Monday, November 24, 2014

Trash is new hot button in town

The town purchased a new trash and recycle truck last year in order to reduce their costs for trash pickup and reap the benefits from recycling.  It's been a relatively smooth transition with some bumps around what is recyclable and what is really trash.  They put recycle bins everywhere possible in town including the US post office, churches, Rose Hill Cemetery, and all businesses in order to collect as much recycle material as possible.

When they put a recycle bin at the cemetery, they also put a trash one too as a favor to the Rose Hill Cemetery Board.  The point was to at least get the kids who hang out there under cover of darkness to put their beer bottles in the recycling and other trash like McDonald's wrappers in the trash.    Signs are posted at the cemetery so the cops can roust them if they get too noisy or disruptive but that happens rarely.  The Cemetery lies at the far end of the town's green area called the Grove, so to the kids it is all one roaming ground, just with tombstones instead of trees.

Unfortunately, a few citizens have gotten up in arms because it appears the town is picking up trash for free for a "business."  They brought it up at a Council Meeting in passing and now have tried to put in a OPRA request (a NJ mechanism to get public documents) about it.  Of course, there are no public documents as it was a favor.  The trash bin is being pulled out in response.

Rose Hill Cemetery is not really a business but more like a church.  It is a non-profit corporation under Federal laws and an exempt entity under NJ laws, meaning it pays no income, property, or sales taxes.  Its Board and officers are comprised of volunteers who receive no pay.  Once a year, financial reports are filed with the NJ Board that governs cemeteries operating in the state.  Money is set aside for each burial and memorial stone in a special fund that the state would use if the Cemetery went bankrupt to get grass mowed and other upkeep.

The rest of the funds received at the "sale" of a lot or for a internment are used to pay a lawn service to mow  biweekly in the summer and rake in the fall, and for unforeseen events like trees falling down in storms.  Occasionally funds have to cover plowing snow for a funeral to take place.  Casket burials require a concrete vault be put in place and the funds for an internment cover that cost from a vault company.  All in all, the cemetery breaks about even each year with the lawn care and insurance costs its biggest expenditure. 

Note that there is no cemetery attendant who is paid to take care of the cemetery day to day or make sales.  The lanes are not paved with macadam but stone and graves are cleaned up of excess flowers once a year after Christmas.  This extra "trash" is put in a dumpster arranged for that chore and paid for by the Cemetery Association.  The trash bin put there by the town was not to be used for that chore but as a convenience for visitors who might have a little trash like the wrapping the flowers came in.  In the past, visitors have hauled away their own debris and now they will do it again.

The volunteers who make up the Cemetery Board and its officers consider it a community service not a business.  I am sorry there are people in town who see it the opposite way.  Rose Hill Cemetery has been there since the 1860's; when people first settled around the train depot and called it Newfield.  To think of it as one of those big "retail" cemeteries just seems wrong. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

One small answer as to the process ...

I noticed that the Borough had to do a second public notice (same material, week later).  I also noticed that the fine print reads that up until the property is auctioned, the owner can pay off the amount listed including any interest accrued but only by cash or certified check.  Cash is no big deal if it is easy for you to get to Borough Hall and you have no qualms about carrying around a large amount.  Certified checks require a visit to a bank, which if you are already having problems because the signer is ill, in a nursing home, or this is part of an estate can be really problematical.    Especially since you can be charged more than is listed on the public notice as there may be more interest yet.  Then imagine being out of town or worse, out of state. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ignorant of the process but uneasy .....

On March 10, 2014 the Borough of Newfield published a notice in the South Jersey Times for public auction of properties where the owners are behind in their tax and water bills.  Because I am ignorant of the process, I had intended to attend the 3/13/14 Council Meeting and asked questions.  Unfortunately, a head cold descended and I can only whisper.  So I am going to ask my questions here and hope someone answers.

I did I scan thru the notice and what immediately popped out was how many of properties were behind in water bills only.  I also noticed that some of the properties seem to be owned by deceased individuals or those living in a nursing home.  This makes me uneasy as I know that getting power of attorney and/or probate is a slow process not for the frail nor for those living some distance away especially those residing out-of-state.

