By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The Montclair Township Council has introduced a $93.79 million budget that would result in a 2.48% increase in the municipal portion of a property owner’s tax bill — the first increase in three years.
Homeowners have not seen a rise in their municipal tax bills since 2018, when the amount rose a little over 1%.
This year’s proposed $93.79 million municipal budget, which was introduced on April 6 and is up for a public hearing May 4, reflects only a $78,886 increase in spending over the 2020 budget, but it also reflects a $3 million loss in revenue, causing a shortfall.
The township used $7,950,000 in surplus last year, but this year plans to use $9,450,000 to fill its budget hole.
Padmaja Rao, the township’s chief financial officer, said accumulating a $9.5 million surplus has put Montclair in a better financial position to maintain services during a challenging year.
“Can you imagine the impact if we didn’t have that?” she said.
That fund balance would now be at $6,450,348. Financial advisor Bob Beneke told the council that getting the fund back to $9.5 million by the start of 2022 will be crucial in keeping a property owner’s municipal tax payment below a 2% increase for next year.
If the budget is adopted in its current form, with a municipal tax rate of $0.802 per $100 of assessed valuation, a home assessed at $600,000 would have a tax bill of $4,812 — up from the $4,698 municipal tax bill it had last year. The budget would increase the tax rate by less than a cent.
The municipal tax levy — the amount needed to be raised by taxes — would be $56,985,491, up 2.80% from last year.
A homeowner’s tax bill consists of taxes for four entities — the Board of Education at 57%, Essex County at 17%, the municipality at 25% and the public library at 1% this year. The county and schools tax rates are being finalized now, but estimates have increases this year at 2.48% for municipal taxes, 1.66% for library taxes, 2.19% for schools taxes and 2.20% for county taxes. Figuring in the above percentages, homeowners could see an overall tax bill increase of 2.81%.
Proposed departmental budgets remained relatively flat, with the exclusion of salaries, which increased due to contractual obligations, Rao said. The police budget remains the highest departmental budget, at $16.17 million. The fire department is at $10.2 million, Community Services is at $6.47 million, town hall and government is at $5.16 million, Health and Human Services is at $2.08 million, Code Enforcement is at $531,109 and Parks and Recreation is at $142,500.
Under the state’s “third of a mil” funding formula, the library must receive at least $2.68 million. The budget proposes also providing $319,846 beyond that. That’s more than $500,000 lower than library officials said was in their working budget about a month ago — calling into question whether and when the library might restore services cut back in 2020 amid the pandemic. Last year, the library laid off 21 people, and its Bellevue Avenue branch hasn’t reopened since shutting for the initial lockdown.
Contractual salaries have increased 2.49% to $38,457,764, pensions are up 8.80% to $8.65 million, health insurance has decreased by 5.94% to $6.3 million, and the library is down 14.67% overall, to $3 million.
State aid remains flat compared to last year, at $2.96 million. Revenues are down, with permits and fees down 50% to $2.1 million, construction fees down 42% to $747,000, and grants down 77% to $158,038. Payments In Lieu of Taxes are up about $1 million, to $4.9 million, due to more multi-family construction.
The debt balance is $155.5 million, down from $157.5 million in 2020. In 2011, debt had reached its highest, at $223 million.
The township also has had a hiring freeze since April of last year.
Montclair is expected to get $3.78 million from the American Rescue Plan, according to a press release issued March 10 by U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker. The direct, flexible funding can be used by local governments to pay COVID-related expenses; cover lost revenues due to the pandemic to maintain critical services and avoid layoffs of essential workers; provide additional assistance to residents and small businesses; and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis questioned why that money wasn’t allocated in the budget. Rao said the township had not received official notification on the amount Montclair would receive and would not know until at least June.
The heads of the departments with the largest appropriations presented small presentations on their departments.
Fire Chief John Herrmann said the fire department is currently staffed with 79 personnel, but he expects to be up to 81 by the end of this year, with four currently training at the academy and a few planned retirements. The three engine companies and two ladder companies responded to 1,668 incidents in 2020. They also provide code enforcement for issues such as leaf blower violations.
As Cedar Grove and Verona tap into Montclair Health Department services, Health Officer Sue Portuese said, the Health Department hired three more full-time staffers and a temporary clerk to conduct COVID-19 education, contact tracing investigations numbering 2,881, 248 mask and capacity investigations, flu clinics and lead screenings. The department also is inoculating seniors at various housing complexes and bringing vaccinations to the homebound. The department received $460,000 in state and county grants this year to offset costs.
Senior Services had 8,461 seniors participating in programs through virtual services for the last three months in 2020, an increase from the 7,195 for all of 2019. Partnering with the library, 150 seniors received laptops and technical assistance, and 125 seniors received care packages of books and DVDs. Through a partnership with Tioni’s Kitchen, 500 seniors now receive weekly grocery deliveries. Through Montclair’s Animal Shelter, 170 cats were adopted through virtual meet-and=greets, while 65 families adopted dogs using the outdoor courtyard. More than 300 families were assisted with affordable housing vouchers.
Water Bureau and Sewer Utility and Parking Utility director Gary Obszarny told the council it needs to continue the upgrade of sewer systems and conduct a state-mandated inventory of lead lines into homes. The Parking Utility took a blow, losing half of its revenues since the pandemic set in. The department took advantage of empty decks to make improvements and paint.
Steve Wood of the Department of Community Services said his department of 88 paved 11.6 miles of roadways, planted 285 trees, replaced 2,000 street signs, continued to remove blighted ash tress and maintained the parks. He also said that refuse staff of 19 and recycling staff of 18 were particularly busy since COVID-19 hit — bulk trash and recycling increased by 6% with residents staying home.
Police Chief Todd Conforti said his department pivoted to taking reports over the phone and created a safe distancing waiting room for emergencies. The coronavirus pandemic, protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death related to racial justice and the protests related to the election all challenged the department, he said. The department also increased its response to aid residents dealing with addiction, homelessness and mental health issues, he said. In March and April of 2020, when personal protective equipment was nearly impossible to acquire, he said, residents donated masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to keep the force protected. He said the department is planning to equip the force with body cams as mandated by the state by June 1. The budget sets aside $310,000 for body cameras.
Tony Fan, director of the Information Technology department, said the department has stepped up cybersecurity.
Yacobellis voted against the budget’s introduction, stating he needed more time to go over it, while Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams abstained. A public hearing where residents can ask questions will be held on May 4.