WAYNE, NJ — The proposed municipal budget for Wayne features a tax increase and the addition of four police officers. All present Township Council members voted Wednesday to introduce the proposed budget — except for one, as Council Member Al Sadowski and Mayor Christopher P. Vergano got into a dispute over the budgetary process.
The proposed budget features a 3-point tax increase, Vergano told council members. The budget accounts for increases in expenses and tax revenues from hotels not yet rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. If passed, Wayne would go from 116 police officers to 120.
The increase would raise municipal property taxes for the average Wayne household by $68.91, Vergano said. With the council voting 7-1 to introduce the municipal budget, the proposal is set to receive a final vote at the May 18 council meeting.
Disputes Between Vergano, Sadowski
Sadowski traditionally votes "no" on budget increases and did so again at Wednesday's meeting. The rest of the governing body voted "yes," except for Ward 6 Council Member Jonathan Ettman, who was absent.
But before the vote, Sadowski asked several questions that brought out some disagreements between him and the administration about the budget process and its the township's priorities.
First, Sadowski asked whether the township would hold a special budget meeting in which each department head would present to the council. When Vergano said officials hadn't planned to hold one, Sadowski — a fellow Republican — asked why.
"Because we drag eight people in here, you listen to them and then you vote no anyway," Vergano said. "So why would I drag all these employees out to tell their story, how they’re doing such a good job — and they all are. That’s why we hadn’t planned it."
Sadowski contended that residents may want to hear from the department heads, "because people don’t want to pay more taxes than they need to." Vergano responded that the administration still welcomes questions about the budget.
Next, Sadowski asked whether the administration would consider zero-base budgeting — a process in which all expenses must be justified for each new period, rather than using past budget history as a base. Sadowski said it would likely be too late for the administration to implement the process for this year, but he advocated for doing so in next year's budgeting process.
"We’ll look at all the buzz words you send us," Vergano said.
"It’s not a buzzword," Sadowski said. "It’s a best practice in budgeting, and there are council members that can speak more eloquently about zero-base budgeting than I. But it’s something I’ve been asking for for about 12 years, so it’s not a buzzword."
But zero-base budgeting would be difficult to implement in the public sector, responded Township Attorney Matthew J. Giacobbe. The "vast majority" of township employees are part of unions, which have multi-year contracts for pay and benefits, creating fixed costs the township must account for annually, he said.
Police Increase, But What About Zoning?
The proposed budget wouldn't add any positions to the township's payroll, besides four new police officers, according to Vergano.
"We want to keep Wayne a great place to live, work and raise a family," Vergano said. "We’ve seen the police department get extremely busy, so we believe we should add another officer to each patrol shift."
The increase in police is welcome, Sadowski said. But the council member said they should consider adding staff — even part-timers — to help alleviate the township zoning officer's workload in dealing with zoning violations.
"All these suggestions have gone unanswered for multiple years," Sadowski said. "The safety of our residents is important, but so is their quiet enjoyment and the property values that come from having a more proactive zoning policy."
Vergano responded that Sadowski could push to add the position and try to get a council majority to approve it.
"We’d be more than happy to listen and see if you can get five members to add that additional person and raise taxes to do it," Vergano said.
The proposed budget also features a $320,000 increase for garbage collection. The pandemic-caused increase in people working from home has significantly increased Wayne's trash output, and the township pays its garbage contract by the ton, Vergano said.
Additionally, Vergano noted a $160,000 increase to cover health insurance, $60,000 more for worker's compensation and an $80,000 increase for liability insurance. Other factors for the budgetary increase include surges for costs of fuel and supplies, along with the continuing financial impacts of the pandemic. The cost of interest of investments would decrease by $298,000, according to Vergano.
"We’re still feeling the effects of COVID," Vergano said. "Our hotel revenues are way down – we get a little tax on that. Fortunately, our reserve for uncollected taxes is not bad at all, considering the economy that we’re under."
Watch Wednesday's full Township Council meeting below: