Garwood Council Members Talk Property Taxes, Athletic Field Complex, Bulk Pick-Up
Drama ensued when Councilman Jim Mathieu debated Mayor Quattrocchi on the facts in a letter to the editor she wrote the "Westfield Leader" regarding the Athletic Field Complex.
Tuesday's Garwood Council meeting, the second regular meeting of the year, brought discussion between council members on Garwood's property taxes, the council's recreation committee, bulk pick-up and an argument between Mayor Quattrocchi and Councilman Jim Mathieu over a letter she wrote to the Westfield Leader regarding the borough's Athletic Field Complex. Mathieu also questioned Quattrocchi on whether the council was in violation of its bylaws for not appointing a three-member recreation committee.
During the workshop session of the meeting Councilman Jim Mathieu criticized the council for 2012's 4.3 percent property tax increase after the Star-Ledger published the increases for the state and Garwood's increase ranked among the highest in the county, third behind Mountainside and Kenilworth.
Council President and Finance Chair Sara Todisco defended the borough's increase, noting that Garwood's tax bill includes garbage pickup, which many towns do not provide, and residents' sewer bills, which many towns bill separately from property taxes. Todisco also added that the increase was in part due to an increase of $100,000 in legal bills. Still, Todisco said the percent increase was something she also was not happy to see and she hopes that this year's budget will not include as steep a hike.
Mathieu later added that he felt the council was "slow or basically uninterested" in pursuing opportunities for shared services that could save the borough money and ease property taxes. Quattrocchi replied by saying the leads she received regarding opportunities for shared services have not sat idle and that Councilman Nierstedt is investigating them.
Athletic Field Complex
Resident Joe Garritano took the mic during the public comments portion of the meeting to voice disapproval of Garwood tax increases. Garritano said his taxes have risen from $4,800 to $6,300 over seven years. Garritano also asked about the cost to residents of the borough's under-construction Athletic Field Complex. Todisco explained that the cost per home assessed at $100K is $65 each year for 15 years, while the actual tax impact will only be $25 per home assessed at $100K for 15 years because of expiring debt.
Garritano also argued that "everything is cloaked" regarding how the council makes decisions, to which Mayor Quattrocchi responded that the Athletic Field Complex has been discussed for more than 10 years now in public meetings and mentioned in the newsletters produced by the previous administration. Quattrocchi also pointed to one of those newsletters, which asked residents if they wanted a referendum on the project. Quattrocchi says only 25 people responded.
Mathieu then argued that the newsletters never shed light on the $3.2 million cost of the project and that Quattrocchi misstated the cost of the project in an Aug. 16 letter to the Westfield Leader. Mathieu asked Quattrocchi to point to the figure she mentioned in her letter in the project ordinance, trying to hand her a copy of the ordinance.
Quattrocchi defended herself saying her letter was in response to a picture that wrongly quoted the building price and she received the correct cost from the borough's bonding attorney.
Todisco at one point tried to stop the fight, asking borough attorney Robert Renaud if Mathieu was out of order.
"I stand by my numbers," said Quattrocchi.
"The mayor can't get it right, but you're supposed to know it," Mathieu said to Garritano.
See the photo and letter in our gallery, right.
Recreation Committee and Violation of Bylaws
Councilman Jim Mathieu asked Borough Attorney Robert Renaud if the council was in violation of borough bylaws because the mayor had only appointed a liaison to the Recreation Department (Councilman Louis Petruzzelli) and not a three-person Recreation Committee, which the bylaws stipulate.
The mayor explained that she had been investigating whether or not a full committee was necessary, seeing as the Recreation Department has a commission governing it separate from the council committee.
"When you look at the bylaws for the committee and the commission, they are charged with doing the very same thing," said Quattrocchi, adding that she spoke to Renaud and Petruzzelli about the issue. "I asked if it was necessary to have a full-blown recreation committee when the commission does the work and the committee did nothing."
Renaud said there is no requirement to have a recreation committee.
Mathieu said he felt that the mayor should appoint the full committee, be in compliance with the bylaws and then have the committee decide whether or not to dissolve itself and amend the bylaws accordingly. Councilman Nierstedt said he agreed with Mathieu. Mathieu previously served as the recreation liaison but was removed by the mayor in April 2012.
The mayor said she was also open to that approach. Renaud suggested asking the council what they preferred - a full committee or only a liaison – but also felt that it should be given more thought before abolishing the committee.
The mayor referred the issue back to the Laws & Licenses committee to come to a determination.
Certificates of Noncomformity
Councilwoman Ann Palmer announced that the Laws & Licenses committee (which includes Palmer, Todisco and Victor DeFilippo) had discussed the issue of certificates of nonconformity for borough homes affected by zoning changes.
The 2009 master plan (adopted in 2011) changed several of the borough's multi-family home zones into single-family home zones. Those homes that were currently multi-family homes were grandfathered in and can remain multi-family homes; however, homeowners must apply for a new certificate of occupancy within a year of the zoning change if they do not already have one. Legally, the borough had no obligation to individually notify residents of the change or the need for a certificate of occupancy if they didn't presently have one, but many homeowners have come before the planning board to say they were not aware of the change and are upset they now have to pay a $400 fee for the certificate.
Palmer said that although the borough did fulfill its legal obligation to inform residents, that Garwood could have done more. Therefore, the committee proposed waiving the fee for 2013 as a sign of good faith. For 2014 forward, the committee suggested reducing the fee to $200 to be more in line with other municipalities.
Council members agreed on reducing the fee but were split on whether or not to waive it altogether for 2013.
"We'd be asking residents who have gotten their certificate of occupancy to accept an increase to pay for the service of the planning board, board attorney and secretary for those who didn't," argued Nierstedt.
Mathieu and Petruzzelli agreed with Nierstedt, causing a split vote among councilmembers as to how to proceed. The mayor, with the tie-breaking vote, voted that the borough should not waive the fee and sent the issue back to the Laws & Licenses committee to revisit.
Councilman Bill Nierstedt reported that after committee discussions, the borough will now request quotes from vendors for an opt-in user-paid bulk pick-up program. Councilwoman Todisco suggested that in addition to receiving quotes for pick-up by the ton, that the borough also ask vendors to submit quotes for the cost per household to see if perhaps that figure would be lower.