The Montclair Township Council held its first hearing for the 2014 municipal budget on April 5. While a couple of council members, including Mayor Robert Jackson, arrived late, only Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller could not attend. Township Manager Marc Dashield directed the meeting, having scheduled testimony from the Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs, the Department of Community Services, the Finance Department, and Township Clerk Linda Wanat to present their cases at the Saturday morning meeting.
Recreation and Cultural Affairs Director Pat Brechka went first, outlining her agenda for the coming year, which includes increasing programs for cultural activities and seniors and encouraging more online registration to increase efficiency. She cited her department’s recent successes, such as a spring football program and increased interest in track and fencing, with plans for more shared services such as combining with Glen Ridge on a youth baseball program to compensate for the dearth in baseball participation in separate towns. Sealing for the roof of the Clary Anderson Arena is also in the works, with bids accepted beginning April 7 and a decision on a bid by April 23.
Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville asked about out-of-towners increasingly using Montclair’s services, specifically on fees paid by non-residents to the township. Brechka explained that the shared baseball program with Glen Ridge would be the same, $120, for both towns, but residents from other towns still have to pay an additional $35 out-of-town surcharge for other Montclair recreational activities. Both Montclair and Glen Ridge ballfields are to be used in the program.
Deputy Mayor Robert Russo noted that the Recreational and Cultural Affairs is taking in more money than it is spending, yet the $774,000 budget for 2014 includes a taxpayer cost of $182,000. Brechka explained that there are “indirect costs—” – expenses on programs that don’t produce income, such as Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, for example, that her department cannot incur without a tax subsidy.
“We actually make enough money to cover programs. What you don’t see are the indirect expenses,” Dashield explained. “We do not cover the full cost. For the programs, we bring in about $452,000 in revenue to support it, but it does not support the whole program, because that does not include indirect costs.”
Brechka said that other events covered include Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, plus summer movies, but her biggest news was that the Winter Festival, originally meant to tie in with Super Bowl XLVIII, will return instead of First Night thanks to the festival’s success.
Director of Community Services Steve Wood testified next, going over a $3.1 million public works budget with goals such as roadway improvements, maintaining the town’s tree canopy, and reducing roadway flooding. His objectives are to repair catch basins and increase the number of roadway miles repaved. Only two percent of roads were repaved in 2013, a statistic that Wood and Dashield said did not reflect. The work involved sections of roadway in critical, heavily used areas that needed immediate attention.
Wood said he was asking of a five percent increase in the operating budget, with much of the increase involving $100,000 more for snow removal and $3,000 for equipment repairs, including money for to contract out additional help in snow removal. Wood said that a contractor would help even in snowstorms the township could handle itself as an act of good faith. “They’re putting aside other customers for us,” he said.
Mayor Jackson noted that it usually takes six to twelve hours to remove snow once the storm ends, and he suggested that contractors take specific sections of town to halve the amount of time to clear snow. Wood agreed that such a plan was desirable.
“I just want to make sure,” the mayor added, “that in the budget, there’s enough money for us to get to three to six [hours] for this coming winter versus six to twelve. I don’t know if this is sufficient.”
Wood called his request “seed money” for such a contract proposal, based on an educated guess for how much snow DCS could reasonably expect, without overbudgeting and leaving the money unspent but also without underbudgeting and leaving DCS short. Dashield said that he and Wood would make the best estimate of reducing snow removal time by 50 percent. The mayor said that if more money was needed, DCS should let the council know. Dashield added that talks were underway with Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, and Montclair State University to increase the number of available salt domes for next winter.
Mayor Jackson also said that he hoped to work with Wood on the DCS budget by presenting a list of council requests for improvements to parks and increased garbage pickup in business districts such as Watchung Plaza and work on figuring out costs. Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager concurred.
“I don’t think it’s a luxury to ask that our parks and our streets and our trash receptacles are clean,” she said.
Chief Financial Officer Frank Mason testified next. The Finance Department is seeking a $958,000 appropriation for 2014, with continuing emphasis of reducing the debt and the current cost of debt. Mason said that his department was seeking a greater increase of credit card usage to pay fees and that he was working with a new company to implement credit card payment services in the Health, Planning and Zoning Departments and the court and the Township Clerk’s office. He said they hoped to have that up in running “in the next month or two.”
In testifying last, Township Clerk Linda Wanat, whose office is seeking a $332,000 appropriation, stayed in her position on the council dais, declaring that she felt very good about the township and emphasizing the value of the services the clerk’s office provides. She said she was pleased to have the full staff that she had started out with when she became the clerk in 1992, allowing her office to organize records more efficiently and increase storage capacity to preserve more archived documents electronically. Wanat also said that filming permits issued by her office helped Montclair gain a great deal of respect from advertisers and filmmakers.
Wanat added that she anticipated an early voting measure, expanding early voting with an average of seven polling places open for seven days a week for a 15-day period to pass the state legislature. She couldn’t determine how much, if any, of this mandate would be funded, insisting the voting by mail was a more viable alternative. She also said that she hoped to hold seminar on the Open Public Records Act for municipal employees and another seminar on alcoholic beverage sale permits for license holders to get up to date on possible changes to liquor laws.
The next budget hearing is at the council’s conference meeting on April 8.