Council examines $118M budget

At least two more hearings to be held on the matter


The Edison Township Council held the first of a series of hearings on the proposed 2009 budget, a $188 million spending plan being pitched by Mayor Jun Choi that if adopted as is, would call for a 5 percent increase in property taxes.

The budget discussions took place at a special meeting on Sept. 17, during which time council members questioned representatives from the departments of public works, recreation, engineering and health, as well as the municipal courts.

Council President Robert Diehl said that hearings would continue during the council work session meeting on Sept. 22, with the remainder of the department heads being questioned at a date to be determined later.

Before the individual department heads came before the council to speak, Choi introduced the document through a short statement in which he called attention to the lower than usual tax increase as well as an anticipated $1.5 million revenue from development firm Hartz Mountain, contingent upon final site plan approval for the massive Ford site redevelopment.

The only spending increase beyond the rate of inflation, the mayor said, was funding for Bridges, an after-school program for local youths that works as an alternative to joining gangs. The reason for this, he said, is that the 10-year federal grant that had previously fueled the program had run out, but that demand for it was still very strong.

The first to testify before the council was Judge Gary Price, who spoke for the municipal courts, for which the budget recommended $581,621 for salaries and wages and $90,813 for other expenses. Last’s year’s budget figure for this department was $530,376 for salaries and wages, $97,895 for other expenses.

Price talked about the court system and how its three judges and nine full-time employees handle around 1,200 to 1,500 tickets a month. He said the courts were requesting additional security items and a better speakerphone so they can dial interpreters in court rather than having to pay to bring them in.

During questioning, Price noted that the increases in salaries and wages presented in the budget are part of the collective bargaining agreement with the township.

Councilwoman Antonia Ricigliano asked what Price meant when he said “security measures.” Price replied that he was referring to metal detectors as well as a possible renovations to have the police department entrance be set outside the courtroom.

John Grun, director of the township Health and Human Services Department, spoke next. The budget this year recommended a little less than a combined $1.9 million for salaries and wages for each division in the department, along with $305,813 combined other expenses. Last year’s budget gave about $1.756 million in combined salaries in wages and $286,997 in other expenses.

Grun said that the department had received “woefully inadequate” support from the federal government, especially from Homeland Security. He requested that the township increase license fees and allow the department to hire an assistant health officer to complete the organization, as well as fill a part-time clerk position that is currently vacant.

Much of the discussion during the department’s testimony focused on the Bridges program, which program Director Lisa Gulla spoke to the council about. She said the program is still in high demand from local residents and that in the nine years it has been implemented, it has shown to be very successful in helping local youths, with the program having served 300 to 400 students.

The program assists all kinds of students in need, from those with low grades to those with behavioral problems. It has affected some so positively, she said, that these students come back to volunteer their time in helping others. Last year’s class, she said, saw a 27 percent improvement in absenteeism among those enrolled, as well as a 44 percent increase in grade point average and a 25 percent overall reduction in disciplinary actions.

Next to speak was library Director Judy Mansbach. Edison’s three public libraries have a total recommended budget of $5,735,177, of which salaries and wages account for $2,562,660, Last year’s total budget was $5,808,000, of which salaries and wages made up $2,250,955. Mansbach noted that the library hosts many programs for all ages, with many more, such as English language instruction, on the way.

“And all you need is a library card,” said Mansbach.

Councilwoman AnnMarie Griffin- Ussak asked where reductions had been made in terms of expenses. The library director said it was decided to open the buildings at 9:30 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. and to have part-timers come in at 5 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. They also cut the pay of teen workers by about half and reduced the overall number of teen workers from 17 to nine by simply not replacing the ones who graduated.

Also, the library will continue to be open only two Sundays a month. “It really would be best to be open every Sunday but, you know,” said Mansbach.

Next to speak was Jeff Roderman, director of public works. This year’s budget has recommended that the department receive $3,075,543 for salaries and wages and $2,790,983 for other expenses. Last year’s budget gave the department $2,917,870 for salaries and wages and $2,467,069 for other expenses.

Councilwoman Melissa Perilstein noted that some overtime lines on the budget were in the triple digits and wondered why they were so high. Roderman said that this was because different departments, such as sanitation and recycling, support and cover for each other occasionally, necessitating overtime.

Ricigliano then asked whether the increase in the gas budget, which went up 15 percent, was enough, given how sharply fuel prices can climb.

Roderman said the department can update this information before the final budget is adopted. The councilwoman followed up by asking whether the fuel was for township use only. Roderman answered that there’s no way to split out fuel used only for township business, and so some would inevitably be used for commuting by certain officials.

The council then spoke with Denise Halliwell, director of the recreation department. This year’s budget recommends $1,712,249 in salaries and wages and $661,200 in other expenses. Last year’s budget gave recreation $1,695,050 in salaries and wages and $705,920 in other expenses.

Halliwell said that two playground programs were closed due to poor attendance and that youth athletic programs have taken a budget cut.

Many council members questioned high numbers in items such as power and telephones, but it was revealed that all the power and phone charges in township buildings are funneled through the recreation department budget. Griffin-Ussak said that makes little sense.

The budget recommends $2,139,535 for salaries and wages and $1,091,100 in other expenses (community development, plus engineering). Last year’s figures were $2,082,052 for salaries and wages and $1,073,651 for other expenses.

Medina said that current employees are being trained in code enforcement to increase the department’s ability without raising costs. This is because the township wants to rigorously pursue code violations such as graffiti and illegal signs.

Ricigliano expressed her concerns over plumbing subcode duties being contracted to an outside agency, noting that she’d prefer someone from Edison doing it, but Business Administrator Anthony Cancro defended the practice, saying the quality of work is very high.

The meeting ended after almost four hours, with many more township departments still to be discussed.

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