Council approved moving forward with potentially borrowing another $1.5 million to pay for successful property tax appeals (which could amount to approximately $3.35 million this year), making improvements for the town wading pool that at more than $260,000 are more than double previous estimates, and expanding a contract that more than triples last year’s cost of reverse-911 service at the March 25, 2014, meeting.
A council majority approved two ordinances on second and final reading, one to create a director of staff operations position and the other to create a second deputy police chief position. On first reading, council approved an ordinance to restrict temporary commercial sign advertising that’s done without the property owner’s permission.
In addition, council approved a contract for the municipal prosecutor, nearly $242,000 in transfers among 2013 budget lines, renewal of a $135,000 contract for landscaping services, a $318,706 competitive low bid for road work on Yale and Harvard terraces, and a no-bid $34,000 contract for unarmed security for municipal court.
The town has been inundated with millions of dollars in successful property tax appeals in recent years. Although the town budgets $600,000 annually to fund repayment, the town has faced a choice of borrowing or cutting other areas of spending to cover these larger amounts. In January, council approved an administration request that would set the stage for a potential vote to borrow $1 million to fund appeals. The resolution at the March 25 meeting adds another $500,000 to that amount.
During the meeting, Chief Financial Officer John Gross said the town funded $3.35 million in successful tax appeals last year – and he expected approximately the same amount in 2014. He added, however, that the pace of tax appeal filings ahead of the April 1 deadline was lower than in recent years.
A council majority approved 4-1 an administration proposal for a construction project at the town Ginny Duenkel facility, where the wading pool project’s cost keeps increasing. When the project was first proposed early last year, the work was estimated to cost no more than $120,000. The capital budget was amended later that year to allocate $143,201 for the project, according to an e-mail to the council on February 10, 2014, from Town Engineer Leonard Lepore. In the same e-mail, Mr. Lepore revised the estimated project cost to $159,000.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Lepore said the project didn’t move forward last year because the site survey required revisions to the plan because the original design wouldn’t fit the space. He also attributed the inaccurate project costs to the engineering firm, Integrated Aquatics Engineering of Doylestown, Pa. He said the town would not use the firm for project oversight.
In a resolution added late Friday to the meeting agenda, the administration asked approval for a competitive low bid (received February 19) of $227,723 to Cypreco Industries of Neptune for the work. The project is described as a partial reconstruction of the existing wading pool, the creation of a contiguous splash pad, and the addition of six splash toys.
When added to previously approved design work of $12,800, plus $19,352 for the toys, and an additional amount previously allocated to site work, the total cost is now well in excess of $260,000 with Mr. Lepore’s statement that the town will handle project oversight as well as construction of an 18-inch, 50-foot retaining wall planned just west of the wading pool. The administration is planning to apply an expected $150,000 county open space grant to help pay for the project. (This would actually represent a return of funds, since property owners in all Essex municipalities pay a county open space tax.)
Bill Kehoe, head of the town’s recreation department, said he had arranged for funding of the toys to come from the Colgate Foundation. He also said that the contractor had earlier that day reduced his proposed alternate bid for a full reconstruction of the existing wading pool from $40,000 to $30,000. (The resolution before the Council called for approval of the contract without this provision.) Mr. Kehoe said he would be able to obtain another $15,000 from the Colgate Foundation for the work, reducing the town’s net outlay to $15,000. Administration officials said they believed the additional work could be handled through a change order without violating state law on competitive bidding that requires all bidders to have equal opportunity.
Plans to allow children from toddlers up to age 10 to use the facility, as well as the splash pad’s crowded footprint, raised questions about safety. In answer to questions about the reduction of the number of nearby tables and benches to accommodate the new pool, Mr. Kehoe said reductions, if any, would be minor. He pointed out that hedges that ran along the eastern edge of the wading pool fronting a wall down to the lower table area had been removed and that tables would be relocated there, with a railing installed along the wall. He also said lifeguards would keep the older and younger children separated in their designated sections of the splash pad/wading pool.
I voted against the proposal for a number of reasons, including safety issues between younger and older children in the confined space, as well as the cost of both the total project and the town’s portion of more than $100,000 even after grants. I believe the grant could be better spent fixing up town athletic facilities that would positively impact many more residents.
Council approved the administration’s request for a 72% increase in a no-bid annual contract to $27,500 for reverse-911 communication from Emergency Communications Network (ECN) of Ormand Beach, Fla. The existing contract provided emergency services for $16,000; the addition of non-emergency services was $11,500 more. (By adding the old and new amounts together, I incorrectly said in my preview blog post of the meeting that the total cost of the service would increase to $43,500 with this contract. The resolution was unclear on this point, and the administration did not send me the proposed contract as requested. The administration clarified the total value of the service at the meeting.)
In December, the council approved an administration request for an annual contract with ECN for emergency communications for $16,000. That amount was up 83% from $8,742 in 2013. Town Chief Financial Officer John Gross attributed the increase to ECN’s acquisition of the town’s previous vendor, and he said the new system had more features and was easier to use.
