Council’s meeting to finalize the budget began auspiciously enough Tuesday night when during opening council comments Kurt Peluso thanked the borough manager for crafting a layoff plan to address his earlier request that the proposed residential tax increase be cut in half.
By the time the council’s post-meeting budget wrap had concluded, however, residents were asking feuding council members to tone down the yelling and “play nice,” in what ended up being arguably the most contentious partisan council confrontation yet.
The work session’s discussion centered on squaring borough manager Tom Metzler’s large-scale layoff plan that he and chief financial officer Karen Palermo designed at Peluso’s behest.
To meet Peluso’s desire to cut in half the proposed tax increase on the average residential dwelling, Palermo determined that council would be forced to make an approximately $800,000 cut from the budget – which equated to laying off 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees.
Accounting for the fact that any layoffs approved as part of the budget wouldn’t go into effect until July 1 at the earliest, Metzler estimated that to reach the $800,000 figure this year would require laying off about twice as many employees as his plan recommended.
Slashing some 40 employees from the borough’s already bare bones workforce did not appeal to any of the councilmembers, including Peluso, who suggested a more piecemeal approach.
“I think if we look at a few positions here and there we can still save the taxpayers a significant amount of money,” said Peluso, who recommended not filling a couple vacant positions included in the original budget. “I don’t see why we should be adding positions when right now the borough hall is working without it.”
Peluso achieved a consensus from council to both forego hiring a construction official and at least consider outsourcing a payroll clerk.
Metzler defended maintaining an in-house payroll clerk and asked council to leave money in the budget for the position, but nonetheless agreed to return to council in a month with quotes on outsourcing the job.
At Deputy Mayor Ed Trawinski’s request, council agreed to re-write the salary ordinance for the payroll clerk position, which had an advertised salary range of $50,000 to $75,000.
“If the amount stays in the budget, I’d like to do a salary ordinance reducing it to somewhere in the order of magnitude of $30-to-$35,000,” Trawinski said. “The [salary] tiers that we’ve had for a decade and two decades don’t work in this economy.”
Councilwoman Lisa Swain took Trawinski’s salary reduction suggestion a step further, asking and receiving consensus from council that all future hires start at lower salaries.
The meeting’s productive and bipartisan course came to a crashing halt when Peluso attempted to persuade his Republican counterparts to cut the position of recreation supervisor – a position, unlike the others discussed, that is currently filled.
Peluso asserted that compared to neighboring municipalities, Fair Lawn’s recreation department was top heavy and could stand to cut the recreation supervisor -- one of the department’s four managerial positions -- based on his review of the job’s salary and responsibilities.
“Professionally, I work for a YMCA, “ Peluso said, “and looking at some of these responsibilities to the responsibilities that we have for our staff members, it’s mind-boggling. If I was to discuss this with our YMCA employees they would be very, very shocked.”
Metzler declined to support Peluso's proposed cut, saying he preferred to first confer with recreation superintendent Jim Graff to learn what effects cutting the position might have on the department.
“I’m reluctant to do it just pulling a position out,” Metzler said. “I do believe that there’s an opportunity to streamline some of these programs, but again in doing so, I think it’s going to result in elimination of some programs that we offer, and I think you should know that beforehand, not afterwards.”
Trawinski agreed with the manager, and said going through position cuts one-by-one without any context was a mistake.
“I am prepared to make difficult decisions to do further cuts,” he said. “But I don’t do them this way…I’m concerned about the effect on the people who use the recreation program. At this moment in time, I have no idea whether that effect would be positive or negative.”
Rebuffed by all three Republicans on cutting the recreation supervisor position, Peluso declined to continue suggesting some of the other layoffs he had in mind.
“That one I thought that was the biggest homerun out of them all,” he said of his suggestion to eliminate the recreation supervisor.
A few minutes later, when consensus was sought on the budget as a whole, both Peluso and Swain opposed it.
After Peluso’s vote, Mayor Jeanne Baratta -- who had hoped to achieve unanimous support for the budget -- asked Peluso what needed to be done for him to vote in favor of the budget.
His response set of a firestorm.
“If there’s an unwillingness for our council members to cut this [recreation supervisor] position,” Peluso responded. “I don’t think there would be a willingness to help the taxpayers any more.”
The comment set off Trawinski and the partisan floodgates opened.
“That’s not fair,” Trawinski exploded. “You know damn well, councilman, that every one of us is willing to help the taxpayers. Every single one of us…That is poppycock, pure poppycock to frame it that way.”
Trawinski went on to predict that two years from now Fair Lawn Democrats would hit Fair Lawn Republicans with a campaign piece excoriating them for not wanting to help the taxpayers.
Peluso responded that his vote was not politically motivated and asked why Republican assertions that his motives were political continued to surface.
“I disagree with this budget and that’s it, that’s my vote,” he said. “But you keep prying me and asking my reasons, I give my reasons and you find they’re not acceptable. I’m sorry I just don’t agree with this budget.”
Baratta then jumped into the fray, telling Peluso she didn’t respect his opinion because he had come to the previous budget wrap up, in her opinion, determined to vote ‘no’ on the budget, no matter what.
“We’re trying to work together,” she said. “But you just wanted to vote ‘no.’”
Unable to reach a unanimous consensus, council elected to move forward with the budget -- amending it to include all changes made during the wrap-up.
It passed by a 3-to-2 party-line vote and will be introduced to the public at the May 8 council meeting.