By LINDA MOSS
The Township Mayor and Council introduced an $85.8 million 2017 municipal budget, up roughly 3 percent from last year, representing a relatively small local property tax increase, at their conference meeting Tuesday night.
The governing body ultimately voted unanimously to approve the introduction, scheduling an April 25 hearing on the budget, despite initial objections from Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville.
The average Montclair home is assessed at about $504,500, so the proposed budget would translate to a $114 municipal increase on that property owner’s $18,921 in annual taxes, according to Township Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao. But the final numbers for the local school district and Essex County portions of the taxes aren’t available yet, so the full 2017 impact on property owners isn’t known yet.
The proposed tax levy will rise 2.5 percent, to $54.1 million, this year, Rao said. And the municipality expects its income from payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to increase by $300,000. Income from vacant property fees is also expected to rise by $300,000.
Before the vote on the budget introduction, Baskerville questioned why municipal department heads hadn’t been required to make presentations to fully explain the budget’s line items, which had been done in some prior years.
“I have no clue what’s in the budget … It’s like being hoodwinked,” she said.
But the mayor and Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller said that for the past few years, the department heads hadn’t done such presentations, in part because the recent budgets were relatively stable and didn’t involve a lot of changes, such as hiring police officers.
“Just as a parenthetical, I have some concerns about this budget as it’s written,” Jackson said. “I’m going to raise some questions. … It’s an introduction and we go through it and we banter back and forth a little bit.”
The mayor also discussed the improved financial status of the township under the current council. In the 2016 municipal budget the township reduced its debt from $183 million to $178 million, according to Jackson.
“When this council took office the debt was $223 million,” he said.
If the proposed budget is adopted as written and remains relatively unchanged, the township’s debt will drop to $174 million, according to the mayor.
“We started out with a bond rating of AA-,” the mayor said. “We’re now a AAA bond-rated community … So we continue to make great progress financially with the town.”
At the session the council also authorized the issuance of 37 municipal liens, totaling $6,540, for vacant properties that failed to remove snow and ice on streets during two snowstorms. The liens reflect the township’s “strong efforts” to manage vacant properties, and represent the cost of a contractor performing work at a site, such as snow removal, the charge for special legal counsel to prepare the lien documents, and administrative costs, Township Manager Timothy Stafford told the council.
Three members of the Township Planning Board — Chair John Wynn, Vice Chair Jason DeSalvo and Martin Schwartz — also came to the meeting to talk about the redevelopment projects at Lackawanna Plaza and Seymour Street near the Wellmont Theatre. Jackson expressed his concern about how long it was taking for the Lackawanna Plaza development, which doesn’t even have a written redevelopment plan yet, to get moving along.
The discussion on Seymour Street, in part, was about a proposal to create a left-hand turn on South Willow Street onto Bloomfield Avenue. The mayor said that the county has already planned to spend $5 million to $6 million to make improvements on the intersections on Bloomfield Avenue from the Montclair Art Museum to South Willow, and the issue was whether the Seymour Street developer, Pinnacle Cos. of Montclair, was aware of that.
Jackson also told the planning-board members that from what he knew of a recent hearing on Seymour Street, the developer was “reinventing” the redevelopment plan that the council and board had already approved.
Wynn said that his board was still working with the developer Pinnacle, and holding hearings, on its proposal.
“We have not seen all the elements of the plan,” he said.