Tabernacle’s 2019 Budget: Tax And Spend

2019 Budget. Tabernacle’s 2019 municipal budget was the main item for discussion at the April 8 committee meeting. Committee members again demonstrated that they would rather increase taxes than decrease spending or increase revenue. No belt tightening for this committee.

The committee directed Chief Financial Officer Rodney Haines to make final tweaks on a budget that would increase municipal taxes by about two cents. Mr. Haines previously announced that Tabernacle will require tax increases of about 3.8 cents every year for the next decade just to cover the debt service of Tabernacle’s bonds.

The 2019 two-cent tax increase will raise approximately $130,000. This, plus the use of some money that the township has in surplus, will balance the total municipal budget, approximately $4.7 million. The actual budget will be introduced at the April 29 meeting. Adoption is scheduled for May 28.

There are many items in the proposed budget where the committee could have closed the $130,000 gap without a two-cent tax increase or partially reduced the gap. Below are some of the low-hanging budget fruits that the committee didn’t pick.

The committee gives approximately $275,000 in insurance billing revenue to the Tabernacle Rescue Squad every year. Half of that amount would completely close the 2019 budget gap. Other townships that allow their EMS squad to do insurance billing take all or part of the revenues. Tabernacle should do this too. But in January 2019, the committee decided to let TRS keep all the money.

Another 2019 budgetary item for the TRS is a $30,000 cash payment to offset transport fees for Tabernacle residents who lack insurance. Another potential source of revenue is the rental of the Emergency Services Building. Taxpayers spend over $200,000 per year for the $4 million bond on the building. TRS uses the building for free, while earning a profit from its multi-township insurance billing business. (TRS is now required to pay for some ESB maintenance.)

The budget includes $20,000 for a public safety director position that is vacant and which the committee said multiple times that it has no intention of filling.

The budget also has $65,000 for the down payment of a $1.3 million dollar capital improvement budget. The $1,235,000 balance would probably be raised through more bonds. CFO Haines’s warning that Tabernacle’s bond load is so high that it will require tax increases of 3.8 cents every year for the next decade just to service the debt bears repeating. Why not trim the capital budget and reduce the $65,000 down payment?

The budget has $4,000 for iPads, which the committee is thinking of buying for itself. The idea is to reduce the amount of paper. Two committee members Joe Yates and Kimberly Brown didn’t even have a township email address in 2018. Committeemen Joe Yates and Sammy Moore don’t have township email addresses in 2019. If a committee member isn’t required to use an official email address, and three out of five committee members don’t have an official email address, then the use of $4,000 for iPads is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Township employees will automatically receive a 2% salary increase. In some cases, the increase is greater than 2%. (The budget is unclear about the salary increases for CFO Rodney Haines; construction office staff and the tax collector Kimberly Smith.) It’s time for committee members to reduce the salary increase.

The Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The 2019 budget includes a $13,000 increase for special legal support to handle OPRA work. A change in Tabernacle’s approach to OPRA is certainly needed. Tabernacle has lost every OPRA court case brought against it, that I’m aware of. It’s problems are totally self-inflicted.

The solution isn’t to hire more attorneys. The solution is for Tabernacle’s staff, professionals and committee members to comply with the law. It’s a mystery why Tabernacle hasn’t mastered OPRA compliance during the law’s 17-year existence or through the many training programs provided by the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey.

Tabernacle actually gets about 100 OPRA requests per year. This amount is a small fraction of the requests that neighboring towns get. Those townships don’t purchase special legal support. Why should Tabernacle?

Mayor Barton and Committeeman Yates commented that Tabernacle’s OPRA expenses would be less if requestors took their disputes to the Government Records Council (GRC) instead of to Superior Court. They’re mistaken. The GRC process still requires the township to have legal representation; is dramatically longer (which increases legal costs); and still shifts costs to the township if it has wrongly withheld public documents, which has always been Tabernacle’s problem. GRC cases can be more costly to townships than Superior Court cases.

