South Orange is facing a $1.5M-plus shortfall in municipal revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown, and is asking municipal workers to forgo pay increases — plus making across the board cuts to capital projects and township programs.
At the April 27 Board of Trustees meeting, Village President Sheena Collum said that if workers did not agree to forgo an annual 2% pay increases for the next two years, the township would need to look at demotions, furloughs and layoffs and would be filing paperwork with the Civil Service Commission.
By Wednesday, April 29, Collum signaled that all non-contractual workers and most unions were working “in good faith” to come to an agreement. During the April 27 Board of Trustees meeting, Collum thanked non-contractual workers and the Superior Officers union of the South Orange Police Department for being the first to agree to forgoing salary increases.
“The board as a whole has decided that we are not going to kick the can and sit and wait to see what is coming from federal or state government,” said Collum on Monday night.
She detailed the $1.8M in revenue shortfall that the township is experiencing in every area — from court fines, to parking tickets, to the loss of construction fees, interest on investments, general fees and permits, summer camp fees, pool fees and a projected loss of $250K in summer tax collection.
“We are pretty trued up on what this budget will be,” said Collum.
The Village President detailed that the township was working to keep the tax levy increase at 3% or below, recognizing that residents were facing layoffs and hardship.
She reported that Finance Committee Chair Karen Hilton, and committee members Donna Coallier and Walter Clarke had worked with Village Administrator Adam Loehner and CFO Chris Battlaglia to slash programs across the board.
Items chopped included: removing close to $800K of planned capital improvements, cutting back on professional development, not renewing the general planning services contract, cost savings on code enforcement as well as police overtime and crossing guards due to schools being out, a reduction in public works overtime and part-time labor, and cutting recreation part-time employees – “If you’re not running the pool and camps, you’re not paying life guards or camp counselors.”
The Township is also cutting service level agreements with the South Orange Performing Arts Center, the South Orange Village Center Alliance, YouthNet, the Community Coalition on Race, and the Environmental Commission by 10% across all groups.
“Anything we can’t cut is putting that onto our taxpayer which is not acceptable,” said Collum who added, “We want to do everything to avoid layoffs and keep everyone gainfully employed.”
Regarding the 2-year freeze on automatic pay increases, Collum reported that, when Village Administrator Adam Loehner “met with all our department heads, they understood and agreed.” She added that Police Chief Kyle Kroll called the move “a no brainer. People are losing their jobs.”
Collum said the freeze would not remove increases for people moving up “steps” in seniority but that those increases would likewise see a 2% reduction (an 8% step would become a 6% step).
“We’re guaranteeing to keep jobs” with the freeze, said Collum, who said, as of Monday night, most unions had balked. “We shared with the unions what the cost would be should they refuse” — Collum said that would mean demotions, furloughs and layoffs.
Collum said that the township “did use our fund balance to [try to] fill the gap” as well as a “one-time asset sale.”
All six Trustees backed up the Village President.
Finance Committee Chair Karen Hilton said, “We are up against a wall. This is the way we have to proceed.”
Donna Coallier noted that ‘everywhere in the public sector, people are losing jobs, getting laid off, getting furloughed … the idea that we would look to forgo a 2% raise seems imminently reasonable. … By the way, we are not 100% there yet. We may be forced to do more. I wholeheartedly support what you propose.”
Walter Clarke was optimistic that all unions would ultimately agree: “I think unfortunately perhaps the unions are coming at this from the point of view of negotiation and not that the position we are coming from … of keeping the town moving. [This is] not the typical negotiations…. We’re trying to figure out that balance of cutting too much,” Clarke added that the township “got hit with this very quickly. I credit staff with turning on a dime quickly and trying to react in a reasonable way. We don’t know if this is the end. We are doing the best to plan for a great deal of unknown variables yet to come.”
Added Clarke, “I think to our benefit we have a pretty special community … but that means everybody’s going to have to deal with some discomfort.”
Trustees Bob Zuckerman, Summer Jones and Steve Schnall all agreed.
“Let’s be optimistic that the unions will step up,” said Collium, “and thanks again to the superior officers in the police department.”
Village Green will continue to follow this story.