March 21st Council Meeting/Budget Workshop Update
Last night we had a Council meeting, which included "Part II" of our annual budget workshops. Here are the highlights.
We voted on an ordinance to continue our participation in the Energy Aggregation Program through Dec 31, 2025, which passed 4-1 (Councilman Tamburro voted against it). For the last few years Verona has participated in this program to buy cleaner electricity at a cost savings to residents. While four members of the Council were in support of continuing to participate in this program, we did provide strong feedback that the communication to residents on this program need to be greatly improved so that they know how to opt out and by when. We are currently in our second contract in this program, which ends in August. A link to more information on the program is here.
Last night we introduced two ordinances. The first is to establish a CAP bank, which is a financing move we make every year to allow for flexibility. The second is an adjustment to pool fees. Specifically increasing the Adult Twilight membership from $135 to $180, and removing the Daily Pass option which we offered in 2020. Both ordinances will have public hearings and will be voted on in the next meeting.
Under resolutions, we approved a contract to hire a consultant (The Rogers Group) to assist the police department with their accreditation process. The accreditation process is very important to ensure that our department is policing appropriately and following the law, and if it is achieved will result in lower insurance costs for the Township. This project will take place over the next year.
We approved a $40K contract with DISH Wireless to rent our cell tower space, which will result in new revenue for the Township. We also approved a contract with Hendricks Appraisal Company for tax appeal services. Length of Service Awards Program amounts for the volunteer fire department were approved.
After we completed our normal business we then went into our budget workshop to finish our conversation on projected 2022 expenses. Here are some highlights:
The Library budget will increase by $14K this year, but since the amount of funds Verona will receive from the state-mandated mandatory minimum library tax is going up the Township will actually be spending less on Library services. The Library has made some adjustments in spending and the cost of the contract with Pals Plus is decreasing. Circulation is up to 88K and is now past pre-pandemic levels.
The Construction/Code Enforcement department is having another busy year, with permits and revenue up across the board. The department issued 821 permits and did 3,580 inspections. We discussed at length the need to digitize our files in this department and move towards electronic permitting.
Water and Sewer continues to be a costly utility. While we are not drinking the water, the wells continue to be maintained. Electric costs and insurance costs are up. We did discuss at a high level the "hardness" of the well water. The Township Manager indicated that he is looking at chemical analysis of the water and the new treatment system that we are likely to install to address our PFOA issue. Some bonds are rolling off in this utility which is resulting in decreased debt service costs, but that will be just temporary, as we need to invest millions in this utility.
At the end of the process, every line item of the budget was reviewed. A huge thank you to our CFO Jen Muscara, for a great job presenting her first budget to us!
We then moved on to capital expenses, where our CFO and Township Manager provided us with spreadsheets of what capital projects were approved but not funded, and what projects were proposed by the Department Heads. What we received was not a final list and more of a work in progress. I will not lie, the numbers are very very large. I expect more conversations on this and the Council will need to prioritize and make many tough decisions.
Finally, last night I raised a concern with how we were proposing we spend the $1.4 million in American Rescue Plan funds (more information on what we are receiving here). When we last talked about this in July of 2021, we had verbally agreed to spend the funds first to "wipe out" the COVID accounting emergency (which we took due to a shortfall in revenue due to the pandemic) in the current fund ($356K) and pool utility ($300K). My concern was whether or not it was appropriate to put that much of ARP funds in the pool utility as it does not benefit all tax payers. The pandemic did impact the pool's finances, so in the end we agreed to put in $60K for this year only, so that we can have more time to study other ways we can use the ARP monies and whether or not the pool utility revenues can "pay off" the COVID emergency on its own. Apparently the financial guidance on how we can use the ARP monies is ever-evolving, and we do have time to decide how to best spend the balance of the funds.
I highly encourage residents to watch our budget workshops and send comments to the Council as soon as possible, preferably by Thursday. After that point line the budget details will be finalized. Expect the budget to be introduced at our next meeting, April 4th.
Comments to the council can be sent here: https://www.veronanj.org/council.