Cranford attempts to right the ship with 2013 budget

File Photo A new full time administrator, among other measures, may help Cranford get back on the right financial track.
File Photo
A new full time administrator, among other measures, may help Cranford get back on the right financial track.

CRANFORD — Taxpayers will pay 1.69 percent more than they did last year under the 2013 spending plan introduced last week, but the good news is the township is getting back on solid footing once again.
Although the township had its ups and downs the last few years — administratively and financially — during the last three months things have come together under the expertise of two experienced newcomers: administrator Joseph Hartnett and Mayor Tom Hannen.
Hartnett, who was brought in three months ago as interim administrator and just hired as the township’s permanent administrator, has a wealth of experience to offer.
In fact, with more 40 years experience, he has deftly steered the governing body through what could have been a difficult time. Not that he would take any credit for it, though.
Late last week in an interview with LocalSource, Hartnett took time between meetings to go over the 2013 budget, one he said can be tweaked so 2014 has the opportunities for savings that may not have been tapped previously.
As for this year, the $34.2 million budget reflects a .59 percent increase over last year when the spending plan was $33.7 million. However, the actual amount to be raised by taxes for 2013 is a little more than $23.9 million which for the average homeowner with property assessed at $181,600 should increase taxes about $39.
But this only reflects the municipal portion of a property owner’s tax bill. There are two other portions, including the school and county tax, which are added and then calculated into one overall increase.
Actually, the entire township spending plan for 2013 is $415,159 under the 2 percent state-mandated cap, which Hartnett was pleased about. This year, for the first time in years, the township went back to basics, following a method that worked for decades during budget preparation.
“We had all the department heads come to our budget hearings and although they had their wish lists, no one had any extravagant requests,” the administrator said, but added that with a month until the budget has a second reading and public hearing, cuts still could be found.
Whether that happens or not depends on several things, Hartnett explained, noting for example that by taking a closer look at trends, there is a possibility additional cuts could be made to the spending plan.
This year, Hartnett said, the township received the same amount of state aid as 2012, or $2.9 million. While state aid goes a long way to reducing the budget, the township, he said, still needs to look for innovative ways to cut the spending plan. Some of these ideas may take until next year to flourish, but one in particular could be a definite boon to the township.
“One of the new things we will have this year is a facilities manager,” said the new administrator, explaining that the township owns many buildings and properties and there is a definite need for someone to oversee this investment.
The new position, which Hartnett recommended, will earn between $70,000 to $75,000 a year, and will tackle such issues as managing energy usage.
Hartnett, who spent 30 years as the Rahway administrator and the business administrator for St. Peter’s College, managed to save that institution $400,000 in a year by having a facilities manager on staff.
The touchy issue of how the township’s finance department is faring after several unstable years still is not completely resolved, but Hartnett is confident that once a new in-house finance officer is hired, this situation will improve with time.
Currently the township is outsourcing the operation of this department to Government Strategy Group, the administrator noted, and while they are working to remedy the situation, there is much left to do.
“It will take time,” Hartnett said.
The new administrator said the township budget would have been even lower if there was not a 13 percent hike in debt service, which reflects bonding the township has done, which is payable over a long period of time. Regardless, this debt has to be shown in the budget.
“If you tool this debt service out of the budget, there would have been a decrease in taxes,” Hartnett pointed out.
Monday Mayor Tom Hannen was not ready to pronounce the budget ready to roll, pointing out that while it was introduced, there was still time to try and find things that could be slashed.
“It’s still a work in progress,” the mayor said in a phone interview, adding that he would still like to see the tax rate go down more.