Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Truth about the Highlands Borough Budget and the Agreement with Highlands PBA

The following is an explanation of the facts surrounding the recent decision of the Highlands Borough Council on December 1, 2010.

The Borough Council asked the Highlands PBA to agree to a wage freeze to allow the Borough to evaluate our budgetary circumstances in light of the 2.0 cap imposed by the State of NJ upon Municipal budgets. After analysis of the Borough's budget, the Borough Council asked the PBA to find $420,000 in savings. The Highlands PBA contract had already been finalized and there was no obligation on the part of the Highlands PBA to negotiate. The Highlands PBA reviewed the State Health Benefits Plan recommended by the Borough and agreed to accept it. The Highlands PBA and the Highlands Chief of Police have regularly reduced overtime during my tenure as Mayor. Younger officers were hired in order to reduce exorbitant overtime costs necessary to cover State mandated shifts round the clock in the Borough. As of December 1, 2001 the Highlands PBA has agreed to forego overtime completely in exchange for compensatory time. This will guarantee over $100,000 permanent savings to the Borough per year.

The Agreement with the Highlands PBA for which I voted on December 1, 2010 includes:
1. Highlands PBA concession to accept the State Health Benefit Plan, amounting to $320,000 in savings to the Borough of Highlands.
2. Overtime savings in this budget of $66,668.
3. Court time savings in this budget of $8,140.
4. Overtime savings in 2011-2012 budget $106,205.
5. Court time savings in 2011-2012 budget $13,000.
6. Waiver of Retroactive contractual wages that the Borough owed the PBA from July 1, 2010 to December 1, 2010, a savings in this budget of $140,000.
7. The single raise of 4.25% for a six month period from January 1, 2011 until June 30, 2011 allows retirement eligible officers to retire at a wage level less than but nearer to what they would have received under the contract to which the Borough was obligated. This concession also produced a savings to the Borough in the 2011-2012 budget. If retirements which have been mentioned actually occur as verbally represented, substantial savings to the Borough will result.

In conclusion, we must support Governor Christie's tool kit. Toward that end we must ensure that in the 2011 election cycle, WE THE PEOPLE deliver to Governor Christie a State Legislature that will work with him on the Tool Kit and other tax saving initiatives. Until the Tool Kit is in place, agreements with bargaining units are the ONLY way to ensure savings to municipalities. Layoffs of three police officers in the Borough of Highlands surely would have resulted in additional overtime costs to the Borough because of State mandates. Initial calculations indicated that the Borough might have been charged up to $18,000 per month in overtime.

Therefore, the PBA Agreement for which I voted on December 1, 2010 and which secured savings to the Borough of $654,000 (not including the contractual reduction in raises and expected retirement of senior officers) was in the best interests of the People of the Borough of Highlands. It is the People and only the People whom I serve during my tenure in elected office.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Downtown Commercial Uses: Key to Reducing Property Tax Burden on Residents

The cost of Borough operations in Highlands has been the subject of much scrutiny over the past two years. Levy Cap restrictions have generated concern as reductions in State Aid produced a need for possible tax increases throughout the Borough. The Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands is proud of our work with the Budget Review Advisory Committee in scrutinizing our Borough budget, and in prioritizing actions to keep taxes from rising despite economic forces beyond our control. Every employee in the Borough has committed to seeking ways to reduce costs in each department. Understanding that Borough operations are already at a bare bones level, your Borough employees have worked with the Governing Body to reduce the Borough budget by 5%. Sadly, this was not enough to result in a budget with a zero increase this year, the goal of the Budget Committee.

However, your representatives are continuing to identify Council actions that will further reduce the Borough's budget while we look for ways to increase revenue to provide resident taxpayers some relief in troubled economic times. Improving the Downtown Business District is one solution which would provide significant additional revenue. Through renewed Code Enforcement efforts along Bay Avenue, Borough officials will assist property owners in cleaning up and ensuring a presentable appearance adding to property values in the Business District. By enacting new zoning ordinances with relaxed height restrictions, we have made it possible for new Commercial Uses to be established downtown. Professional offices provide pedestrian traffic and a demand for retail and restaurant services throughout the day. Such offices provide minimal negative impact to residents living in the mixed use environment on Bay Avenue.