The very first listing names the Secretary of Veterans Affairs as owner and is being put up for auction for a water bill of $79.47.  What are the criteria for a property to go on the list?  How many days late does the bill have to be?  Does any amount count or does it need to exceed a threshold like $15?  How do the clerks contact the listed owner to arrange payments?  Sending a water bill to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs probably takes months to trickle down to the right person in the bureaucracy who is responsible and then several more months to get authorization to make a payment.

Then, there is the problem of do the clerks have a correct address for the listed owner.  When mail was sorted in our local post office building, wrong addresses were often "corrected" by the local postal workers because they knew the people living in our zip code.  Now, mail is sorted somewhere in Vineland by machine and those "corrections" don't happen.

I put the entries into a spreadsheet so I could do a quick data analysis.  There are more than 70 properties listed - 20 for late taxes only, 12 for late taxes and water, and 40 for late water only.  The late taxes needed total $47,808.05; the late taxes and water total $29,884.95; water only totals $9,487.58.  Focusing on the water only entries, the amounts run from a low of $29.90 to a high of $548.78; 7 properties are listed for bills under $100; 12 properties over $100 to under $200 and those 12 total to $1,746.65.  [The public notice cost $1,543.68]

There are stories of hardship buried in these dry numbers - businesses impacted by the economy and never recovering; homes being foreclosed; deaths and illnesses.  There may also be protest of water quality or of water billing procedures lurking in the listings.  I realize the Borough needs revenue and that the only official "weapon" in their arsenal is public auction to end such disputes. So I am hoping this is some sort of negotiating strategy for those cases because I would really be dismayed if someone's home was sold out from under them for $44.32.

I have had my own water billing procedure protest, I must confess.  I was getting water bills for awhile with a little E next to the amount.  Silly me, coming from Seattle, I assumed the E meant the reading was taken electronically as it is done there.  No, it was E for Estimated because the water meter was broken.  So, the water meter was finally fixed and I got hit with a large water bill to make up the difference between actual and estimated (how they knew the actual amount I have no idea.).  I went into Borough Hall to speak with them and let them know I would be paying the bill in 3 equal installments as I am on a fixed income as are many Newfield residents and had had to adjust my budget to accommodate the extra expenses.  Since the fact was that I hadn't broken the water meter, I hoped they would waive any interest due because of the three payments as other utilities such as gas and electric will do.   First off here is the exact wording on the back of the bill regarding late payment:
"A rate of interest on delinquent water is hereby fixed at 18% per annum or 1 1/2% per month.  A ten day grace period will be allowed before any interest will be charged."
I made the first payment on time as budgeted, and then the next one was 20 days after the due date and ten days into the late payment.  Then I received a bill showing interest being charged and taken from my second payment.  I was angry and when the third budgeted amount came due, I paid what I had planned.   This, of course, left a balance.  My sister went in and paid the amount because she didn't want us to get into a delinquent tax situation or worse have our water cut off even though she agreed with my anger.  First of all, the 18% is a ridiculous rate now-a-days.   Second of all, how many other fixed income residents were treated this shabbily?  Can you tell I am still fuming?  I know what the ordinance says but the Borough bears some responsibility also as they took so long to fix the meter.   This should lead to some flexibility in how the ordinance is applied.

My own experience doesn't give me hope that there will be compassion applied to those properties up for auction where extenuating circumstances exist.  I have said it before, and say it again: The Borough of Newfield is not a business but a community; political and legal decisions should reflect Newfield community values such as volunteerism, extending helping hands to neighbors, and fostering minds and bodies of the community's children.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Time to pay Peter in the Borough's budget round of "rob Peter to pay Paul"

For one or two budget rounds, the amount needed from the Borough's budget to finish out the annual operating expenses for the Newfield Public Library was shifted into capital improvements (Paul) not subject to the cap on raising taxes.  That opportunity has sailed so now the money has to come from the Borough's operating budget (Peter), which is subject to a cap on raising taxes.

