22 Aug 2014
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Proposed Municipal Budget Includes Slight Tax Increase

Health-care and pension costs among reasons for increase

Proposed Municipal Budget Includes Slight Tax Increase

After many months of work with leaders of departments from all parts of the town's administration, Helene Schlegel presented the preliminary budget for the upcoming year.

The proposed budget of $44,303,515 incorporates a .008-cent municipal tax rate increase, with a $29 tax hike on a home assessed at the average township value of $350,000.

Some of the factors leading to the increase were beyond the township's control, Schlegel said. Last year's budget included $20,994,263 in "non-controllable other expenses." In this year's proposal that line item increased to $22,069,399, which is an increase of 5.12 percent.

On the other hand Schlegel said the proposed budget includes a decrease in controllable expenses. The budget she presented included $2,917,180 in controllable expenses, which was down $1,006,924 from last year, a reduction of 25.66 percent.

When asked by Mayor Robert Walsh about how much things such as pension costs and health-care costs have increased from 2007, Schlegel said at that time the pension costs for public employees was $283,196. That number has increased $1,088,132. For the Howell Police Department their budget costs were $1,432,900, which has increased comparatively less to $2,581,594.

Schlegel said for health-care the township spent $2,669,405 in 2007 compared to the $3,242,936 they will spend this year after employee contributions.

Schlegel also said the township lost close to $350,000 in grant money from last year, which also had an impact on the budget.

One point of pride for Schlegel was the fact that the proposed budget for 2012 continued a trend of being lower than what the township adopted in 2007. Five years ago the township was spending $24,879,821 in operating expenses and $19,952,161 in salaries and wages. Currently those proposed numbers stand at $24,738,253 for operating expenses and $19,565,262 for salaries and wages.

After years where layoffs and furloughs were utilized as cost-saving measures, Schlegel said this year's budget did not include either of those steps. With staffing below where it was in 2007 Schlegel said there are plans to continue reducing the staff through what she called "attrition, restructuring and shared agreements."

Another area Schlegel said the township will look at going forward is ways to increase revenues. According to numbers from Trenton the township will receive the same amount of aid from the state that they received last year, which totaled $7,918,357.

In following with a best practices checklist from Gov. Chris Christie's office, Schlegel said the township has done well in following those guidelines. "We've managed to score as high as possibly could," she said. "That's why we were able to receive our full compliment of state aid."

From last year to this year the township does expect to gain $245,293 more in revenue from last year.

This year's proposed budget also includes $1,458,867 in capital requests. $877 thousand of that is for capital equipment. According to the budget provided at the meeting that includes $500,000 for a new loader for the public works department and $264,000 to replace the mobile video cameras in police cars.

There is also $35,000 to replace and repair the siding of the historic Mackenzie Museum in town as well as $155 thousand for the Ramtown First Aid Squad to put a new chassis on an ambulance.

The budget Schlegel presented also included $322,200 in engineering projects. That includes $150 for curb, sidewalk, tree removal and municipal improvements as well as $100,000 for intersection improvements.

As part of her presentation Schlegel said there were several goals she was hoping to accomplish with this year's budget. First on that list was "to expand opportunities to strengthen partnerships with the , the Chamber of Commerce and surrounding municipalities. 

One of the first steps in that process was teaming with the board and the Police Athletic League to provide recreational opportunities for the residents. 

One area that Mayor Walsh said he would like looked at before the budget is formally introduced and adopted at later meetings is the potential of township employees receiving raises. 

After years of no raises and going through the furloughs and pay cuts, the mayor asked about even one percent raises. Schlegel said for one year a one percent increase would cost $80 thousand or $40 thousand for half a year. Township CFO Jeff Filliatreault said for the year that would result in a tax increase of $2 per home for half a year's raise. 

Mayor Walsh said he would like that to be discussed as the budget process goes on. Several members of the council including Councilwoman Pauline Smith joined him in agreement of looking into that. 

Councilman Rob Nicastro said he also supported a raise for the employees. "I would just like some information on basically how we compare to other municipalities in those salaries," he said. "With more information I think that's when the discussion really should take place."

Another area of concern for the mayor was the possibility of the Howell Public Schools helping to pay for the Howell Police Department officers in the schools. While it was discussed with the board last year, Mayor Walsh said he would like to see it acted on this year.

He asked that a letter be sent to the school board members and the administration so it can be considered as part of their as well. "Last year I was told if we had known, so I want it to go to everybody so nobody can say they didn't know," he said. 

The budget for this year also comes at an interesting time as the township prepares to move its municipal offices from Preventorium Rd. to Route 9. Councilman Juan Malave asked how much if any of the money in the budget was being used for the new municipal complex.

Schlegel said in response to Malave that the money for the new complex formerly known as the Global Building had already been set aside by the township. Costs associated with the building will be offset by the rent being paid by tenants on the first floor of the property. Mayor Walsh said he believed close to 85 percent of the floor is rented to outside companies. 

Deputy Mayor William Gotto also addressed a concern that residents have expressed when it comes to the building. The numbers in the budget are for the operating expenses in the building not improvements to the building. "The items that have been discussed erroneously about items that we have put out to bid to spend to upgrade things in that building came out of money that was already collected and is not being reflected in this budget," he said.

Gotto said items that are being upgraded have already been allocated in money set aside for the move. "It was budgeted so that we can spend up to five years worth of maintenance up front and it was funded so it was not reflected back as an extra cost to the taxpayers," he said.

Mayor Walsh said the five year plan did not mean things would be done at the end of that five years and Gotto said the understanding was that they were "buying the building plus five years worth of maintenance."

In concluding Schlegel credited the department heads in attendance for their work during the process and their support during the meeting. She also thanked the mayor and council for their "vision and their support of the staff and of the mission in the town and for setting a direction," she said. "We want you to know that we have a common goal as you do and we will work diligently to reach that goal together and I think we will get there."

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