By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair Township’s introduced $93.1 million municipal budget for 2020 reflects no municipal tax increase for homeowners for the second consecutive year. If the budget is adopted in its current form, a home assessed at $600,000 will have the same $4,698 municipal tax bill it had last year, with the municipal tax rate remaining at 0.783.
The total budget at $93,182,773 is up about $2 million from last year’s $91,112,587 budget. The municipal tax levy is $55,433,295, down from last year’s $58,379,393. The town saw an increase in tax ratables of $43,759,000 in 2019, and the town plans to use $7,950,000 in surplus and anticipates $2,967,066 in state aid.
A homeowner’s tax bill consists of four entities — the Board of Education at 57 percent, county taxes at 17 percent, municipal taxes at 25 percent and the public library at 1 percent. The county and schools tax rates are being finalized now.
In the 15 years prior to 2012, when the current council took office, the average annual tax increase was 5 percent, said Mayor Robert Jackson Feb. 18. The eight budgets since have averaged a little more than a 1 percent annual increase, he added.
The largest portion of the budget, 29.6 percent, goes to public safety, followed by statutory expenses, insurance and other reserves (14.3 percent), municipal debt service (11.4 percent), public works (9.9 percent), all other departments besides for police, fire and public works (9.6 percent), school debt service (9.5 percent), pensions (8.7 percent), the public library (3.7 percent), utilities (2.1 percent) and capital improvements (1.2 percent).
The debt balance at the end of 2019 was at $164.7 million, down from $166 million the year prior. The township projects reducing another $2 million by the end of 2020.
The township plans to refinance the long-term debt as bonds, to take advantage of the lower interest rates, said township financial advisor Bob Benecke.
The budget includes a $9 million capital bond ordinance to improve the town’s infrastructure, including 11 miles of road paving and curbing, tree planting removal at a cost of $500,000, a new fire ladder truck at $1 million, upgrades to the 9-1-1 system for $300,000, and township park and playground upgrades.
According to Benecke in the last eight years, 66 out of 83 miles of township roads have been repaved; the town has replaced four of its five firefighting apparatus, along with packers, snow plows, dump trucks and pickup trucks have been replaced; renovations have occurred at Edgemont, Porter, Crane, Watchung and Yantacaw parks, as well as the Canterbury Park tennis courts and the Rand and Mountainside ball fields; two thousand trees have been planted; and enhancements have been made to the town’s technology infrastructure.
The library tax levy, which is based by law on population and the tax base, remained relatively flat this year at $2.6 million. In addition to the minimum library tax, another $1 million has been budgeted.
According to Montclair’s 2020 analysis of “compensated absence liability,” the current number of accrued sick and vacation days for all township employees is $9.8, down more than $2.8 million from $12.65 million in 2019, with police, fire and community services sick days topping the amount owed.
The amount anticipated this year from Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOTS) is $4.3 million, down slightly from last year’s $4.5 million collected, despite the addition of $529,789 coming from the new MC Hotel.
All 10 positions within the fire department that were lost last year due to retirements have been refilled, and an additional firefighter has also been hired to bring the department up to 89 firefighters in addition to the fire chief, two deputy fire chiefs, a fire marshal, a fire inspector, administrative staff and part-time employees.
Along with a new ladder truck, the MFD will purchase protective equipment, tools and a new UPS box, and will receive substantial funding for firefighter training. The budget remains relatively flat at $10.3 million.
The police department is budgeted for 112 officers, 60 crossing guards, 16 dispatchers and seven administrative staffers.
The Traffic Bureau will add more staff, allowing for an increased focus on traffic enforcement, and additional funds will be allocated towards community partnership programs such as Coffee with a Cop and the Citizens and Junior Police academies.
Combating the opioid crisis will continue to be a focal point, with NARCAN training and opioid awareness programs and outreach. The department will also replace several old vehicles and purchase protective body gear. Nearly $300,000 in capital funding will be provided to upgrade the 9-1-1 system.
The department’s operating expenses will increase from $15.8 million to $16 million, primarily due to increased software license and maintenance of electronic equipment costs.
The department’s budget of $1.8 million, up slightly from last’s $1.76 million, covers environmental health, nursing, the animal shelter, senior services, vital statistics and environmental affairs.
An ambitious program, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program, received $307,000 in grant funding last year.
Environmental health inspections increased by 30 percent since last year, due to an increase in lead inspections of 60 percent and a more than 50 percent increase in sidewalk café inspections.
The department conducted 415 retail food inspections in 2019, reflecting an increase of 26 new businesses and changes in ownership.
For seniors, the Edgemont Park House will see the installation of two new hot water heaters, a new kitchen floor, cabinets, countertops and ceiling. Upgrades will be made to plumbing, electricity, and restrooms. The part-time senior activities coordinator position will become full-time.
Since the partnership with EZ Ride was launched in 2017 to operate the Montclair Senior Bus, ridership has increased by 459 percent with an average of over 700 rides per month.
Participation in programing at the park house has increased 28 percent a year since 2016, with approximately 8,300 attendees in 2019. Registration for the Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning saw a 421 percent increase from 2015 through 2019. With some classes filling within 10 minutes of registration opening, the goal is to expand the number of programs offered.
Friends of the Montclair Township Animal Shelter in 2019 provided $18,000 in grants and the same is anticipated for 2020. Two groups — “George to the Rescue” and Rescue Rebuild — gave of their time and funding to redo dog and cat areas at the shelter last year.
PUBLIC WORKS, BUILDING DEPARTMENTS
All township building maintenance will be consolidated under the Department of Community Services with a budget of $5.6 million, up from last year’s amount of $5.5 million.
This year the department has budgeted for a buildings supervisor and is pursuing full- and part-time inspectors, with the goal of reducing wait times for processing permits.
Big Belly trash compactor contracts were consolidated, resulting in anticipated savings of 20 percent with a new contract.
The storm clearance reserve will be replenished to more than $1 million.
The Utilities Department is budgeting several million dollars to replace aging water pipes, sewer and slip lines, refurbish pumps and the purchase of two carbon vessels and an Ion Exchange Vessel to ensure high-quality drinking water.
Park upgrades will continue at Tuers and Yantacaw Brook parks, and a $1 million Green Acres grant will fund park and playground improvements in Nishuane, Mountainside and Essex parks.
The town’s parking utility operations will be enhanced with the purchase of new vehicles and license plate recognition (LPR) hardware and software. The Crescent Deck will have a new elevator installed and the budget will also fund repaving of a number of parking lots, LED lighting at decks, power washing decks and concrete work at various decks.
The town recreation budget has been reduced to $680,717, down from $705,008 in 2019. But the council has set aside $150,000 in the 2020 budget for funding arts programs and public art.
“The arts have always played a significant role in Montclair’s identity,” said Jackson. “We recognize the tremendous value of arts and culture to the township and to society as a whole, so it is critical that we continue to foster and support our cultural programs to ensure they flourish and are indeed available to everyone.”