Worse, all the properties in Newfield were re-assessed downward due to the steep drop in the real estate market.  So the pool of money against which the rate is applied has shrunk meaning the tax revenues will go down.  Let's make the math simple so it's easy to understand.  Assume the tax rate for 2013 is 10% and the 2013 pool of money is $1000.  That means 2013 tax revenues would be $100.   Let's apply the cap and make the 2014 rate to be 12% and the 2014 pool of money is to reduced to $800.  That would make the 2014 tax revenues ($800 multiplied by 0.12) $96, $4 less than the year before.    Yes, that isn't much but when you are already "robbing Peter to pay Paul" it is significant.

But, you say, don't I already pay a library tax to Gloucester County?  Why doesn't that money cover our library here.  Yes, you do pay a library tax to Gloucester County and Newfield Public Library gets back approximately $2 for every $1 you pay.  Here's the official breakdown:

In 2013, the residents of Newfield contributed $52,942 in dedicated library tax toward the operation of the Gloucester County Library System (GCLS).  The budget allocation for the Newfield Public Library was:

      Staffing                                  $ 67,903

      Books, etc.                                  6,000

      Summer Reading Program                         500

      Automation Services                         25,940

                   Total                       $ 100,343

 And there is even benefit that doesn't show up as called out to explicitly to Newfield Public Library but are provided through the Gloucester County Library system to all its residents.

This doesn't cover all of Newfield Public Library yearly operating expenses, the shortfall of which is about $25,000.  Historically, the Borough budget made up the shortfall each year.  Money raised through Library Board fund raisers throughout the years have added extras like computers and special children's programs.  The recently added meeting room was funded through extremely generous donations of the Capozzi family.

Soon you will be getting a letter or flyer from Newfield Public Library asking for donations as an effort to raise a significant amount of the about $25,000 still needed for 2014.  I hope you can and will help as I remember the days when the library was that little building tucked in next to Borough Hall, was open for two hours weekly on Tuesday night, was heated by a pot belly wood-burning stove, and the newest books were  Nancy Drew's and Hardy Boys'  from the 1930's.  Newfield Public Library has come far since then and, with your donations, we can keep it that way.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day - Spread the love thru a simple kindness to someone else

I bend Valentine's Day to suit my own purposes following the think globally and act locally slogan. Locally,  I send cards to my loved ones and try to find an act of kindness to spontaneously perpetrate on a non-family member.  It might be as simple as a smile to a stranger encountered at the post office or store as I hold the door open for them or more complicated like a donation of clothes or blankets to a charity. 

Globally, I just try to send out good thoughts as I really believe love sent out into the universe comes back multiple times.  In fact, today, my neighbor, who is a cousin by marriage, pulled my recycle can back when the town announced it was not actually picking up today because of the weather.  It was a thoughtful gesture on his part.  I appreciate it especially as a full can on the icy driveway is not easy to maneuver.

So love to each and every human being on the planet and please pass it on.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Robbing Peter to pay Paul - Unintended Consequences of Tax Reform

New Jersey real estate taxes that fund municipalities and county governments are among the highest in the nation.  To try and stop the ever rising tide of tax bills, NJ voters passed a cap that keeps real estate taxes raising above a certain percentage of the previous year's rate. The cap can be manipulated somewhat by using bonds for capital purchases such as building improvements, etc.

Newfield was already in a tight budget situation before the recession because the biggest tax contributor - a corporation called ShieldAlloy - closed.  Along came the recession and the budget got even tighter as more local businesses closed and fewer people were spending money to upgrade their houses.

The Newfield Public Library has been partially supported by funds from the Newfield Borough budget to in the range of $20,000 to $25,000 each year.  Gloucester County funds and fund raising efforts have provided the remainder of the needed operating costs.  The Library is open 6 days a week and holds special events for children of the community as well as computer/internet access for individuals who need it, especially tweens and teenagers doing homework.

