WEST MILFORD The budget process has officially begun in West Milford and the good news for the public is that budget meetings will be open to them.
The council voted Wednesday night to have all departmental budget talks in full view of the public and press, something they did not do last year. Instead, they broke into three-person committees - just short of a quorum - and had closed meetings with the administrator and department heads. They took a lot of heat from the public for that. That won't be the case this year.
After a presentation by the townships auditor, Chuck Ferraioli, township Administrator Nancy Gage asked the council how they want to proceed with the budget meetings with the department heads. She suggested the council have three meetings, one each with the larger department heads - Recreation, Public Safety and Department of Public Works. The other department heads do not have much to discuss, she said, and could all be worked into those three meetings. At the suggestion of the township attorney, she said if the council was to break into committees, they should be two-person committees instead of three like last year since three councilmembers could conceivably be a quorum and pass the budget. That would mean that each councilmember would sit in on one budget meeting, which could still be open to the public but without comment.
Councilman Joe Smolinski, who supported the committee format last year, said it was done for the benefit of the department heads. He said this year he does not want to only attend one budget meeting as a councilman and is in favor of having a full council present at each budget meeting.
"I don't want to miss out on any budget meetings so do the meetings with a full council," said Smolinski.
Councilwoman CarlLa Horton said her main goal was to have the meetings open to the public and press.
"I'm okay with smaller meetings so long as those meetings are open to the public and the press," she said.
Now the council will check to see what dates are good for them before setting the budget schedule. The choices include immediately prior to council meetings, Saturdays and other nights during the week.
In his presentation to the mayor and council, Ferraioli said the township's debt has decreased since last year but its net debt percentage increased because of a decline in real estate values. He said that decline has occurred in nearly every community. The net debt percent is calculated by dividing the total debt by the equalized valuation of properties in the township.
"The goal is to stay under 1 percent," said Feraiola. The township's net debt is .91 percent, just under that target. Last year the percent was .87. The state allows municipalities to go to 3 percent, but he said that is not recommended.