WOODBRIDGE – Funding for studies addressing people with mental health issues and their interactions after a call to police – and to review government policies – are in direct correlation to discussions with members of the Woodbridge Youth for Liberation and Equity community organization, township officials said.
“It’s not something we thought about in the beginning of the budget process,” Mayor John E. McCormac said. “We did it based on people’s input to us.”
Some $200,000 has been allocated in the Fiscal Year 2020 municipal budget for the mental health study and $436,701 has been allocated in professional services, which include expenses for township labor attorneys to review government policies and bring in specialists if needed.
The Township Council held a public hearing and final adoption of the $234.67 million municipal budget at a meeting on Oct. 27. McCormac said the township normally introduces the budget in July. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the mayor said they took advantage of the state’s two month extension of all budget deadline dates. The budget was introduced on Sept. 29.
“Fortunately, the township has always had a strong financial foundation, which has helped us overcome some issues related to the coronavirus,” he said. “The township finished Fiscal Year 2019 with a $25 million surplus. In 2020, we maintain the same surplus despite all the challenges we face. We suffered some revenue shortfalls in categories like hotel taxes, municipal court fines and licenses, but we were able to offset those with excess revenues in areas like building permit fees and interest income.”
McCormac said the pandemic put a strain on the appropriation side of the budget.
“We had significant overtime expenses and additional item costs of personal protective equipment [PPE] to keep our employees and residents safe,” he said. “Fortunately many of these were covered largely by allocations from the [federal] CARES Act. We did not have to resort to furloughs or layoffs of our many full-time employees, but did eliminate significant part-time hours that were not needed because Town Hall and other locations were closed.”
McCormac said the township’s economic development efforts to attract new businesses to the township has provided the township with a steady stream of income from PILOTS (payment in lieu of taxes), which offset a small reduction in collections from individual residents who were negatively impacted financially during the pandemic.
The 2020 budget supports a 1% increase to the Woodbridge Police Department budget, which includes the hiring of five police officers with the goal of a complement of 215 police officers by fiscal year 2022. The plan is to increase the department by five officers every year until then.
“We had put plans on hold when COVID-19 hit,” McCormac said. “We saw some of our revenues decline, but at the same time we saw expenses increase so we waited until the year was out and the books were closed. We realized we still finished the year with about a $25 million in surplus so we decided to continue on with our plan to add five officers this year.”
The budget also supports capital funds for the roads paving program, vehicle and equipment maintenance; and the township continues to provide more playground and recreational equipment and senior programs.
Woodbridge officials will collect $102.82 million in taxes from Woodbridge’s residential and commercial property tax owners in 2020 to help fund the municipal budget.
The municipal increase is from fiscal 2020 budget year to fiscal 2021 budget year since the budget year ends on June 30. The average increase per house valued at the township average of $75,000 is $57 per year. The average homeowner will pay $2,321 in municipal taxes, McCormac said.
Members of the Woodbridge Youth for Liberation and Equity (WYLE) organization, a group of young people focused on taking action in Woodbridge Township to promote justice and liberation for all, have attended council meetings demanding justice in the township against racism. One of the demands include defunding the police, which officials said they did not agree with.
McCormac said in regards to racism, township officials can look at the towns’ operations.
“We can look at every single handbook, every single form, every policy, every practice, every script, everything we do to check if any bias, any discrimination against people because of race, because of gender, because of religion, sexual preference, disabilities … we need to do a soup to nuts evaluation,” he said.
McCormac said the township’s move on mental health issues and reviewing policies has been because of the people who have come to the meetings.
“I think we’ve acted very favorable to what has been brought to our attention,” he said.
McCormac said township officials will work with Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy and Rutgers Mental Health Services in New Brunswick to study the mental health issue. He said the outcome may be the implementation of a program similar to the township’s successful Peer Recovery Coach program for those suffering with addiction. The program was implemented in 2017.
Peer coaches in the Peer Recovery Coach program, who are usually in recovery themselves, make contact with the person, who was brought to a hospital after a Narcan deployment. They develop a relationship over several more visits where they help the person find the right kind of treatment for their addiction and become someone they can just talk to.
Dennis Green, director of the township’s Health and Human Services, said the goal of the mental health study is to divert mental health issues away from the police department and to make sure those with mental health issues get the professional help they need, not just the initial response from police.
Business Administrator Vito Cimilluca added the goal is to augment the police department’s initial call and to have some follow-up from the mental health standpoint to avoid recurring incidents and for people with mental issues to get the help they need.