%, all of which would go to scholarships for lower income families.
‚Ä¢ Sanitation – We need two scheduled pickups of some kind (waste, recycling, etc.) to avoid overtime costs. Outsourcing trash might save a few dollars per year but has not been recommended in the past because of the possibility of increased costs or decreased services because of cutting staff who are used in plowing, storms, and other occurrences. This is something we will be looking at as an option in the coming year.
This is just a partial list, and I’m sure there are other ideas that could produce savings. We are doing many things differently this year and there are many ideas on how to restructure local government, particularly in the area of shared services. A team of staff and Council members has been meeting regularly with other towns, the County, MSU and our schools to work on this and there are quite a few initiatives in the works. Montclair is inevitably the advocate; we’re eager to pursue shared services. Most of the work is convincing other towns that it’s in their best interest to do so.
Many of our Unions are working with the Township through accepting furloughs and other measures. I am hopeful that accommodation can be reached with all the unions so the Township can achieve the necessary savings and be able to continue to provide the service that these employees make possible. If this type of reasonable compromise cannot be reached, we will be in the unfortunate position of having to lay off some good workers.
One way or another, we will all experience cuts, whether they be in pool or library hours, reduced municipal services or in funding of education and the arts. At the same time, the Council has no choice but to raise taxes to preserve public safety and a reasonable quality of services residents expect from Montclair. I believe that we have struck a reasonable compromise and that further cuts would hurt more than they would help.
Ultimately, I hope we are able to pull together as a community and weather the storm of reduced services and increased taxes. The low-hanging fruit has been picked.
With so many residents suffering job losses and salary cuts, many have been willing and able to pitch in to help get us through this budget crisis. Our 4th of July festivities will go on, largely because of the contributions of the public and our outstanding accomplishment of winning the Liberty Mutual contest, proving our civic involvement and dedication. Many have volunteered their time and talents as part of the Staycation Montclair initiative to provide free and low-cost activities this summer including this Saturday’s June 19th 12-4 concert and pot-luck picnic at the MHS amphitheater which will feature great local bands such as the Reticents and others. A new Montclair Music and Arts Festival, featuring music by Richie Havens and work of local visual and performing artists, will be initiated on July 24th and will be funded by contributions from local businesses and residents. For those who can afford to make donations, these events will offer opportunities to help the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence fund important programs in our school system. Those interested in working on such initiatives can contact Cindy Stagoff at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will also need the help of the “Friends of….” different parks, youth groups such as the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and other non-profits and volunteer groups that operate here to help keep our township clean, vital and healthy this summer.
There is no question in my mind that we have the resources to thrive in spite of the historic economic crisis. I believe that further cuts in aid and radical measures like Proposition 2 1/2 would severely damage Montclair.
Coming in Part 2: Who to Blame