Commercial uses in properties on Bay Avenue provide reliable rental income to property owners. The potential income realized from the operation of a business on the property increases the assessed value of commercial properties in the business district. Because Borough operations remain more or less the same, if businesses are paying more taxes, the resident portion of the tax levy should decrease. Targeting Bay Avenue for commercial uses that will increase property values is one way Highlands Governing Body can produce relief for resident taxpayers. The new Commercial Uses would also provide new or increased income to property owners.

During this difficult Economic time when people are losing their jobs and seeking alternatives to support their families, Highlands must be creative in providing every available opportunity for Borough residents and business owners to survive. The Economic downturn is causing many business owners in more expensive commercial districts to consider downsizing or closing their doors. The Highlands Business District provides an alternative for these businesses to reduce their costs and remain viable, saving jobs and maybe even producing a few for Borough residents.

The Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands reminds our resident taxpayers that successful businesses in Highlands keep your residential tax bill low. When businesses leave Highlands, resident taxes will increase. Remember to thank a business owner for toughing it out in this difficult economic time. Try to shop local, keeping revenue close to home. And above all we must count our blessings in each other, and pull together against the pressures we are facing. Highlands people have learned over the years that by working together, we can weather the storm. We are strong stock. Our struggles make our future brighter. It doesn't cost a dime to see a sunrise on Sandy Hook, or to watch a sunset from the Highlands waterfront. With so many priceless gifts to offer, there is no reason we should not prevail.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Highlands First Impressions: Inviting Residents and Business Owners to Live, Work and Play here year 'round

For many the onset of Spring signifies a new beginning. In Highlands Spring reminds us that Summer fun is on the horizon. We emerge from cabin fever, spending more time outside in mild weather, enjoying nature's new life. Just as we spruce up our homes in the Spring celebrating the end of winter confinement, we straighten up our yards and make improvements that we can enjoy outdoors during our leisure time. The goals of Borough government are very similar.

Spring is the season for clean up throughout the Borough. Beach sweeps, bulk and brush pick ups, mulching and pruning in the parks, and general clean up of the basketball and tennis courts are some of the tasks assigned to the Department of Public Works in the Spring. Likewise Property Maintenance Code Enforcement becomes priority, as residents and visitors alike begin to stroll on Borough streets at all times of day and evening. Residents and Business Owners are encouraged to seek assistance and advice from Borough Hall in disposing of unwanted, unnecessary items and in improving the appearance of homes and businesses.

In 2010 the Highlands Borough Council has targeted the Downtown Business District for improvement. We are investigating requirements for a facade program for commercial property and residences throughout downtown. The Substandard Housing Committee continues to target vacant buildings in disrepair. Property owners are encouraged to meet with Borough Officials to discuss the condition of their home or business, receiving instructions about how to comply with code requirements. The benefit to the Property owner is a maximum value for their home or business. The benefit to the Borough is a clean and presentable appearance for Borough residents and visitors to the Borough.

Discussions are ongoing regarding grant opportunities for downtown improvements such as a Bay Avenue street scape, Broadband (aka Wifi) internet access, and underground utilities in targeted areas of the Business District. Grants are being carefully scrutinized for cost evaluation given the tight budget constraints facing residents, business owners, and municipalities alike. Planning future projects gives us hope and pride in Highlands Borough. Cleaning up what we have reminds us to put our best foot forward, reflecting on the value we place on our identity, history, and charm as a community. Projects which might draw new commercial uses to the Business District are high priority, because maximizing Commercial Property Values results in increased revenue from the Business District and a lower tax burden on residents at this difficult time.

