With the April 24, 2017 budget vote deadlocked at two votes for (Franzen, Brown) and two votes against (Barton, Yates), the attention turned to Mayor Steven Lee to cast the decisive vote. He anguished about it for about five minutes and spoke about his unhappiness with the budget. But he voted for it anyway, joining committee members Brown and Franzen, in raising the municipal tax levy two cents.
Mayor Lee wasn’t the only unhappy person in the room. Members of the public who had to endure the Committee’s lack of discussion and unresponsiveness for six meetings were also unhappy to see the committee’s inability to modify the budget.
Only Committeeman Barton raised substantive questions and comments when the budget was first introduced on February 13. Over the next five meetings, questions from the public went unanswered. During the public hearing on April 24, responses to public questions were thin, reflecting the lack of previous discussion and the rush to take a vote.
The end result was an insufferably, clumsy budget hearing.
Mayor Lee was so anguished because, as the budget process dragged to the final vote, he and everybody else realized that there hadn’t been enough discussion to make substantive changes.
There were obvious revenue and expense items which were ripe for discussion when the budget was introduced on February 13. It certainly looked like the tax increase could be reduced by, at least, one cent. But these items were barely, if ever, discussed.
Sadly, by the April 24 hearing, the committee believed that these changes would trigger re-advertisement, which would delay adoption and affect the mailing of the tax bills. In actuality, they still had time to schedule a special meeting to discuss and vote on the budget, as they did last year.
The April 24 budget discussions largely concerned three items: the new public works facility, employee raises and the Tabernacle Rescue Squad revenue. Each of these should have been discussed, in depth, during the 10-week budget period to insure that they were resolved in the best way. Leaving them undiscussed or partially discussed until April 24, was a recipe for failure. Each item is discussed below.
Public Works Facility
The capital budget had approximately $500,000 for a land purchase for an unrealistic, largely secret and poorly thought out plan for a new public works facility.
The Committee had never publicly analyzed the needs for or discussed the construction of a new public works facility. The only work that was related to a needs analysis was a brief report on short-term and long-term space needs that Committeeman Franzen presented in December 2013. He described the report as a “working document” that needed discussion with the township committee and the general public. No other work was done on the report and there was no further discussion by the Committee or the general public. The report said nothing about purchasing land for the construction of a new public works facility.
After the 2017 budget was introduced with money for the land purchase, I questioned whether the property that the Township wanted to buy was properly zoned for a municipal facility. Administrator Doug Cramer later confirmed that it wasn’t.
When the property that the committee was considering became unfeasible, Township Engineer Dante Guzzi was tasked, without any public discussion, to do a conceptual plan for two properties that the township already owned. These were the old squad building property (aka community center) across from the fire station and part of the fire station property.
The plan required the demolition of the community center. Mr. Franzen’s report called for this building to be a “home for any local volunteer organization wishing to locate there.” The township had already spent approximately $10,000 to repair and maintain the old Squad building and convert it into a community center.
Many times during the budget process, the committee was asked how the elimination of the proposed $500,000 land purchase would change the budget. Committee members listened but never answered.
At the April 24 hearing, the committee was again told that it was doing its capital planning backwards. It was budgeting money for a project that wasn’t sufficiently analyzed or planned. The public works facility wasn’t a real project and had no real estimated cost. There was no reason to budget any money for it. The committee was simply raising tax money for the idea of a public works facility.
It wasn’t until the April 24 budget hearing that the committee got around to discussing the elimination of the $500,000 line item from the capital budget. But the township auditor said that its elimination would require re-advertisement of the budget.
The 2017 budget includes funds for two percent raises for township employees. Committeeman Barton reported that, based on the NY/NJ Cost of Living Index (CLI), the proposed raise would exceed the cost of living index. Mr. Cramer answered that the Wilmington/Philadelphia CLI indicated that Tabernacle’s raises were appropriate.
Because this was the only discussion about the CLI, and it came on the night of the budget vote, there wasn’t time to determine which CLI was most appropriate and what the appropriate raise should be.
Committeeman Barton also raised the possibility of giving raises based on employee performance instead of giving every employee the same raise. Under a performance-based system, each employee would get a minimum raise and the best performing employees would get a larger raise.
Committeewoman Brown commented that a similar idea was tried in the past and it raised legal issues. But again, because this was not discussed until the night of the hearing and the final vote, there wasn’t time to address the issue thoroughly.
Tabernacle Rescue Squad Revenues
On the revenue side of the budget, the Committee was asked multiple times why it didn’t get revenue from service organizations who receive substantial public subsidies, but also charge fees to people who used their services. The TRS is the prime example; the Tabernacle Athletic Association is another.
Tabernacle’s payments to the TRS are so large that they enable it to build it’s own surplus. Tabernacle gives TRS the rent-free use of the $4 million dollar Emergency Services Building (ESB), while taxpayers spend over $250,000 annually to pay off the bond that funded its construction.
The committee also gives the TRS free fuel, free insurance and a cash contribution of $35,000 annually to cover the cost of uncollected insurance billings. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Tabernacle gave TRS $70,000 per year, which was twice the actual cost of uncollected billings and let the TRS keep the extra. On top of all that, the township lets the TRS keep all of the insurance billings, which are, at least, $250,000 annually.
At the April 24 meeting, Committeeman Barton pointed out that when the committee dissolved the fire district, it took revenues, which it used to balance the township budget. He then said that the committee should do the same with the TRS. This long-overdue idea came too late to be acted on in the 2017 budget.
It takes time to thoroughly discuss a proposed budget. Some townships devote special meetings or multiple special meetings to this process. Last year, the committee had several discussions of the 2016 budget, which included opportunities for public participation.
Not this year. Tabernacle’s 2017 budget adoption process was miserable and unhappy.
In Other News
Committeewoman Kim Brown was appointed by Mayor Lee to do the needs analysis for the new public works facility. This appointment came about because members of the public kept pointing out that the committee was spending money planning new public facilities without understanding what the township needed. Committeeman Barton gave an excellent summary of how this process should work.
Usually, needs analyses are done by professionals who are trained in building design and site layout, such as architects. Let’s hope that Committeewoman Brown does a better job than she did on the dissolution of the fire district and produces a substantive written report, which will be meaningfully discussed at a public meeting.
The next township meeting will be held May 8, 2017, at 7:30 PM, at town hall.