For anyone who hasn’t sat in on a town board meeting, the decision making process is relatively straightforward. Each Board member is given a packet of information a week before the meeting that holds reading material and back-up documents for each issue on the agenda.
Board members are expected to read all materials prior to the meeting—some of which can be hefty depending on the issue.
Then comes the inevitable lobbying.
“There can be some discussion and lobbying for a certain position prior to the meeting,” agreed Ron Belmont. “But a full discussion takes place at the board meeting prior to any vote. Decision-making is a group process and the discussion is important to the end result. All our decisions are made publicly."
That includes financial decisions, which can be the most controversial for residents and board members. One of the most recent was the decision to .
“This was one of the issues on which we did not all agree,” said Belmont. “Steve (Malfitano) and Joe (Cannella) did not understand why rates had to go up by this amount. But it passed by a vote of 3-2.”
The Board has also approved town borrowing—in the form of bonding—for more than $4 million to date this year. This has caused harsh criticism from some residents who want stronger and longer term financial planning, rather than what they see as an ad-hoc approach to town spending.
David Schwartz and Jerry Lieberman are two residents who of the Board’s financial decision-making process and they recently met with Belmont.
Belmont said the meeting went well.
“They gave us a list of good ideas and we will try implementing some of them. Others we were already working on. Unfortunately there’s a big difference between the private sector and the municipal arena and not everything will translate from one to the other,” he said.
Belmont said bonding approved this year was for urgent issues, but added that the Board is now hoping to move to a five-year financial plan that will include all previewed town initiatives and departmental staffing projections.
“Steve is talking to department heads and once we have all their information we will see how we are going to address that,” said Belmont. “I sat down with our HR manager recently to get a review of our future needs. The next step will be to put it all together and see what we can cover.”
Belmont maintains that the Board’s focus is to keep the level of town debt steady.
According to Belmont, $4.96 million will be paid off the town’s debt this year. The total new bonding committed to so far this year is $4.2 million; a reduction of about $716,000.
But, while Belmont would love to be able to assure residents that this will be the end of new bonding commitments this year, he said the town needs to be realistic about the immediate need of additional infrastructure improvements.
“We have to take immediate action on flood mitigation. The residents affected deserve assistance and we are looking at what has to be done to protect their homes and neighborhoods from further flood damage,” he said. “We are looking into all forms of funding available, but realistically some of the savings we have gained over previous years’ debt levels may have to be re-invested to deal with these flooding issues.”
With the Board’s desire to not increase the town’s total debt, combined with the state mandated two percent tax cap, the Board will need to prioritize spending. Many projects that Belmont would love to see funded will not be approved this year.
“We have to continue to invest, but we are limiting it. It breaks my heart that we will not be able to reinvest in the , the and so on this year," Belmont said. "But we are aware that our funds are limited and that we have to choose between spending projects depending on the urgency of the issue at hand.”
Belmont said a major issue for the town’s financial well-being remains union healthcare contracts that have been in negotiation for several years.
“We are spending $11 million a year on healthcare,” Belmont said. “That number is driving the bus and has to be dealt with as each union contract comes up. Hopefully we can work with the unions more aggressively now get ahead of the curve. I am hopeful that we can come to an agreement that will be for the good of all long term.”
The difficulty of this issue was indicated recently when the Teamsters walked away from local negotiations and filed for arbitration.
“It was very disappointing to everyone involved,” admitted Belmont.
Another disappointing financial result was the denial of the .
”We lost a potential $300,000 to $600,000 in town revenues," Belmont said. "We have visitors from all over the world staying in our town who pay hotel taxes everywhere else and expect to pay the same here. It doesn’t make sense that we are one of the few communities that do not have this tax in place.”
In addition to this, the town board has also been faced with a 12 percent increase in municipal utilities, all of which plays into the ongoing struggle to maintain town services and reinvest as necessary. These remain difficult financial times and the Board has to make tough decisions on spending to stay within their preferred debt and tax cap limits.
Belmont maintains we have the right Board in place to do this.
“I have a lot of faith in this Board. There is a commitment to doing whatever is necessary to ensure the success of the town in the future, while dealing with the economics we face right now," he said. "Residents can be assured that this Board is all about doing what’s best for Harrison.”