Occasionally, donors give a large enough gift that allows the Library to take on a large project to expand its support to the community.  One of these gifts provided sufficient funds to add a meeting space for town organizations such as the Cemetery Board and photography clubs, etc.  So, the Borough made a proposal to the Library Board that would help with the town budget.  In exchange for not providing the customary yearly funds for two years, the Borough would float a bond and pay funds towards the building expansion.  The gift funds would be used for operating costs.  This would help the Borough Budget and rate stay under its expansion cap.  In two years, the town would return to paying its previous obligation towards the Library operating expenses.  As anyone knows who has been managing a household budget, this is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The two years are almost up and no surprise, "The Borough is broke."  The suggestion was made that Gloucester County could take over the Library and make it one its branches.  From a Borough Council viewpoint, they thought that would end their financial obligation and problem solved.  From a library patron perspective who has noticed that as Newfield is the farthermost most municipality from the county seat and very, very small to boot, this was not an ideal situation.  Library hours and functions would be controlled by the County and would lose the close connection that the Library Board, and hence the Library, has to the town.

It turns out this "solution" would not dissolve Borough Council's financial obligation to the Library and might even raise the stakes.  So, this solution will not be taken.  It still leaves the town "broke" and the Library Board wondering if any funds will be forthcoming in 2014.    The funds needed are way beyond what can be raised by normal funding raising activities such as coin drops, bake sales, chocolate festivals, and used book sales.

Another solution is to drastically cut the hours the library is open.  Of course, that is a double edged sword since county supplemental support depends upon the number of hours the library is open.   It would also drastically affect the community's children who use the Library for finding information for homework assignments. 

Personally, I think Borough Council needs to revisit budget priorities.  Does the 1.7 square miles that constitute Newfield require the level of police coverage presently provided?  Circumstances have changed since that level was established.  Other services are suffering budget shortfalls that may be of higher value to the community now.  Neighboring towns don't seem to have such a high level of police service as Newfield does.    I believe the Library is more important - of course, that is my bias.

This is not an attack on the police force.  They are all professional and provide the service they are being paid for.  When I have needed them they have been there - the possible gas leak, the snake incident, and EMS calls.  I appreciate all that and I realize that I would receive slower service when the Sheriff's office has to cover if Newfield cuts back police service.  It's just that I am willing to make that trade to provide the same level of library service we have right now.

If you feel like I do, tell a Newfield Borough Council member.  Their names can be found here.  They don't know what we want unless we tell them.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Borough Council and Fire Company working out a compromise

At last night's Borough Council Meeting, the Mayor took a brave step and seized on a comment by the Fire Company's lawyer about a contract to forge a means of compromise.  The next reading of the ordinance was tabled.   The Fire Company is to provide a strawhorse of a contract between the Fire Company and the Borough, which will then become the central theme for negotiations.  Any ordinance would then reflect that contract.  It is not yet finished but the direction is now much improved.  Hopefully, no one will drag their feet and the negotiations will proceed calmly with mutual respect.

There is an on-going investigation into whether a member of Council acted improperly regarding the shutout of the Fire Company prior to the March Council Meeting.  The paper trail lays suspicion but is not definitive.

There was also a forecast of a calendar for the home page of the Borough as well a page of recycling information.  A pdf of the Town Crier Bulletin has already been added.  The intent is to provide an archive of the Town Criers as they are printed.  Hopefully the calendar will show special events as well as recurring events such as trash and recycling pickups and Planning, Council, and Recreation Council meetings.  It will be nice to know ahead when trash or recycle pickups are delayed by holidays as the one-call announcing them often came after I already pulled the cart to the curb.

Since nothing was said about recycling for businesses, I went up to make that suggestion as I had read just before the meeting that Gloucester County requires businesses to recycle.  Two Council members responded at the same time - one to tell me that carts for businesses not recycling were in the works and the other to put me down for not realizing that the county already gives us credit for business recycling that is reported to them.  And, I heard in the background from a Public Works employee that they are intending to deliver some carts to the apartment building.  The Council member who sought to inform me that Newfield already gets credit didn't realize that some of the businesses don't recycle at all because their dumpster service doesn't support it.  So while I was publicly embarrassed because my reason for justifying Newfield picking up business recycling didn't cover all the cases,  the end result is what is important - more recycling.  I'll take that trade off any day.