January 24th Meeting Summary
Last night we had our Town Council Meeting. Here are the highlights.
We started off the meeting with a HUGE announcement, and then action was taken later in the meeting. The Township Council has hired a new Township Manager - Joseph D'Arco! Mr. D'Arco is currently the Borough Administrator in Paramus, has extensive experience in local government, is a veteran, and currently resides in Bloomfield. I am so excited for his experience, the new ideas he will bring to the Township, and how he will help to mentor and grow our staff. What is even better is that he will be starting on February 7th and overlapping with our current Township Manager for an entire week so that we can have a smooth transition process. The Council is sending out a press release with more information on Mr. D'Arco - so please be on the lookout for that from local press outlets.
I do want to thank my fellow Council members – and particularly Mayor Roman – on the process. I have to say, this was one of the best examples of teamwork that I have ever experienced. As a group, we were all equally engaged in every step of the process. From deciding who to interview, to drafting of the interview questions, to our final decision, we were all united every step of the way. We spent hours together, including several meetings that went to midnight and a full Saturday together interviewing candidates. Everyone was truly present and committed during every hour spent. Thank you to Mayor Roman for setting the tone of a truly collaborative process. I believe that as a result the residents and employees will benefit.
We detailed Mr. D'Arco's compensation package in the meeting, and his contract, like our current Manager's contract, will be posted later today. His base salary will be $180K, and he will be receiving $17K of deferred compensation. In total, his total compensation, which includes other benefits, is comparable to the total compensation to our current manager.
There were two other very significant things that happened last night in our meeting. The first is that we had a split vote 3-2 to pass the 2022 Salary Ordinance for non-union employees. I did not vote in favor of this ordinance. I do not feel that the Council was provided with significant backup and justification for the changes in salary that are being proposed. Performance reviews of the direct reports of the Township Manager have not been conducted in over two years. I would like to see a comparison of job responsibilities to justify some of these increases, and as I have stated in past, I believe we should also do a comparison externally to other towns to help identify how we are paying vs. other communities. In addition, while I am 100% supportive of employees obtaining advanced degrees and certifications that the Township pays for, I do not believe we should be providing pay increases based on achieving those degrees unless the job responsibilities have been upgraded and/or a new position taken. There is also a confidential matter that I raised in closed session that the majority of my fellow council members did not support. I am still concerned about that matter and could not vote for this ordinance.
To the employees – I want to reiterate that I am 100% committed to ensuring that Verona is a preferred employer. I want to ensure that everyone receives an annual review, and that our salaries are fair and properly reward employees for hard work across the organization. I will be stressing this with our new administration, and you have my commitment that I want to see improvement in this area.
The final significant thing we discussed last night was dramatically increasing water rates. This conversation happened in New Business about 1 hr 20 min into the meeting, and I highly recommend residents watch this portion of the meeting.
When we first learned about the PFAS issue with our drinking water in August, our current administration said that the financials of the water utility could handle us purchasing 100% of our water supply from Passaic Valley Water. Unfortunately, we learned last night that is not the case. Through a combination of increased costs passed on by Passaic Valley and increased consumption of Verona residents since the beginning of the pandemic, it is proposed that we need to significantly increase water rates by a total of 26% from $5.49 per 1,000 gallons of water to $6.90 per 1,000 gallons of water. This will equate on the average bill of an additional $100 per year. This comes after three years of keeping rates flat.
Last night we discussed the financials and debated, in public, the correct approach for setting water rates. Part of the conversation involved splitting the $6.90 rate into a $5.92 base rate and a $1.00 "surcharge" that will be effective from 1/1/22 to 12/31/23. The "surcharge" reflects the additional cost to purchase 100% of our water due to taking our wells off line as a result of the elevated PFOA levels. The project to lower those levels to meet the new state standard will likely take a total of 2 years to complete. We will discuss that project more at our next meeting.
I want to take a moment to thank Councilwoman Holland for her expertise in the area of utility management. She has pushed for an asset management plan to be completed on the entire water utility, and after that is complete she explained that we need to do a formal "rate study" to determine what water rates should be. A formal rate study has not been done on this utility and it is a standard best practice. It is clear to me that we are going to need to study the water and sewer utility rates in the near future and the results will help us better manage the water and sewer utility.
The presentation that was discussed will be posted soon for residents to review. The ordinance increasing the rates was introduced last night, so a public hearing on the new rates will be at our next meeting on Monday, February 7th.
Note for those residents that are interested in the One Sunset (a.k.a Spectrum) project - we will likely have a significant update on that project at our next meeting on February 7th. The Council will be discussing and possibly voting on a consistency review of proposed plans for the development.
Those were the highlights from the meeting. Should you have any questions or comments, please send them to the entire Council here: https://www.veronanj.org/council