Town Council Narrowly Passes Budget, Assesses Storm, Takes Mosque Questions

By on April 18, 2018

The Council voted against Councilman Nochimson’s plan to rehab this storage shed at the Verona Community Center for the Eagles football program. The work would have cost more than $20,000.

By a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Verona Town Council approved the 2018 municipal budget. Council members also disagreed over the demolition of a building at the Verona Community Center that has been used to store equipment for the Verona Eagles football program and once again discussed the events that led to the former Congregation Beth Ahm being sold a group that seeks to turn it into a mosque.

Mayor Kevin Ryan and Councilmen Jack McEvoy and Alex Roman voted in favor of the budget, which will result in the first substantial increase in the municipal tax levy–the amount that must be raised from taxes to fund the budget–in four years. The new tax levy will be a 2.76% increase from 2017, and comes after three years of minimal increases to the tax levy and a flat tax rate. Most of the increase in the 2018 budget is due to increased debt service on the Hilltop turf fields and the renovation of the Verona Public Library. “Expense control has been drastically improved over the last few years,” Roman said of the township’s financial management.

Councilman Ted Giblin and Deputy Mayor Michael Nochimson voted against the budget, but for different reasons. Nochimson asserted that there is still too much overtime in the budget and repeated his claim that the budget is artificially inflated. Giblin, who had run for office on a platform against wasteful government spending, again expressed worries about alleged cuts to services, though he did not say which services or how much larger the budget and taxes should be to provide the services he seeks.

Mayor Ryan rebutted both Nochimson and Giblin. “We have not cut one single service, we brought the police force back up to recommended levels and we will continue to look at ways of improving,” Ryan said. “We have cut healthcare costs by $400,000 in 18 months.”

Councilman Roman noted that Verona has cut its use of capital surplus from $1 million to $183,000. “We are working on economies and efficiencies every day,” he said. “We are substantially better off than we were four or five years ago.

Township Manager Matt Cavallo reported that Monday’s torrential rain storm dumped 2 3/4 inches of rain on Verona and created a 21 million-gallon surge at the sewer plant, which can handle a maximum surge of 30 million gallons. He told the Council that there had been major flooding at Cole Road near Eagle Rock Reservation and at the intersection of Sunset Avenue and Wayland Drive.

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Councilman McEvoy said that the Sunset/Wayland flooding may have been the result of all the trees that have come down on the Montclair Golf Club property, which abuts the intersection. “A tree soaks up 200 to 300 gallons of water a day,” he said. “They are very important in stormwater management.” He asked for the Council to strictly enforce Verona’s tree ordinance and consider revising it to keep more trees from coming down. “We have to stop calling them 100-year storms because we’re getting them every year if not every couple months.” Cavallo said that Verona will be looking at how to clear tree roots out of Verona’s sewer mains to improve flow and would be clearing catch basins of storm debris.

Councilman Roman said that Verona had been selected for a state energy audit program, Direct Install. PSE&G will review energy usage at the Verona Community Center, Buildings & Grounds garage, sewer plant, firehouses and, possibly, the Verona Pool and if energy-efficiency upgrades are warranted, the utility will finance the work and Verona would repay only 30% of the cost, over three years with no interest. “I think that is something that can save us a lot of money,” Roman said.

In new business, the Council voted, over Nochimson’s objections, to demolish the former snack bar and bathroom by the original VCC playground. It would have cost more than $20,000 to repair the cracks and other problems that have developed in the structure, which is being used to store some equipment for the Verona Eagles. Township Manager Matt Cavallo said that the Eagles had been told that the township would give them other, less costly storage options. Council members also talked about the elements that they felt needed to be in new commercial garbage collection rules, though they did not fully support changes that had been sought by Nochimson. Verona will continue to collect commercial garbage–something that many towns don’t do–with limits on how much garbage can be collected at each business. The new rules could be introduced in May.

When the meeting was opened for public comments, the Council again faced questions about the events that led up to the sale of the former Congregation Beth Ahm to a group that intends to open a mosque there, specifically the petition drive that forced the Council to rescind its plans to purchase the property. “I believe that many of the people who signed were not informed about what they were signing or what they would end up getting,” said Verona resident George DePaul. In a thinly veiled reference to Councilman Ted Giblin, Sam Zamloot said that said that “some politicians running for Council at the time also made it a political ploy, saying the Council wants to spend millions buying a private property with no plan on what to do with it.”

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Mayor Ryan said, in response, that the town had tried to do right by residents in the synagogue sale. “Unfortunately there were 200-some people who wanted to take their chance with a developer,” he said. The petition garnered 219 valid signatures and, because of a quirk in New Jersey law, only 179 were then needed to overturn the Council’s purchase plan. Petitions need to have signatures equalling 15% of the total votes cast in the preceding Assembly election to be valid and Councilman Roman noted that, if the petition were held now, it would need 700 signatures.

Councilman Giblin, who was running for Council at the time, conceded that he did initially criticize the Council’s purchase during his campaign. Some of that criticism is in his closing statement at the April 29, 2017 candidates forum run by MyVeronaNJ, which you can watch here; a Giblin campaign postcard received the week before the election implied that the purchase would be a major driver of a tax increase in 2018. Giblin asserted on Monday night that he later stopped his opposition and that he had been unaware of the petition drive while it was going on. He said that he is open to the new use of the property. “If it is to be a religious institution that ends up there,” he said, “they are certainly welcome.”

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