In all matters facing the Borough of Highlands in 2010, we must be mindful of the need to balance the benefits and the cost of improvements to the Business District and generally throughout the Borough. Input from residents and business owners is key in determining where the benefits outweigh the costs of any project. The Governing Body of the Borough of Highlands encourages all residents and taxpayers to communicate with us via the web site and Borough Hall providing perspectives on the grant applications we may consider. We look forward to working with you as your representatives toward bringing out the best in Highlands for ourselves, and for future generations to come.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mayor Little's State of the Borough Address: January 1, 2010

Happy New Year 2010 to you and your families. It is an honor to report to you regarding the experience of working with the Highlands Borough Council of 2009. The past year was filled with challenges, some created by actions of higher government, and some created by ourselves. We have all learned something from each other throughout this past year. We are all better as individuals for our experiences working together as members of this Governing Body.

In 2009, we continued to face many of the challenges that we faced in 2008 . Worldwide economic pressures yet unresolved resulted in new budget challenges here and in all levels of government. Moon Tides and sudden downpours continued to create flood management requirements. Bridge Construction continued to affect quality of life for residents and businesses throughout the Borough. Highlands felt an increased impact of the war in Afghanistan as we honored veterans and were reminded of the sons of Highlands fighting in the present foreign war, recognizing the needs of their families here at home.

We ourselves created a few new pressures on businesses via our ABC Ordinance enforcement and ID card requirements. We also sent business owners scrambling to rework the budget of the Highlands Business Partnership, and to determine new methods for running HBP signature events without the “seed money” provided by the annual assessment imposed by the businesses against themselves. Through communication about these issues, members of the Governing Body proposed changes to the ABC Ordinance and ID requirements, and business owners resolved to continue operating the Highlands Business Partnership as a nonprofit organization. Our work in these areas is far from complete.

Throughout 2009 the Highlands Borough Council continued our work on budgetary issues. Worldwide economic decline pushed unemployment into double digits, forcing state government to reduce aid to municipalities once again. Policy changes and new ordinances passed by the 2008 Council, and cost saving suggestions by Borough employees, saved Highlands from levy cap breaches yet again in 2009. The Budget Review Advisory Committee spent countless hours analyzing the Borough's budget and has learned much about the difficulty in making short term budgetary changes. The Committee has many long term goals which will be helpful guidance to the Governing Body in 2010. The 2010 Council can look forward to considering actions to facilitate the goals of this very valuable Committee.

Construction of the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge progressed with consequent quality of life issues, including traffic impact which created difficulty for residents and businesses alike. Through the Bridge Committee here in the Borough and via participation in the NJDOT construction meetings at the office of the Resident Engineer, we have made the concerns of residents and businesses known to NJDOT and its contractors. We continue to work on resolving many of the issues related to Bridge Construction, and will continue to post updates on the website under the Bridge Update button throughout 2010.

Our two most important achievements in 2009 were in the areas of zoning and flood abatement. In December 2009 the Governing Body enacted zoning ordinances in compliance with the Master Plan Reevaluation conducted by the Highlands Planning Board, and created a Bond Ordinance which would allow funding for a comprehensive solution to downtown flooding. Applications for funding assistance based on designs facilitated by the Bond Ordinance are expected to be submitted within the first quarter of 2010. These accomplishments were important in support of economic development in our downtown business area, improving quality of life for Highlands residents and increasing property values. Projects such as these improve our position in the FEMA Community Rating System giving us stronger eligibility for future funding and reductions in flood insurance costs.

I have already met informally with members of the 2010 Borough Council. There is certainly a different dynamic present in 2010 as compared with 2009. While our agenda for 2010 is still being formed, I am hopeful that in the true “Highlands Spirit” we will find unity in our common goal: To contribute to the betterment of the Borough, our home.

On this New Year's Day 2010 we should all be reminded of the gift given us by the founding fathers of our country, and which our military fights to preserve today. In many countries people are denied the opportunity to participate in their government. They are dictated to by leaders who are self interested and who disregard the needs of the people they serve. In Highlands we, the people, elect our government to represent our interests fairly and honestly. In our small community we are able to truly know our elected officials and communicate with them freely. We must all be encouraged to appreciate our freedoms and to use the gift of self government to the fullest extent. Our government is only fully effective if we participate fully.

Best Wishes for Peace and Prosperity in 2010. A Happy New Year to everyone.