WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved a new contract for its chief financial officer, John Gross, at its April 26 meeting, dating retroactively to Jan. 1 of this year and expiring at the end of 2024. The contract includes Gross’ regular duties as CFO in addition to those of the business administrator position, which Gross has taken on since the retirement of previous business administrator Jack Sayers at the end of 2021. Gross has worked in West Orange since 2011; he has also worked part-time as Dover’s CFO since 2020. The contract was approved with a vote of 4 to 1; Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown cast the opposing vote.
Gross’ base salary will be $265,412 per year. His salary is subject to adjustment so that it will be 1 percent higher than the second highest salary in the township. While he will retain his health benefits, the council discussed the savings in benefits that come from combining the positions of CFO and business administrator.
Mayor Robert Parisi acknowledged that having one person act as CFO and business administrator at the same time is unusual, but Sayers proved hard to replace and Gross is qualified to do both.
“West Orange is a town of over 300 employees and 50,000 people, and if you think it doesn’t take talented people to run a government of a nearly $90 million budget in a 24-hour-a-day job, (you’re wrong). It takes talented people,” Parisi said at the meeting. “There’s a huge void of talented people with the proper certifications out there in government, and the pool of people is disappearing daily.”
Several residents objected to the contract during the public comment portion of the meeting, as well as at the meeting on May 10; some wanted the business administrator position to be opened to the public for applications, others said a three-year contract is too long and many objected to the raise that Gross will be receiving.
“I don’t want to make light of what we’re asking, but I also don’t want to undersell the fact that although politics is entertainment to a lot of people, we are a town of 50,000 people and 300 employees with a lot of responsibilities every day, and John Gross is serving in the two most important roles in that government. He’s doing so with professionalism and expertise that right now at this particular moment in time is irreplaceable,” Parisi said. “When Jack retired, we didn’t miss a beat because John stepped right in. I understand this is a big ask, but in any organization, public or private, you have to keep the people that bring the talent to running that operation.”
Other residents took issue with the fact that Gross is concurrently working part-time for Dover; council members said they had no issue with the arrangement as Gross has continued to fulfill all of his West Orange duties.
“Mr. Gross does not sleep, even on vacation,” Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown said at the meeting. “It does not matter how often we ask the question and how many times he has to clarify. He has continuously and always been responsive.”
Councilman Bill Rutherford concurred with Matute-Brown, saying at the meeting that Gross has gone above and beyond in his time on the council. Rutherford did want to table the resolution to vote on at a later date in an effort to resolve civil service back pay negotiations with employees who were put on unpaid leave during the COVID-19 pandemic before a decision was made on Gross’ salary. All township employees who were placed on unpaid leave have been brought back. Rutherford did ultimately vote in favor of the resolution and said at the meeting that he supported the contract.
Matute-Brown did not, saying that future budgets could be unmanageable. She cited the same back pay negotiations that Rutherford did as another reason she voted against the resolution. In addition, Matute-Brown is opposed to the inclusion of longevity pay in the contract when other employees do not have that benefit because of their date of hire.
“Mr. Gross, in no way does this mean that I have any less respect for you,” Matute-Brown said at the meeting. “We’ve had plenty of conversations where I have expressed, both publicly and privately, my appreciation and my gratitude for your service to our township. I think you do phenomenal work, but I can’t support it under this structure.”
Gross said in an email to the West Orange Chronicle that he is happy to remain working in West Orange.
“I am extremely honored and appreciate the confidence the mayor and council have placed in my abilities to work for the betterment of the township and its residents,” he said.