HOWELL – Members of the Howell Township Council may discuss the possibility of consolidating municipal departments and laying off employees after failing to introduce the 2018 budget on March 20.
The council has scheduled a special budget meeting for tonight, March 28.
On a motion to introduce the budget on March 20, Councilman Bob Walsh voted yes, while Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell, Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro and Mayor Theresa Berger voted no. The 3-1 vote kept the municipality’s new spending plan on the shelf.
Councilman Pauline Smith was absent from the meeting.
Howell’s 2017 budget totaled $48.14 million and was supported by a local tax levy of $26.34 million.
A worksheet provided by officials indicated the 2018 budget that was under consideration that evening totaled $51.35 million, but did not indicate how much money would be raised in local property taxes and council members did not reveal that amount during their discussion.
Nicastro explained why he could not vote for the budget as it was presented that evening.
“Although this budget is a responsible budget because we are still continuing to provide the services we have to provide, for me the only way to continue a conversation is to not introduce this budget,” he said.
Nicastro said the council members have not had a conversation about consolidation and shared services.
“As responsible as this budget is, the tax levy is still going up and if we continue on this path I do not see how it is sustainable in this town. So until we engage in other conversations on how we are going to fix that, I cannot support introducing this budget,” Nicastro said.
O’Donnell said, “I realize some of the costs are fixed, but we are looking at health costs of ($25,000 to $27,000) per employee and that is our portion … so when we look at numbers we have no control over, we need to do something desperately drastic to the numbers we can control.”
She said officials do not want to cut services and said her hope is that they do not have to do so.
“We definitely need to reform, rethink and re-digest what we really need to do to make this budget palatable,” O’Donnell said.
Walsh said he would vote no to any budget that does not fund a new police contract and an agreement with the Howell K-8 School District Board of Education to split the $300,000 cost of Class III special law enforcement officers in the township’s schools.
He said the cost of doing business is going up.
“Unless you tell me where you want to drastically cut costs, the cost of doing business is going up. The only place to really cut costs in a drastic fashion is by consolidating departments or by eliminating employees, which is going to eliminate services,” Walsh said.
Walsh said that years ago the council stopped outsourcing legal services and hired an in-house attorney, and he said the savings achieved by making that change is about $250,000 a year.
“We got rid of the Recreation Department seven or eight years ago. People complained, but I do not think one child or adult has not played lacrosse, hockey, volleyball, baseball or football” because of that decision, the councilman said.
Walsh said when officials eliminated health and human services expenses, Howell saved $400,000.
“Our police department is seven (officers) under what it was in 2007; just the cost of doing business goes up, and unless people want to talk about merging services with either the county or other towns, or eliminating employees, where are you going to get the money from?” he asked.
Walsh asked Berger where she stands on the budget. The mayor said she thought this year was a much better budget than 2017.
“So I thought long and hard, I actually think it was a much better budget than last year, I was extremely surprised, I actually compared them when I reviewed both of them. I have to say we are still going up and that is a concern for me,” Berger said.
“We are going to have to do something, whatever it is. If we want to have some tough conversations about consolidating departments, about eliminating employees, then let’s get after it, let’s not play cat and mouse,” Walsh said.
“I do not suspect we are going to be able to cut enough out of this budget to get a flat tax levy, that is not going to happen. What I am saying is that at some point, something has to drive this conversation and by there not being a vote tonight, hopefully that is driving this conversation,” Nicastro said.