Council to start budget process

| 15 Mar 2012 | 12:11

WEST MILFORD — The township council will hold its first 2012 budget workshop meeting on Wednesday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m., just before the regular township council meeting at 7:30 p.m.

This is the start of the 2012 budget process for the township. Auditor Churck Ferraioli is expected to give a presentation to the council. But what many are waiting to see is how the council will go about crafting this year's budget, with public meetings or closed committee meetings.

Last year, the council broke into three-person committees, just short of a quorum. Each committee conducted its budget workshops along with the administrator and the appropriate department head. The public was not involved nor was the mayor until the discussions were complete. Then, a budget public hearing was held where the public could comment on the proposed budget. There were many people who were not pleased with how the council did the budget in 2011, even though the result was a zero percent increase. Residents came to council meetings complaining that the process excluded not only the public but the mayor as well. Mayor Bettina Bieri, who is an accountant, was not allowed to attend the budget sessions since her presence would have constituted a quorum, opening the meetings up to the public.

The council is responsible for approving a budget, which is a collaborative effort that includes the administrator and the department heads. In the past, the budget hearings were public meetings, open to the public and with a public participation section. Attendance at the budget meetings was usually very light.

Still, Bieri said she hopes the budget hearings are open to the public, even if they are in committee format.

“Whether it’s a committee or not is up to the council,” said Bieri. “But I do think it should be open to the public.”

Even if the hearings do not allow public comment, Bieri said she thinks it’s important the public be allowed to attend.

Councilman Lou Signorino said he is leaning toward having the budget process done like it was last year, even though some residents were critical of it.

“We took a lot of heat,” said Signorino. “I can understand the skepticism. People think funny stuff is going on behind closed doors."

But it’s not, he said. The meetings with department heads and the committee members went smoothly, according to Signorino, and the result was a good one.

Deciding on the format for the budget meetings and setting a schedule are expected to be finalized Wednesday.

Budget software discussed Administrator Nancy Gage invited John Rheinhardt of Epic Solutions, a budgeting software program, to explain the software to the council with her recommendation that the township buy the package.

Currently, the township uses Edmunds & Associates software, which Bieri describes as an accounting program. Rheinhardt explained to the council just what the software does for them as compared to Edmunds. He said Epic Solutions shows changes from last year to this year and tells the percentage of the change. It breaks down all revenues and can give figures instantaneously during the process. Members of the council and the mayor have said it can take weeks to get answers to questions about how a change will affect taxpayers. .

The software costs $7,500 plus a charge for annual updates, which can run up to $2,000 depending on the amount of time needed.

Councilman Joe Smolinski acknowledged that the council has talked about using different software and that some feel the Edmunds program is antiquated. But he wouldn't agree with buying Epic Solutions, asking if any other software products were looked into.

“I don't know what else is out there,” said Smolinski. “I don’t think we've looked into other software.”

Gage said she has used Epic Solutions in her previous position. She recommended the council go with this software.

Bieri said the township pays for budgetary assistance through the auditor. This software, the cost of which is budgeted already, will allow the council to see the effects of any changes to what they have budgeted instantly.

Rheinhardt said Epic Solutions has been used in Mt. Olive for the past 15 years. North Haledon has used it for a decade. Wharton, Florham Park and Dover are other municipalities that use it.

In the end, the council decided not to buy the program.