League of Women Voters
The New Jersey Chapter of the League of Women Voters polls candidates annually with compelling and thought provoking questions. Here is my response to the questions they posed this year:
What are your short-term and long-term plans to address the budgetary and economic impacts of COVID-19 in our municipality?
In the months immediately following the start of the pandemic, it was evident that economic distress was impacting both our residents and businesses. Job 1 in Bedminster is always keeping taxes low but, in light of these extenuating circumstances, the Township Committee elected to delay its budget adoption. We further reduced allocations, suspended employee raises, and further trimmed an already lean capital budget. This reformulated “COVID Budget” resulted in a net tax increase of only 0.64% versus 2019, which translates into $5.45 for the average taxpayer. Recognizing that our taxpayers may have experienced a job loss or a delay in collecting unemployment benefits, we also extended the 2Q taxpayer grace period by a month, giving residents more time to pay.
The local tax burden is shared by residents and businesses alike. A healthy local economy helps ease the load shouldered by our residents. Our longer term objective is to focus on getting our local businesses back on their feet. Our businesses are reopening in a safe, thoughtful way that enables our local economy to survive. One way we have accomplished this is through special use permits, which are temporary "licenses" that allow businesses to operate in different ways. For example, issuing an outdoor dining permit to a local restaurant can provide additional dining capacity beyond their indoor seating, which is likely to be significantly restricted for the foreseeable future. Other examples of special use permits include temporary signage, outdoor displays and sidewalk sales, and designated parking spaces for curbside pickup. I have and will continue to support these novel approaches to getting our businesses back on track.
As elected officials, we understand that the ramifications of this crisis will extend far into the future, certainly into 2021 and beyond. It is therefore imperative that we continue to run “lean and mean” when it comes to both operating expense and capital. Mind you this is business as usual in Bedminster, but we will not support any initiatives that place an undue burden on our taxpayers or introduce unnecessary expense into our budget.
Looking ahead to a post-pandemic future, what are we learning from the impact of the COVID-19 public health crisis on municipal operations that will change how municipalities operate in the future?
What most municipalities have learned and adopted as a result of the pandemic is the need to virtualize the operation. Township business should not stop during a crisis. As a matter of fact, that’s often when residents need us the most. Leveraging technology to accomplish our work is paramount. Enabling employees to work from home so township business could continue was critical; and going forward, activating a remote workforce will be central to our crisis response. Bedminster led the way in business continuity – for example, our shared court was virtualized, allowing the judge, prosecutor, defendants and legal counsel to meet in a state-approved online court environment. Our investments in infrastructure and technology have already paid dividends, and will continue to be shaped by what the pandemic has taught us.
In the weeks and months following the initial wave, we also recognized that our residents needed consolidated, actionable information. Remember, these were the days when information and guidelines from state and federal agencies was coming fast and furious, and was oftentimes conflicting. We created a Resident Information Resource Guide and used traditional communication channels as well as social media to get word out to our residents. This guide was updated regularly, and included information such as: updated hours for our local businesses, including grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants; links for collecting unemployment benefits; applications for grants and federal aid for business owners; COVID testing locations; a list of what was open and what was closed, both locally and state wide; and a host of other information. The lesson here: residents look to local government and elected officials for information in times of crisis, and we need to proactively communicate early and often.
Finally, if nothing else, the pandemic has taught us to always be prepared to respond to the unexpected. For example, early on, we recognized that many of our friends and neighbors were food-challenged as a result of either job loss or a fear of shopping in public. We quickly created a pop-up food pantry, which allowed us to solicit non-perishable food donations and distribute them to those in need. Over a 10 week period, this pantry provided food, toiletries and other essential items to over 650 families in our immediate area. As elected officials, we should we always be prepared to expect the unexpected, and mobilize our assets and resources (frequently in unconventional ways) to address the needs of the constituents we serve.