By Ron Leir
Some good news for Kearny taxpayers: the town will be getting state transitional aid for 2014 and Mayor Alberto Santos said that means the anticipated hit for property owners won’t be as bad as expected.
How much that hit will be remained a bit murky, however, as The Observer went to press Monday. Santos and Town Council finance committee members were waiting for CFO Shuaib Firozvi to crunch the numbers to learn how the local municipal tax rate stands with the new revenue.
With the municipal budget introduced in March, an increase of about $4.3 million in local taxes was projected – an 11% hike – or about $417 on the “average” house assessed at about $95,000. As of last week, Santos was projecting “an increase of a little over 3%.”
The final numbers were expected to be made clear after the governing body amends the budget to include the additional revenue and authorizes sending out the tax bills for the last two quarters of 2014 and the first two for 2015. “Because we’re sending them out late this year, the August bills won’t be due until the end of August or early September,” the mayor said.
Kearny was notified July 11 by the state Division of Local Government Services that it could expect $2.5 million in transitional aid plus $500,000 to be applied to the budget as an employee pension contribution, according to Santos.
As of Friday, Harrison, which sought the same amount of transitional aid it got in 2013 — $1,950,000 – was still waiting for word from Trenton on the status of its application.
Other municipalities in the hunt for 2014 transitional aid included Paterson, $27 million; Newark, $25 million; Trenton, $22 million; Atlantic City, $20 million; Union City, $18,945,000; Camden, $15.5 million; Asbury Park, $3,932,500; Penns Grove (in Salem County), $900,000; and Beverly (in Burlington County), $303,300.
Getting the aid, Santos said, “enables us to preserve the municipal services residents expect, especially public safety, without placing an additional burden on taxpayers.”
Along with the aid, however, Kearny will have to accept fiscal oversight by a state monitor for all future hirings and major expenditures. “I welcome working with the state and if they can recommend improvements in financial management, we’re open to those,” the mayor said.
Santos said that since the town applied for aid in mid- March, he and Administrator Michael Martello “have been in regular contact” with Steven Ponella, assigned as Kearny’s state monitor and he expects that contact will continue “but it will not be a daily presence.”
Already, the issue of future Fire Department hirings has arisen: Fire Chief Steve Dyl has asked the administration to consider filling a captain’s slot to replace 27-year veteran Capt. Jerry Coppola, who retired, and Firefighter Mark McDermott (retired) and Firefighter Ian Kaneshigo (resigned; moved out of state).
Dyl told The Observer that the three departures leave the Fire Department four below the maximum number of captains allowed by ordinance and 17 short of the firefighter maximum.
Kearny’s aid application suggests that the town will be revisiting an approach to firefighting that has stirred controversy in the past. It says: “The Town of Kearny has set forth terms for a regional Fire Department with the Town of Harrison that would generate savings for Kearny. Kearny is seeking to reopen negotiations on a regional fire department.”
Asked if the state was insisting on establishment of a regional fire department as a pre-condition for granting transitional aid, Santos said he had no indication that was the case. When asked about the prospect for such a move on past occasions, Santos has said he won’t sign off on any plan that penalizes Kearny taxpayers.
Among the things the state monitor can review – and possibly veto – are municipal labor contracts and Kearny is scheduled to negotiate new contracts with the Civil Service Association’s Local 11, representing civilian workers, along with department/ assistant department heads/ confidential aides, whose contracts end Dec. 31. Agreements with public safety employees continue through 2015 and 2016.
Local 11 members were subjected to furloughs in 2011 and layoffs in 2012 but police and fire employees managed to avoid the same fate.