Township Manager Marc Dashield told a small group of Montclair taxpayers to think of their town as a medical patient. In 2009, the idea was to stop the bleeding—and then the idea was to move on to triage. "And now we're doing the treatment," he said.
To prove just how dire Montclair's financial situation has been, he noted that $2.1 million was paid out as a result of tax appeals in 2010.
"[Part of] the surplus that we usually [have on hand] had to be used to pay for this which means we went from having a surplus of $1.5 million to having a surplus of $800,000," he said.
That was just one dismal fact presented by Dashield as he discussed the implications of the proposed 2011 Township budget at a forum Monday evening sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Montclair area.
Dashield started his talk by speaking of the reason why a 0% tax increase is most likely impossible: fixed costs.
He said that fixed costs—such as insurance and pensions—make up $40 million of the proposed $70 million budget.
In addition, the Township's already operating with a "skeleton" staff, getting by with a workforce reduced by 40 people since 2009.
"We have had to cut $2.3 million in fixed costs," he said. "This is why we're in this crisis."
The impact of budget cuts already is being felt in many ways, Dashield said, noting that the repercussions include an older workforce picking up trash.
"We have an older workforce because of layoffs and so we have more people getting hurt and this is having an impact," he said, adding that the Township is forced "on some days to do single-source recycling."
Although extreme fire and police layoffs have not occurred, he said that each year the workforce in these departments is being reduced because people who retire aren't being replaced.
"This year we're losing a captain and a lieutenant and a sergeant," he said.
Dashield's proposed budget cuts $800,000 from the library and also reduces the code enforcement staff by 40 percent and the engineering department staff by 30 percent.
"People say 'why don't we reorganize the town and the way it's run?' ... but we are reorganizing the government every day," he said.
Striking a more optimistic note, Dashield also expressed enthusiasm for the South Park Street renovation project that was recently approved.
Dashield added that developers have expressed interest in building a hotel in downtown Montclair.
"We've got the greatest business district I've seen anywhere," he said.
But, Dashield admitted, the Township needs to start really getting to work on these improvements and then "connecting" those improvements.
"If there's a new hotel and new business along South Park Street then this will benefit everyone," he said.
When asked about parking, and the loss of some spaces due to the South Park Street project, Dashield said there are always places at the Fullerton Deck, adding that the Township is "looking at making improvements there."
Turning to the property revaluation, he reassured the group that the process could be completed by the end of this year.
"It's not a full revaluation in that [assessors] don't visit every house but they visit a certain number of houses in town," he said. "We need to adjust the whole base in this town."
When asked what he thought of the recent report by the Operating Budget Advisory Committee—a committee of residents appointed by the Township Council to examine the budget—Dashield said he found it "reassuring."
"The things they are talking about are things we're already looking at," he said. "The basic report showed that we're pretty much on the same page."
Finally, when asked what he'd do if—hypothetically—he found a check for several million dollars on his desk in the morning, Dashield said he'd use the money to stabilize the surplus, put more money back into the library, and give a boost to a struggling Department of Community Services.
"The real way to deal with our problems is to promote economic development," he said. "We need to bring in more commercial ratables."