Business & Finance

Berkeley Heights Council Introduces $16,435,991 Budget; Seniors Protest Changes to Senior Citizen Bus Schedule

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The average Berkeley Heights homeowner, with a property assessed at $305,000, would pay a total of $574.09 more for government services at all levels if the municipal budget introduced Tuesday by the Township Council is adopted after the scheduled public hearing on the measure on May 10.

According to figures presented by Council President Kevin Hall, expenses attributable to municipal government alone would jump by $146.40 under the proposed spending plan.

Hall noted that, under a newly-adopted state law, New Jersey municipalities must designate a separate line on the tax bill and in their budgets for the statutorily-mandated contribution of each municipality to its public library.

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He explained this does not indicate an additional tax, just a more definitive way of showing the expenditure on local tax bills.

Therefore, Berkeley Heights residents whose homes are assessed at $305,000 will see a separate line item for library expenses on their tax bills amounting to $201.30. This combined, with a $54.90 decrease in spending attributable to township government, outside of the library, brings a total increase for municipal expenditures to $146.40.

In addition, the county portion of the tax bill on the average Berkeley Heights home will increase by $121.33 for 2011, and school expenses will go up $306.36.

Hall added the governing body decided to apply $700,000 of the township’s surplus to make the local tax increase less onerous, but this will bring the surplus to an extremely low level and make it more difficult for the township to meet an unexpected emergency if one should happen later in the year.

However, he noted, when the township begins to see the benefit of increased parking fees adopted in January this should bring more money back into surplus.

Additionally, according to Business Administrator Amey Upchurch, if tax collections come in above the 98.8% level currently projected in the budget, this would increase the amount available in surplus.

Also, according to Council Member Robert Woodruff, sale of any township assets could yield an increase in surplus available.

Township revenues, according to Hall, will benefit from a $200,000 New Jersey Department of Transportation grant for the paving of Park Avenue and from a slow increase in the amount of construction fees being collected by the township.

State aid, he added, will remain at the same level as it was in 2010.

On the appropriations side of the budget, although salaries and wages will decrease by $92,391 and operating expenses by $31,764, statutory expenses (chiefly pensions) will increase by $227,036, operations excluded from the state cap on spending by $140,263 and debt service excluded from the cap by $112,573.

On another matter, a discussion aimed at formalizing a schedule and setting limits on the use of the township senior citizen bus brought protests from a number of seniors in attendance at Monday’s meeting.

Council Vice President Craig Pastore said the township was exploring a schedule that would have the bus go on two regular “loops” along Springfield Avenue from Monday through Thursday—one starting at 8:45 a.m. and the other starting at 1pm.

Seniors would be required to give a 24 or 48-hour notice to the township on which “loop” they would like to be included.  They would be picked up at their homes and dropped off at their destinations, such as stores or doctors’ offices, and picked up later at their destinations for the return home.

On Fridays the bus would make trips to shopping areas close to Berkeley Heights.

Mayor Joseph Bruno explained the new schedules and restrictions were being imposed because a group of seniors recently were taken on the township-owned bus to the Hunterdon County Playhouse for dinner and a theater performance by a driver not certified by the township and without the knowledge of township officials.

Senior Lillian Weisgerber replied the seniors had paid for the trip and would have collectively lost $2,500 if the bus had not been made available.

Bruno replied it was not safe for the township, which has liability for the bus and its passengers, to allow it to go on unauthorized trips.

He added, with the cost of gasoline approaching $5 per gallon, the township could not afford to have trips of more than 35 or 40 miles from Berkeley Heights and without the authorization of township authorities.

Weisgerber noted the 278 properties owned by seniors in Berkeley Heights yielded $1,729,579 in taxes.

She added the township’s support for the other expenses of the Berkeley Heights Senior Citizen Organization had decreased from $14,000 per year in 2009 to $9,000 this year and 20.7% of the township’s population was made up of senior citizens, according to the 2000 census.

Pastore replied the figures were not quite accurate because the township funding did not aid all seniors in Berkeley Heights, only those who belong to the organization.

Another senior, Al Hannemann of 35 Chaucer Place, said the township governing body had adopted a policy in 1995 specifically dealing with the senior citizen bus and the township should abide by the policy.

Woodruff replied it was time for the policy to be updated and the council only was looking for a way to have the system meet the needs of all township seniors while making sure township officials could properly monitor the bus use.

Regina Hague, president of the senior organization, said her group did not use the bus to “go on junkets,” as implied by Pastore at a recent meeting with her, and the township seniors had specifically been invited to events at Kean University and the PNC Arts Center.

She asked that the bus be used for such trips because it provided vital social services to widows and those unable to get around due to illness or old age.

In another action, the council introduced an ordinance that would require those who wished to develop subdivisions containing so-called “flag lots” that would result in situations requiring variances for adjacent properties not owned by the developer to obtain more restrictive “C” variances before developing the subdivisions.

Patrick Fuhrmann of Orchard Lane, although supportive of the general concept of the ordinance, said it should put further restrictions or an outright ban on the development of “flag lots,” and let developers seek variances from those restrictions.

Council Member Thomas Pirone said he understood Fuhrman’s concerns, but the township planner, the township attorney and the Planning Board attorney had to be able to defend any proposed ordinance in court.

The council referred the ordinance to the Planning Board for review at its April 20 meeting and that board is expected to return it to the council for adoption on April 26. 

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