BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The 2018 municipal budget outlined last week at the Township Committee meeting, which would keep the municipal tax rate almost flat even while spending more money for roads and other municipal projects put off in recent years, is due to be introduced on March 13.

"This is the first budget that transfers focus from open space to infrastructure...focus(ing) on projects put off for the last few years," Terri Johnson, Chief Financial Officer for Bernards Township, said at Tuesday's Township Committee meeting. Much of the increase is for road improvements, as well as for the replacement of crumbling pedestrian bridges.

The proposed 2018 municipal budget totals $19,924.291.84, a slight reduction from $19,967,477.38 in 2017.

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Final adoption scheduled for April 10

The second and final vote on adoption of the 2018 budget is scheduled for the April 10 Township Committee meeting. 

If approved as proposed, the 2018 municipal tax levy on an average Bernards Township home, assessed at $625,385.06 for 2018, would be $11.67 less than in 2017. 

However, based on estimates, the total property tax increase for Bernards Township residents would still increase for this year, due to anticipated tax rate increases in the township school tax rate, and also the Somerset County tax rate for 2018. 

If the township's estimates are accurate for school and county tax levies, the property tax bill on the average house would increase from $12,479.34 in 2017 to $12,620.27 for 2018.

The 2018 budget preview posted on the township website says the municipal portion of the overall township property tax rate would drop by a tenth of a penny, to 29.3 cents from the 29.4 cents per $100 of assessed property value in 2017. 

The 4-cent township open space tax, which raised $2.7 million annually, ended in 2017, with about 20 percent of the township preserved through some sort of land preservation program, according to the municipality. 

"The open space initiative was extremely successful," Johnson said. 

The 2018 budget as proposed would increase the municipality's capital expenditure budget by $2.5 million in 2018 "In an effort to maintain our aging infrastructure, primarily the roads), Johnson said in an email.

The budget also includes funding to replace pedestrian bridges on Lyons and Stonehouse roads and Southard Park that were closed due to structural defects, Johnson said last week.

The proposed budget includes an additional $1.1 million for roadway management, $600,000 for pedestrian bridge costs, $750,000 for rescue equipment for emergency responders, and $20,000 to address pedestrian safety on Allen Road in The Hills. The total budget for road projects, not including some related expenses in other accounts, is proposed at $3.15 million for this year, Johnson added after the meeting.

The balance of the increase this year will be due to other rising operating expenses for 2018, including a 5.2 percent increase to the cost of police pensions, and a 3.2 percent increase for local employee pensions other than police, according to township figures.

Health insurance costs are flat this year, and insurance costs for the municipality are down by $44,000 for 2018, the budget overview stated.

The municipal budget makes up less than 15 percent of a property owner's total property tax bill, according to township figures. According to Johnson, the total budget is $370,000 less than what would be allowed under the state budget cap.