Last night we had a Council meeting. Here are the updates.
I am going to go out of order and talk about the pool rates, which we discussed 2 hrs into our meeting in new business. Last night we introduced the pool fees for 2023 to improve the pool finances. What you will see are significant adjustments across the board for both membership and non-membership revenue (guest passes, gazebo rental, swim team, swim lessons). The Pool memberships will remain for Verona residents only. We are adding day passes that can be purchased by Verona residents in order to enjoy the pool Mondays through Fridays (excluding holidays) up to 3 times during the year. We have eliminated the three free guest passes that members received in the past. In combination, all of the changes will result in an additional $70K in revenue for the pool utility (or a 12% increase) totaling $647K.
I tried really hard to advocate for families as part of this rate setting process, and we had a bit of public debate on the allocation of these rate increases for families vs. seniors. I did advocate that seniors could pay a bit more of an increase and families a bit less, but the majority of the Council did not agree. What was introduced was the family rate will increase to $520 (from $485), family with babysitter to $630 (from $590) and senior rate to $175 (from $165). All of the fees will be posted as a proposed ordinance which you can find here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilmeetings.
While I know for families these seem like large increases - I do want to put a few things into prospective. We did not increase rates last year when we should have, which occurred because our Administration was in transition, so this year really reflects two years worth of increases. Minimum wage has increased every year and labor costs are the majority of the costs for the pool. The new splash pad and changes to the baby pool are going to be fantastic and will be a big enhancement. The Administration is planning on announcing that they will be expanding pool hours, and we believe this will include opening the baby pool area at 10 am. Parents have been requesting this change for a long time and is one of the main reasons new families don't join the pool. Our pool rates are still substantially cheaper then surrounding communities and we believe we have the best pool in the area. Overall, I do believe the pool is a great value for families - and this will be a great pool season. I am very excited.
There was a second part of this pool rates that involved a discussion on the free pool memberships that our volunteers in the Rescue Squad and Fire Department currently receive. In an effort to standardize the benefit across all volunteers, we introduced an ordinance to provide a free individual membership to volunteers that qualify, and if volunteers want to join with their families they would pay the difference between the family rate and the individual rate (which is proposed at $345). Rescue Squad members came to the meeting and spoke during public comment against this change and on the fact they were not included in the discussion. This is where I have to admit the Council did miss a step, and this change should have been previewed with them before we introduced it. In the effort to be efficient we moved too fast on this one. We asked for our Administration to have a discussion with our volunteer leaders and we may end up changing the introduced fees for volunteers or voting the ordinance down so that no change will happen in 2023. More to come on this.
Jumping back to the beginning of the meeting, our CFO gave us a presentation on our Open Space Trust fund and the payments that are required on the 25 acres of open space that the Township purchased in 2020. As you may recall - the Township purchased 111 Mt. Prospect and 25 Commerce Court from a developer to prevent hundreds of townhomes from being developed on the two sites and to settle the lawsuit the developer had filed against the Township as part of the last round of affordable housing requirements. I supported the purchase at the time because we wanted to protect the school district as much as we could from overcrowding and the land represented over 50% of the remaining undeveloped land in the Township. When we made the purchase, we did tell the public that we would consider selling off a few acres of the 25 Commerce Court property for single family home development.
Last night the Administration provided us with an overview of their recommendations with this property. The first was to not sell off any of the 25 Commerce Court property for development, as the financial benefit to the taxpayer would be miniscule.
Second, the Administration is recommending that we put to the voters an increase of the Open Space Trust Fund tax rate. You may recall that voters approved the Open Space Trust Fund, which was set up to fund the purchase of open space, in November of 2019 at the rate of 0.02 cents per $100 of assessed value, which is on average $86 per year. The presentation last night provided a summary of the money collected by that trust fund and the payments required from the land that we purchased. The Administration laid out the case that it would be best if the open space tax rate was increased to 0.03 cents per $100 of assessed value, as at that level the full debt payment on the open space that the Township purchased would be covered by the Open Space Trust Fund. That increase would cost the average home owner an additional $43.80 per year.
The presentation going through the math of this recommendation will be located here once the meeting materials are posted: https://www.veronanj.org/councilmeetings. Feedback on this proposal should be sent to the entire Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform. At a future meeting we will need to decide if we will put this referendum on the ballot as part of either a special election or in November. We will also have a resolution at one of our Budget Workshop meetings to apply for Open Space funds which will help to further offset the cost of the land purchase.
Other items discussed at the meeting:
We had a lengthy discussion on non-profit group's use of Township property along Bloomfield to put up signs on their events. The Administration will be clarifying rules and policy on what groups can use the space and what signs can be displayed. It is the intent of the Council that the space in question be continued to be used to promote community events. For now we are going to keep doing what we have done in the past.
We voted on several ordinances. We passed a state-required ordinance on electric vehicle charging stations/make ready parking spaces in new construction. We also passed our 2023 salary ordinance for exempt employees. By a vote of 3-2 (with Councilwoman Holland and I voting no) the ordinance setting permit fee rates for tree removal passed (see my previous update from last meeting on my thoughts on this ordinance). We passed an ordinance to amend our parking meter rules to allow for the Township Manager to suspend parking meeting collection as needed (e.g. for free parking around the holidays).
We introduced a standard financing ordinance establishing our CAP bank. We also introduced an ordinance setting the salaries of seasonal employees.
We passed resolutions on some budget housekeeping, authorizing a contract with Edmunds, and appointing Joe D'Arco as our Municipal Housing Liaison.
We went into closed session to discuss some legal matters, including possible locations for the police station.
If you have any comments on anything we discussed, feel free to send your comments to the entire Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilcontactform.
Reminder: Our Budget Workshops are tonight (Tuesday Feb 28th) and Thursday (March 2nd). We will review the entire budget line by line during those two evenings. The agenda can be found here: https://www.veronanj.org/councilmeetings.