If the testimony Montclair’s [township] council heard last night from Community Services Director Steve Wood and Police Chief David Sabagh about their departments’ capital spending needs over the next two years is any indication, Montclair faces huge challenges to get our budget and debt under control while addressing our neglected roads, parks, first-response equipment and other important infrastructure.
Mr. Wood says we urgently need new two new trash trucks at $235,000 each and will need them whether we outsource sanitation next year or not. Why? Because, according to Mr. Wood, most of the trucks in Montclair’s sanitation fleet are more than 20 years old, twice their useful life. We’re actually spending thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars per truck in maintenance costs just to keep them on the road. Montclair never should have let the problem get so bad that we can’t wait to make a decision until a new Council can fully explore outsourcing.
Our For Montclair slate — Harvey Susswein for Mayor, Tim Barr for At-Large Council, Bill Hurlock for First Ward, Walter Springer for Second Ward and myself for Third Ward — has promised to obtain competitive bids to outsource sanitation. If we don’t outsource, we’ll need to buy a lot more new (or less-used) trucks in the coming years to replace a fleet that’s so old we can’t keep it on the road. That’s one reason why outsourcing has to be on the table, but we have to do it right to avoid price increases once the initial contract ends.
Mr. Wood listed other vehicles and equipment his department wants to buy, but many of these items suggest we should be having a much broader discussion about outsourcing and shared services. Essex County workers service traffic lights on county roads in Montclair, while Montclair workers service lights on township roads.
Can’t we contract with Essex County, or them with us, to reduce duplication? Rather than buying a new traffic line-painting machine for the relatively few jobs where we don’t have contractors do this work, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to borrow or rent a neighboring town’s machine? If we must buy one, can we buy it in cooperation with other towns and share it? Do we really need to spend $60,000 on a new HVAC system for the animal shelter, when Montclair really should be closing that uneconomic shelter and finding a better option? Meanwhile, our roads aren’t being repaired.
According to Mr. Wood, the Township Engineer has compiled a list of the worst 10 stretches of road in Montclair and found that the total cost of fixing them would exceed $8 million, which Montclair obviously doesn’t have. So, we’re stuck just with fixing “the worst of the worst” in 2012 and 2013. Most residents will be disappointed. The next Council is simply going to have to go out and fight for more state and federal highway money. We’re not getting our fair share now, and we can’t afford to fix our streets just with township money.
Police Chief Sabagh also presented his department’s capital needs. Tops on the list is replacing our 911 system, which is so old that the manufacturer won’t service it anymore. Once we make this investment, which definitely constitutes a pressing need, the next Council must try harder to regionalize our 911 and dispatch systems with a few of our neighbors. Not yet in the capital budget is the necessary fix to our police officers’ radios, which now receive interference from digital TV stations and may not work in emergencies.
For Montclair highlighted this problem in our position statement on police and fire, and Councilor Roger Terry, now running for Essex County Sheriff, was absolutely right to press Chief Sabagh last night about when the fix is coming.
The answer was “soon,” but it will be expensive. In conjunction with other towns whose police are affected by this problem, we should be researching possible legal claims against our service providers or the TV stations, to see if we can cause them to share these costs with us. Of course, these are just a few of the issues presented by only two of Montclair’s operating departments at a single Council meeting.
Montclair is facing a host of challenges in all departments, but we cannot raise taxes or overall spending to meet them. The only option is real reform, and for that, we need new members of Council who have the commitment and experience to make it happen.