Manager Aims to Keep Fair Lawn on its Feet
The manager explained his budget strategy and future plan for the borough at Tuesday's council meeting.
At the outset of every borough council meeting – immediately after council members deliver their opening remarks – the manager is afforded time to speak.
He rarely does, often directing interested parties to consult a copy of the thick printed manager’s report that rests in a stack on the table at the head of the room, next to the meeting agendas.
When it came time on Tuesday, borough manager Tom Metzler took the opportunity to speak up about the budget process and his strategy for leading the borough out of these economically trying times. He felt he had to.
“I’m taking this opportunity to say this because I honestly do believe the borough of Fair Lawn is at a crossroads,” he said. “And the five council members that are sitting up here, all duly elected by the residents, are going to make decisions that…are going to impact the way this community operates for many, many years to come.”
As Metzler explained it, his plan is to position Fair Lawn to become, as he put it, “the last town standing.”
“As town’s surpluses are depleting, they’re being forced to cut services,” he said. “I believe that there’s an opportunity to fund the amenities that we’re accustomed to by absorbing some of the other services that towns, as they deplete their surplus, are going to have to reach out to us for.”
Although some residents have expressed an interest in weathering the economic crisis by cutting services—anything and everything from the library to the senior center to Memorial Pool -- Metzler said that is not his prerogative, unless directed to do so by council.
He said his staff approaches any amenity approved by a prior council as sacrosanct.
“It doesn’t matter whether I think we need a community center or we don’t. It doesn’t matter whether I think the way they financed it was done properly or not. That doesn’t pertain to me,” Metzler said prior to Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s there. And until someone tells me we don’t want to fund it anymore, I have an obligation to prepare a budget that will pay for all those services.”
Crafting a plan that embraces the new economic reality
While Metzler said he’s more than willing to implement cuts if directed by council -- as he did recently when crafting a layoff plan to accommodate councilman Kurt Peluso’s suggestion to halve this year’s projected residential tax increase -- he recommended that council make smart cuts and develop a concerted long-range focus for Fair Lawn.
“I believe if we’re going to move forward and stabilize future budgets that it should be done with a plan,” Metzler said. “We need to decide what services we are going to cut and then move forward as a body and go out and explain to the residents why those services are going to be cut. If we think we’re going to be able to do this by just random cuts on the backs of our employees, I would suggest to you that we’re going to fail.”
During the budget wrap, when individual layoffs were being discussed, Metzler noted that the borough’s workforce had gotten down to its current bare bones condition through attrition, rather than through any real direction.
“That’s not necessarily the best way to do it,” he said. “Basically as people left, we just didn’t rehire and we kind of moved people in to fill.”
Many borough employees now work in multiple roles outside of their actual job titles and have been shifted from department to department as needed.
In spite of this, they've persevered, Metzler said, and should be commended for stepping up to provide exemplary service to the town during last year's destructive storms.
"If the employees wanted to stick it to the town, that was their chance to stick it to the town," he said, referring to the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm. "They could have turned around and said, 'No, we don’t want to work overtime.' But they did their best to get the town through this."
Metzler said that to look to the employees -- who already took 14 furlough days in 2010 -- and attempt to balance the budget on their backs again would be unfair.
"I don’t think lack of planning on the part of prior elected officials should be borne on the shoulders of the employees," he said.
Going forward, Metzler recommended the council embrace the new economic reality and put a serious plan in place to prioritize the needs of the community rather than simply resorting to furloughs or layoffs when finances get tight.
“I think we have to reach a consensus and say, ‘Listen this is what we’re going to eliminate. Manager, come up with a way that we can do this that it’s going to have the least amount of impact on our residents.’”
Growing the surplus through shared services
Although Metzler has often expressed high regard for the prior council’s ability to trim operating costs, he called irresponsible its decision to levy a zero tax increase last year and further deplete the surplus.
He said he didn’t question the past council’s right to use the borough’s surplus to hold taxes flat and give struggling residents a pass for a year, but expressed concern over the lack of foresight demonstrated by the council's gutting of the surplus without establishing a sustainable revenue generation model to rebuild it.
Since he took over in January, Metzler has worked tirelessly to generate revenue to rebuild the surplus -- which will be down from $10 million to about $2 million after this fiscal year.
A true believer that a strong surplus makes for a strong community, Metzler has repeatedly warned the council that it’ll be game over for Fair Lawn once the surplus is depleted.
“There’s no coming back from it,” he said, expounding on the horror stories other communities have faced once their surpluses run dry.
After council balked at many of his early suggestions for generating revenue because they amounted to additional fees for residents, Metzler is now focusing his attention on doubling down on the services Fair Lawn can offer other communities and trying to establish shared service agreements with them.
"Until council tells me otherwise, I’m going to continue to try to find ways to generate new revenue and not do it on the backs of the residents," he said.
The borough is currently in negotiations to share services with a variety of towns, although details of the arrangements won't be disclosed until they are finalized.
At Tuesday's budget wrap meeting, Deputy Mayor John Cosgrove concurred with Metzler and proposed that the council begin next work session trying to prioritize the importance of the services the borough provides and then figure out from there where cuts can be made in the coming year.