The era of “Jacksonian democracy” commenced in Montclair as the 2012-16 township council under Mayor Robert Jackson got to work in its first conference meeting last night. Rather than only having combined conference and regular meetings on the same evening, the new council is holding separate conference meetings alternatively between regular meetings, though conference pre-meetings before regular meetings will continue.
The agenda included reports from the council subcommittees and township administrators. Mayor Jackson explained to the members of the public in attendance that he was hoping the new format would be more efficient.
The evening began, though, with a look at dissolving the Montclair Parking Authority (MPA) and replacing it with a public utility. Mayor Jackson, who has studied the parking issue in a subcommittee that includes Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon and Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller, is interested in leveraging the parking assets of Montclair as a catalyst for economic development. He noted, though, that the MPA is not entirely on the same page, and so he proposed a parking utility working with a separate entity for economic development as an option. “I think that we need to move ahead in a different path,” he said.
Other councilors concurred that the MPA isn’t working for the best interests of the town. Deputy Mayor Robert Russo offered an anecdote of an ice cream parlor on Bloomfield Avenue with three spaces in front of his eatery, each with a broken meter, as an example of lost economic activity. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager complained about the Muni meters in Upper Montclair Plaza being impossible to figure out. “Maybe we do need to look a utility or another option,” she said.
The council also dealt with unfinished business from the previous administration and council, allowing Township Manager Marc Dashield and Township Attorney Ira Karasick to take the lead on various occasions. Regarding the redevelopment of the DCH property, Karasick informed the council that it had to reach an agreement with the developer, Montclair Acquisition Partners (MAP), which seeks a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement. The number of buildings on multiple lots, Karasick advised, might require specific PILOT agreements for each lot. The developers of the proposed assisted living facility (ALF) on the site of the Church Street parking lot are also seeking a PILOT agreement, which would involve only one agreement, but the council must wait on that pending the outcome of developer Dick Grabowsky’s suit against the township for approving the ALF so quickly.
“They’d love to get their shovels in the ground sooner,” he said of both developers. “Also, the approval of these agreements kind of helps them finance them.”
Karasick told the council that it was up to them to analyze the financials to determine the best deal from the township. Mayor Jackson noted that a PILOT agreement would allow Montclair to keep 95 percent of fees paid with five percent for the county, compared to a ratio less beneficial to Montclair if taxes are paid instead. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville expressed concern that PILOT agreements would not be honored in light of the difficulties in collecting earlier payments.
“You’ll get a thorough analysis of what the financial benefits are before you have to make any decisions,” Dashield said.
MAP CEO Brian Stolar, whose application was “memorialized” by the Planning Board the night before, reported that his company was completing an agreement with the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) to get equity for the project, and he asked that the council amend at their next regular meeting a resolution passed by the previous council on February 21 to reflect the change. Stolar was certain of his ability to move forward with the redevelopment. “We’ve got all the firepower we need,” he said.
The council previewed seven resolutions already scheduled for consideration at their July 17 meeting, including an acceptance of the audit of the township’s finances for 2011. Auditor John Luria of McEnerey Brady and Company of Livingston went through the highlights, reporting that the township was able to bring expenses down as revenue came in, but adding that the school tax went down. Luria explained that surpluses had been generated through deferring the school tax, which his collected in a July 1-June 30 fiscal year and so is deferred by the township, which collects taxes in a calendar year.
“Any increase in the school tax from one year to the next, 50 percent was automatically deferred, which basically dropped to your bottom line, which is the fund balance,” Luria said. “This past year, the school levy went down. Because you were at your 50 percent prior to December 31, 2011, when it went down, you had to make up for that. So you actually had to come up with $ 1.7 million, which reduced your fund balance, because the levy went down.” Luria said that the increased revenues and leftover funds from completed expenditures allowed Montclair to absorb the difference and still increase its fund balance to $8.3 million.
Dashield also presented a report from IMAC Insurance in Belleville, who recommended a proposed resolution terminating Montclair’s agreement with the State Health Benefits Program, in which some groups in the insurance pool subsidize others so that all of them pay the same rate. IMAC recommended switching Montclair’s public employees to Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which they believe provides similar service and could save the township 11 percent over the year of the contract. They strongly recommended passing it sooner than later to have it effective within two months.
Toward the end of the meeting, Dashield also addressed reducing debt, recommending a constraint on new debt in the next 10 years. He proposed a 2-1 debt issuance ratio by capping school debt at $24.5 million and limiting municipal debt to $32.5 million. He also said he was looking into canceling debt on completed improvements, including approximately $1 million in school improvement authorizations and cancel bonded debt based on grant funds received, reducing the debt by $3.6 million.
“This is great news,” Deputy Mayor Russo said. “When you do this, it’s a tax decrease for the future children and taxpayers of Montclair.”
A debt management plan resolution will be ready by the July 17 meeting.