By Ron Leir
NORTH ARLINGTON –
After a lot of partisan wrangling, much of it behind closed doors, members of the North Arlington governing body walked away from their June 30 meeting, having failed even to introduce the 2014 municipal budget.
And, when the smoke had cleared, Mayor Peter Massa had scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday, July 8, at 7:30 p.m., to discuss estimated tax bills and budgetary issues, according to borough Business Administrator Stephen LoIacono.
Borough spokesman Tom Ammirato said that the administration’s proposed 2014 municipal budget stands at $21.3 million, of which $16.62 million would be raised by local taxation. Last year’s municipal budget stood at $20.18 million, supported by $15.15 million in local taxation.
Should those figures stand, he said, the local tax rate would increase by 6.3%, meaning that the owner of a house assessed at $300,000 would face a municipal tax hike of nearly $17 a month or about $200 a year.
Among the biggest budget increases projected were: reserve for uncollected taxes, up by $425,608, based on the collection rate; snow removal, up by $303,010, based on the harsh winter; debt service, up by $275,929, for principal payments coming due on bond anticipation notes; health benefits, up by $113,846, for increased costs; police salaries, up by $76,200, for full year of new officers; financial administration, up by $67,500, for contracted temporary staffing; and prior year bills, up by $61,147, for bills encumbered after year’s end.
Overall, the municipal budget, as now projected, is still below the state-mandated 2% cap, Ammirato said.
As of last week, Republican Councilmen Joseph Bianchi and Dan Pronti were upset with the proceedings on the budget.
Bianchi said: “I do not want the borough taxpayers to be hit with a 6% tax increase this year. Therefore, I think it is imperative that the entire governing body sit down, sharpen our pencils, and see if we can come up with a better budget for the taxpayers of North Arlington.”
Pronti said: “I volunteered to be a part of the finance committee back in January but Mayor Massa did not choose to allow me to contribute to his budget.
“When the proposed budget was sent to the council, there were quite a few items that caused me concern, but unfortunately, we never made it to the discussion phase of the budget while on the record at a council meeting, which is right after introduction. These items should not be discussed privately. They are for every resident to hear, and I don’t want to keep secrets from our residents.
“Not one councilman would second the motion to introduce Mayor Massa’s budget. If Al Granell, the council liaison to the finance board, had no faith in Massa’s budget, I obviously couldn’t support something that would raise the taxes of every homeowner in North Arlington. I have an obligation to do what is best for our residents.”
Asked why he didn’t vote for the budget’s introduction, Granell told The Observer, “I’m not going to vote for a budget that provides no relief to the taxpayer.” Granell said he invited council members to recommend cuts during the closed session and “they all said, ‘no.’ ’’
In a prepared statement released last week, Granell said that the borough has begun to “live within its means … getting old debt squared away and … securing [an improved] financial bond rating,” rewarded by North Arlington seeing “… the greatest increase in median home sales prices over the past 12 weeks than all other Bergen County municipalities except Alpine ….”
But more work remains to be done, Granell said. Yet, when the council was asked for suggestions on ways to reduce spending or when it was presented with “several options” to achieve cost reductions during the closed session, they were silent, he added.
Massa has proposed a combination of shared health and public works services with the county, shared court services with another community, and reduced operations of some departments, coupled with “furloughing employees a few days a month and offering early retirement packages to some other employees” as a plan for tax stability for the next two years and beyond.
“I don’t want to send anyone to the unemployment line, so if we can save some jobs by having people work less, it is better than not having them work at all,” Massa said.
The mayor also said he’d be “open to hiring a professional redevelopment consultant” to help market development potential of the borough’s meadows properties.