In response to my questioning at the December 17, 2013, meeting, Mr. Gross said that he expected the town would continue to use the system as it had in the past for communications that might not meet the strict definition of emergency under the contract. (For example, the town has used reverse-911 to call nearby residents for town-directed community meetings.) He said he was exploring alternatives for non-emergency communications, which he said had more reasonable costs.
At the March 25 meeting, Mr. Gross said his recommendation to expand the ECN contract was based on conducting further research and on his experience with these services at his previous position. The 2014 cost of the service is now more than three times the 2013 cost. While I’m concerned at the significant increase in the 2014 cost, I voted for the resolution after Mr. Gross’s assurances that this is the most cost-efficient solution he found through his research.
Council also approved a proposed 2014 contract with the town prosecutor, Robert Candido. The contract indicates he will receive a flat $1,000 per week for services. The position was budgeted at $38,400 in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, the position was paid at least $51,000, or 33% over budget. In 2013, the position was paid at least $64,100, 67% over budget. In the 2014 budget as introduced, the position is allocated $61,440.
Mr. Gross said at the meeting that the budget overages were the result of an increase in court sessions in this time period that boosted Mr. Candido’s compensation based on the previous per-day fee. He said the weekly fee under the contract would reduce and simplify the cost, although he was projecting a higher 2014 cost because of the per-day fee in effect in the first months of the year.
Council approved the administration’s request to shift funds among 2013 budget lines to cover overages. The largest transfers were to:
- Central Automotive, $90,000
- Public Works salary and wage, $71,778
- General Liability Insurance, $38,123
- Medical Transport Billing, $16,352
- Park & Playground salary and wage, $10,179
A council majority approved 4-1 the administration’s proposed ordinance to create a director of staff operations position promoted as part of an effort to consolidate the management structure and increase efficiency. Police Chief James Abbott was identified as the candidate for the position during the March 1 budget hearing.
At the March 11 council meeting, administration officials said the ordinance was designed to give management authority across departments to this position. At the March 25, Mayor Robert Parisi said the position would actually focus on management of the Public Works department to replace Town Engineer Leonard Lepore as head of the unit.
I voted against the ordinance for a number of reasons, including a lack of specifics on the need, solution, goals, planned compensation, planned length of the management change, and metrics of both the challenge and position.
A council majority approved 4-1 the administration’s other proposed ordinance to create a second deputy police chief position. Earlier this month, Michael Corcoran was promoted from captain to become the only deputy chief at an annual salary of $139,269. While the 2nd position was promoted by administration officials at the March 11 meeting as a placeholder that would allow flexibility if the need to fill the role arose, Mayor Parisi said at the March 25 meeting that he planned to fill the position shortly.
I voted against the ordinance for a number of reasons, including the insufficiency of the justification to fill the role when we have operated without a deputy chief in recent years and also the impact of higher compensation costs.
On first reading, council approved an ordinance to restrict business-related temporary sign advertising that’s done without the property owner’s permission. Fines would range up to $1,250 per day, and the funds would go into an account to fund enforcement of the ordinance. The proposal is based on a recent law enacted by the state legislature. The ordinance will have a hearing where the public can comment at the April 8 council meeting.
Other resolutions approved by council included:
- Renewal of a $135,000 contract for landscaping services for town property to D’Onofrio and Son Landscaping of Maplewood. This would be the second year of the contract following a low competitive bid.
- Approval of a $318,706 competitive low bid for road work on Yale and Harvard terraces to A&J Contractors of Monroe Township. A state Department of Transportation grant of $200,715 will partially offset the cost to the town.
- Approval of a two-year, no-bid $34,000 contract for unarmed security for municipal court to Abbrey Security of Clifton. The town has used the company since 2007.
- Placing a lien of $1,943 on the Select-O Flash property at 18 Central Avenue to pay for boarding up the building, which was determined to be abandoned and a hazard.
- Renewal of a no-bid contract for grant writing services to Alicia Skinner for $28,000. Ms. Skinner’s 2013 report indicates grants she managed produced $263,778 for the town.
- Transfer of a developer’s agreement between the town and Colonial Woods LLC to RNC Developers for unimproved land known as Colonial Woods North. The property is north of Warren Road and the extension of Nance Road and Colonial Woods Drive. The agreement gives RNC until the end of 2017 to complete construction of homes, mandating no performance bonding until two years after project work begins.
- Award of an $8,110 land-survey contract for the Luddington Road Sanitary Sewer project to Suburban Consulting Engineers of Mount Arlington. The award followed a request for proposals from four firms.
If you’d like to contact the council with your thoughts on any of these issues, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973.325.4155 to leave a message.
I’m a West Orange Township councilman since 2010, reachable at email@example.com. I'm a business communications consultant in my spare time.