By Ron Leir
A municipal spending blueprint introduced by the Kearny governing body last Tuesday night will mean that local property taxes on the average house assessed at around $95,000 will rise by an estimated $417, Finance Director Shuaib Firozvi predicted.
Although total appropriations of $76.5 million are up by less than 1% over last year, the municipal tax levy is rising by $4.3 million – a jump of nearly 11% — to $43.9 million, according to Firozvi’s calcuations.
How local school taxes and the town’s share of county expenses will factor into the overall local tax rate has yet to be played out.
Higher municipal costs, coupled with lower revenues, flattened the town’s ratable base, from $1,060,974,634 in 2013 to $1,053,625,518 – a dropoff of about $7.3 million.
Firozvi’s numbers show the town pumping out more spending, among other places, in such categories as: Fire Department salaries, with overtime, up by $494,000; Police Department salaries, with overtime, up by $230,000; health benefits, up by $250,000; anticipated water utility deficit, up by $482,000; civilian salaries, with overtime, up by $223,000; Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission fees, up by $125,000; and municipal debt service, up by $172,191.
On the other side of the ledger, the town’s N.J. Meadowlands Tax Sharing revenues are down by $100,713 and its surplus account is chopped in half to $2.4 million. And, according to Mayor Alberto Santos, its utility tax receipts remain frozen at $18.4 million – instead of the $24 million he says the town should be getting under a state funding formula.
As a desperation measure, Santos got the Town Council members to unanimously authorize applying to the state Local Finance Board for $3 million in transitional aid as a means of providing some measure of tax relief to local property owners.
Santos said that his administration has done all it can to contain local spending by reducing the number of town employees through attrition and by limiting pay hikes and benefits. “All that is not enough,” he said. “We’ve had difficult years before but this is the most challenging.”
The mayor ruled out resorting to “one-shot revenue” steps such as selling municipal assets to get money in the short term as wrongheaded.
And the town’s auditor Steven Wielkotz advised the governing body that the state has imposed restrictions on the town restructuring its debt by extending the payment period to take advantage of lower interest rates.
Santos said that if the town could make its case for the transitional aid, the hope would be to ease the tax pain a bit by limiting the municipal portion of a tax increase to about $70 on the average house.
If the town can’t get the aid, Santos said, “We’ll have public sessions to decide on our next step.” He said he couldn’t see the town laying off any workers, particular in the public safety area where the numbers of police and fire employees are already well below the levels set by town ordinance.
On Dec. 31, 2011, the town terminated four civilian employees and accepted the retirements of five others after having originally planned to sever 16 from the payroll during negotiations with Civil Service Local 11. Previously, the town achieved some savings by implementing “furlough” days for civilian workers. Threatened layoffs of police and fire employees went by the boards.
Still, even with all the financial uncertainty, the mayor and council managed to find some solace by swearing in two new police officers, Daniel Esteves and Jordenson Jean; and settled contracts, retroactively, with the town’s crossing guards and Civil Service 11 members, for 2013 and 2014, and exempt employees, for 2012, 2013 and 2014. (Annual pay increases were all for less than 1%.) They also voted to hire Claudia Calderon as a part-time provision social service aide in the Health Dept., effective March 12, at $11.11 per hour for 24.5 hours a week.
The police rookies have completed their six months of training at the Passaic County Police Academy and are now ready for action, Santos said.
Each officer will earn a starting pay of $41,282 a year and is eligible for a benefit package valued at about $15,000 apiece, Police Chief John Dowie said.
“I have every confidence that these men will fit right into the Kearny Police Department,” said Dowie.
Their inclusion now brings the total strength of the Police Department to 99, which is below the 120 level called for by the KPD’s Table of Organization, according to Dowie.
Esteves, a member of the Kearny Board of Education, is a graduate of Queen of Peace High School, North Arlington, who has attended Bergen County Community College and William Paterson University. Esteves’ dad, Fred, sits on the Kearny Planning Board and his uncle is the mayor.
Jean, a Newark resident who worked previously for Lab Corp., attended Union County Community College. Dowie disclosed that, “several hours after he graduated [from the Academy], he got engaged.”