By Ron Leir
The Town of Harrison, which has received special state aid for the past five years – and, with it, the special attention of a state fiscal monitor – recently tried to disengage itself from that arrangement.
Sorry, not yet, was the state’s answer, according to Mayor James Fife.
“We asked to have our transitional aid shifted to our regular state aid,” Fife told The Observer last week, and, in so doing, have the state end its role of financial overseer.
However, Fife said he was told that because of administrative staff changes within the state Dept. of Community Affairs’ Local Government Services unit – and, in particular, the assignment of a new state monitor to Harrison – DCA needed more time to “evaluate” the town’s situation.
“Possibly it might happen by next year,” Fife said. “We felt we were ready but they didn’t.”
A state comptroller’s audit issued last year cited what the audit characterized as “weaknesses” in the town’s internal financial controls that resulted in health care premiums paid to dead employees plus “excessive” retiree sick leave, vacation and longevity payments, all between 2009 and 2011.
But Fife said that he and the town’s financial aides felt that Harrison had the tools to stand on its own now because, “we’ve done everything [the state] has asked us to do” [to remedy those issues] and because “we did a lot of those things on our own.”
Contained in the town’s 2014 budget message is this notation: “The budget appropriation in 2013 for health insurance was $7,202,000. The 2014 budget appropriation for health insurance was reduced to $6,136,000. This overall reduction [of] $1,066,000 includes a subsidy of $450,000 due to employee contributions as well as savings of approximately $616,000 resulting from negotiation a transfer to the New Jersey State Health Benefits Plan ….”
Fife added that the town will no longer be faced with the prospect of property tax hikes “of a couple hundred dollars a year,” nor has the town borrowed any money during 2014 “and we have no short-term loans” pending.
Councilman James Doran echoed the mayor’s confidence in Harrison’s fiscal future, saying that, “we’ve stabilized our budget, we’re not looking at any dramatic tax rate increases or increased water rates.”
Last year, town records showed that it needed an infusion of more than $400,000 to remedy a deficit in its water/ sewer budget “due to a large increase in the water billings from PVWC (Passaic Valley Water Commission).”
On the other hand, for the second year in a row, Doran said the town anticipates collecting new revenues from PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Tax) agreements from waterfront area developments such as the River Park apartment complex and the newly expanded Harrison Commons mixed-use development, with others either in construction or on the drawing board.
In the meantime, Fife said the town is still waiting to find out if it will be renewed for an allocation of state transitional aid. Last year, it received a total of $1.95 million to help stabilize its municipal budget. That was the same amount it got in 2013 and 2012. The town received $1.5 million in 2011 and in 2010.
While the town’s public safety rosters have been thinned in recent years due to retirements, Fife said that the state has nixed new hires except as replacements to fill vacated ranks and he said he’s currently waiting for approval to hire three cops.
Police Chief Derek Kearns said the HPD recently lost Officer Robert Villaneuva, (who came to Harrison PD from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office last year), when he accepted a firefighter job offer from North Hudson Fire & Rescue and another opening arose with the recent promotion of 19-year-veteran Paul Yarznbowicz to acting sergeant.
Sgt. Dave Strumolo, a 20- year member of the force, has been elevated to lieutenant, filling a spot vacated by Lt. William Waters, who retired Feb. 2 after serving 25 years.
Under the current police contract, base pay for lieutenant is $115,339 a year and base pay for sergeant is $109,670.