Montclair Council introduces nearly $100M budget; final approval 2 months away
As the Montclair Township Council convened Monday night, March 27, in front of each council member at the wood-paneled dais was the prospective municipal budget – a plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, laying out expenditures just shy of $100 million and a 1.95% tax increase.
At the ready were Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, and a fiscal consultant to lead the council and the public on a deep dive.
But almost as soon as the presentation began, it was over – truncated after three council members said they had received the document numbering 89 pages only last Friday – an 11th-hour financial homework assignment delivered in a manila envelope to their homes.
While the council passed a resolution to formally introduce this version, its decision on approving a final budget, which will likely see alterations, was pushed from the end of April to the middle of May. The extra time will give all the members a chance to dissect the fine print.
Item 25-265 was one highlight, showing a precise $864,510.33 increase in appropriations for the Fire Department in salaries and other expenses, to more than $11.2 million from about $10.4 million. That's a roughly 8.3% rise from this fiscal year and includes the hiring of three additional firefighters. A modernized communications system and other adjustments would raise the department's expenditures overall by about $2.2 million.
Dissent has been the hallmark of the council, and it has been on display meeting to meeting. Monday night followed course, with the council weighing a resolution to formally introduce the budget. It was a product of the council’s three-member finance committee – Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings – in collaboration with the CFO and Bob Benecke, Montclair's financial adviser.
“I want to have equal say in the budget process, that the people elected me distinctly just like they elected three other representatives,” said Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, who entered the meeting seeking to table a vote on the measure until he and others had a chance to digest the deluge of information.
Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams said that “to receive something on Friday night, and then have to vote, even to introduce it tonight, is not something I'm comfortable doing.”
Cummings rejected the argument.
“No one is voting on the budget,” he said. “Tonight we're introducing it for you all to then come back to us and tell us how you feel. And I don't think anything is wrong with that.”
State law dictates that a township's budget be introduced before the end of March, but the council has the latitude to postpone a final vote into May. It moved the vote from its April 25 session to the one on May 16.
The bottom line for the budget under consideration is $99,990,464.03, up from $95,598,997.44, representing a 4.6-percent increase. Paying for it all would produce a 1.95% increase in property taxes, a roughly $100 increase for the average Montclair household. The increase falls within state mandates, but it does not include property tax increases stemming from other parts of the township, including the schools. Nor does it include any possible tax increases from the county.
Compared to the Fire Department, the Police Department stood to receive a 2.3% increase, to more than $17.1 million from about $16.7 million.
In contrast, with advocates for older Montclair residents long insisting that more money should be dedicated to their needs, including a senior center, the budget contains a nearly 20% decrease for the Department of Senior Services, to about $293,000 from nearly $352,000. This comes even with the township recently posting a job for a new senior services director and creating a position for a full-time social worker.
Notably, too, the library’s appropriations line for salaries and additional materials remained static at $453,000, though library maintenance saw an increase to nearly $3.3 million from about $2.9 million.
Yacobellis said he not did blame anyone for the Friday night arrival of the budget at his home. But he questioned a process that in his view gives too much influence to the finance committee at this early stage.
“Somebody made a decision, $800,000 more for this, $400,000 less for this, $200,000 more for this,” Yacobellis said before the council decided to extend the time for it to review the budget. “I can't in good conscience vote for that, even to introduce it, because it does not reflect my involvement to this point. I think as a representative of all people in this town, I want to be able to ask questions, I want to be able to influence and I've never been asked the question in three years, ‘Councilor Yacobellis, what is the priority for you in the next budget?’”
Cummings took exception.
“It's a bit disingenuous for us to sit up here and act like this process has not been successful,” Cummings said, “when this township has got a triple-A bond rating, when we cut the debt from $120 million to $68 million.”
Rao, the CFO, led the abbreviated presentation, with Benecke, the township’s financial adviser, providing information remotely. But soon after they began wading through the numbers, some on the council expressed confusion over data they were still absorbing.
Gesturing toward the thick printout of the budget in front of her, Price Abrams suggested that without her having parsed the extensive spreadsheet, the presentation was flying past her.
“It’s just very hard to follow, in the spoken word,” she said.
Spiller absent, his seat at the center of the council table was filled by Hurlock. The vote approving the introduction of the budget was 5-1, with Hurlock, Cummings, Yacobellis, Price Abrams and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager in favor of the resolution.
Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo, insisting that he could not approve the introduction of a budget he had not carefully read, voted no.
Shifting a vote on the final budget to later on the calendar received unanimous approval.