Sequoia. The budget will include about $25,000 to maintain the Sequoia School in the event that Tabernacle decides to take over the building from the Tabernacle Board of Education. Some of this money will be gathered from other proposed line items, such as the salary for the non-existent public safety director and six-months of rent to Woodland Township for the shared court facility that won’t be operational until July. These moneys could also be cut to reduce the budget.

Budgeting $25,000 without having a plan is wasteful. Tabernacle has never thoroughly analyzed its need for space. Yet the committee has spent substantial tax money on improvements to the old squad building, (which it now calls an “albatross”) and engineering studies for the future use of the fire house site, the old squad building site, public works site and Sequoia.

At this point Sequoia has been empty for about two years and Tabernacle still doesn’t know if it has any real need for the building or what it would cost to renovate it to make it suitable for township use.

The committee isn’t actively engaged with the school district about the future use of Sequoia. Instead, the school district has told Mayor Barton that it intends to sell the property. So the building might not be available to Tabernacle Township at all. The $25,000 merely enables Tabernacle to maintain the building for one year if it decides to get involved later.

No committee member has asked if the school district has budgeted $25,000 for the maintenance of Sequoia in 2019. If the school district has, there’s no need for Tabernacle to include $25,000 in its budget.

This proposed expense is a last minute, unplanned and incomplete idea.

TAA. The budget also includes money for Tabernacle Athletic Association (TAA) expenses, beyond the township’s costs of maintaining the fields for TAA programs.

It’s time for TAA to pay its own expenses. Tabernacle residents pay for the health and accident insurance of all kids who participate in the TAA programs, regardless of whether they are Tabernacle residents or not. TAA then reimburses Tabernacle for the insurance costs of kids from other townships. TAA didn’t do this voluntarily. I had to point out how unfair it was for Tabernacle residents to pay for the insurance of non-Tabernacle kids.

There’s also no reason for Tabernacle residents to pay for a participant’s health and accident insurance. These are costs that are essential for participation and should be borne directly by the participants. The costs per person are modest. In 2016, the latest information available to me, the total premium was $3,971. That’s an average of $4.18 for each of the 950 participants that the policy was based on.

The TAA could cover these costs directly. TAA’s 2016 tax return (the most recent available) shows net assets of $116,845. These increased from $93,756 in 2015.

The TAA could cover its insurance costs by redirecting its “scholarship” money. Such a move would directly further TAA’s mission of “enriching the lives of children in the Tabernacle, NJ community through sports.” TAA currently gives about $3,500 per year to a few selected kids for their college education. Higher education is a worthy cause; but higher education is not TAA’s mission. TAA should do the job it was chartered to do. It should exclusively focus its resources on its sports programs. Giving money to a select few who are no longer active participants in TAA sports programs is just plain wrong.

TAA was supposed to pay for the snack stand but never did. Tabernacle residents shouldered all of these costs. TAA also doesn’t return any of the snack stand profits back to township residents. The costs of building the snack stand and TAA’s retention of the snack stand profits have direct bearing on our budget. There’s no reason why TAA can’t use snack stand profits for their insurance costs. It’s time for TAA to pay its own way.

”New” Workshop Format. The April 8, 2019 meeting was the third so-called “workshop” meeting of the year. There’s nothing special about a “workshop” meeting. It’s not an officially recognized type of public meeting. The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) doesn’t mention a “workshop” meeting. The term “workshop meeting” is just a label which implies that work is being done.

There were regular “workshop” meetings in prior years. They looked and sounded just like the non-workshop meetings. Committee members sat on one side of the long tables which faced the audience, just as they did at regular meetings. The only difference was that committee members dressed more casually for workshop.

In 2019, Mayor Barton changed the format of the “workshop” meetings. Now, the tables are arranged in a big solid square. Some staff now sits with their backs to the audience. As a result of the new table layout, it can be hard to hear everyone at the table. When this was raised, Committeeman Yates commented that as long as Clerk Barber can hear, he didn’t care.

Clerk Barber doesn’t have a problem hearing because the microphones send audio solely to her headphones and recorder. The audio system doesn’t amplify sound for anyone else.

Mayor Barton said that the tables would be rearranged into a horseshoe at future workshop meetings as the Land Development Board does. But he changed his mind about that later.

The “new” workshop format, like the old workshop and regular meeting formats, misses the spirit of what a public meeting should be. The governing body is required to have public meetings so that residents can see and hear how their public business is being conducted. It’s common sense, and a requirement of the Open Public Meetings Act, that public meetings aren’t just for the benefit of the township clerk, they’re held for the benefit of everyone in attendance and the public in general.

The committee could easily conduct open and effective public meetings without the fuss and bother of convening special “workshop” meetings. But it rarely did. The committee was notorious for discussing items outside of public meetings and using the public meeting as the setting for their public vote.

Typically, for example, the committee wouldn’t discuss items at first reading. Members would just cast a perfunctory vote to move the item along to a second reading and public hearing. Cursory discussions would sometimes happen at second reading. Sometimes they would raise issues that required the item to be tabled and returned to the drawing board. This wasted time and money, because re-advertisement would be required.

A recent example of this committee’s public meeting shortcomings is the pending ordinance to increase the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) limit on vehicles parked in residential zones. See TTJ of April 7, 2019.

The idea of the weight increase was raised at the February 11, 2019 workshop meeting by Zoning Official Tom Boyd. He explained that an ongoing dispute could be resolved by amending the ordinance to allow heavier trucks. He and Administrator Doug Cramer recommended increasing the GVWR from 12,500 pounds to 17,500 pounds.

Committee members asked few questions. They didn’t ask what the dispute was about. No one asked if this was a widespread problem in Tabernacle. No one asked probing questions about what kind of trucks would be allowed in residential zones if the weight limit was increased. No one suggested that the problem should be solved by enforcing the existing ordinance instead of amending it. Peter Lange offered to draft an ordinance for the next meeting; the committee concurred.

There was no discussion of the ordinance at first reading. Mr. Boyd wasn’t there. Mr. Cramer made no comments; neither did any committee members. They adopted the ordinance by a perfunctory 4-0 vote (Mr. Yates was absent).

The second reading and public hearing, occurred on March 25. Mr. Boyd didn’t attend. Two residents presented information that hadn’t been raised before, couldn’t be addressed at the meeting and caused the committee to question whether the increase in weight was a good idea. They tabled the ordinance.

The committee discussed the GVWR again at the April 8 “workshop” meeting. It wasn’t listed on the agenda. Anyone interested in the ordinance wouldn’t have known that the committee was going to discuss it. Mr. Boyd presented more information and addressed most of the issues raised by the public at the second hearing. But one new issue, how the GVWR was handled in other townships, required research. Mr. Boyd said he would look into how other townships handled GVWR.

The ordinance is now listed on the agenda for April 29 for second reading and public hearing. Logically, the results of the research should have been discussed publicly and prior to the re-introduction of the ordinance. After all, the ordinance should reflect whatever is learned from the research.

Practically, because the committee’s standard procedure is to discuss the ordinance after the public hearing, the public will not have heard the results of Mr. Boyd’s research until after the public hearing is closed. The public won’t have the benefit of Mr. Boyd’s research and will not be able to comment on it.

At the April 8, 2019 meeting, Mark LeMire praised the “new” workshop meetings.

Love the format, quite frankly, very informative. The normal meetings are so sterile.

The sterility of Tabernacle’s pubic meetings isn’t caused by the layout of the tables. Tabernacle has managed to have too many uninformative and nontransparent public meetings under lots of different formats.

Too bad Mr. LeMire didn’t comment years earlier about the quality of the public meetings. Maybe the committee would have focused more on substantively upping its game rather than focusing on the arrangement of its furniture and annually changing the opportunities for public comment at its meetings.

The next township meeting is April 29, 2019, at 7:30 PM, at town hall.