BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Each week leading to the November 5 election, the candidates running for Berkeley Heights Township Council have the opportunity to answer question(s) that will be run in a series by TAPinto Berkeley Heights.

The following answer is from Republican Township Council Candidate Manuel "Manny" Couto for Week 2.

Week 2 Question:

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Residents are concerned about rising taxes in Berkeley Heights. The tax bill is made up of numbers from the County, School and Township. The Township's portion of the tax bill is the smallest. Many costs are out of the Council's control with the rising cost of services and employee benefits. However, tax payers want to know how you will control the budget while maintaining and improving infrastructure issues and services and preparing for the future. Please explain your plan.

As a long-time resident of Berkeley Heights, paying higher taxes is not something that I like to happen. Realistically, the only way to keep costs down without cutting services is to adopt strategies that will enable our township’s employees to work smarter and/or faster. We can accomplish this through Shared Services Agreements, or Berkeley Heights can partner with other neighboring communities, Union County, or the Board or Education to share services together. For instance, we have explored shared service agreements in the areas of IT services, public health services, vehicle and field maintenance services, salt dome storage, garbage pick-up, animal control services, and municipal court services. So, there are options out there for us to look into and pursue. It’s just a matter of actualizing these options.

In addition to shared services, we need to look for opportunities to increase the township’s revenue stream. We have done this recently by the “Room Tax” that the Embassy Suites Hotel assesses, which creates positive revenue for our township. We need to think strategically to capitalize on more areas of opportunity such as these. Moreover, we need to examine our fee structure to ensure that we are charging residents for use-based services, rather than burdening all taxpayers through the overall taxpayer base.

Locally we would look to maximize our tax dollars by streamlining process, improve efficiency, monitor current systems and provide updates as needed and create new systems that can save our residents money, without raising taxes. This can neither be accomplished overnight, nor can it be done in a matter of months. It takes time, research and planning, collaborative effort and grant fund availability. It takes a balanced council that looks at the bills while discussing process, it takes a balanced council that is willing to work together to study process that are successful in other towns, it takes a balanced council and a background in financial expertise. My 30 years of being a self-employed realtor has given me some insight on how to save money and work collaboratively with others. Running a real estate office with independent contractors takes listening to their needs and proper planning to follow state guidelines.

None of us in Berkeley Heights wants to pay more taxes. With only 18 cents of each tax dollar going to our town, and 23.4% going to Union County, we want to make sure we get back in services for what we pay. What we do want are: safe roads to drive on; safe sidewalks for kids and adults to walk along; a walkable downtown, and a home where we can proudly raise our families. By researching and aggressively, consistently pursuing additional grant dollars from Union county of whom we pay 23.4 % or OUR tax dollars, Federal, NJDOT and NJ Transit grants, I think that we may be able to increase our return on our levy.

Additionally, we really need to start focusing on obtaining additional funds through federal and state grants that are available. We need to start pursuing these grant opportunities aggressively. The state recently awarded Berkeley Heights a $400,000 grant - one of the largest grants in its history - for road improvements. We applied for this grant in 2018, and only received the monies from it in 2019. Berkeley Heights also received the largest Safe Streets to Transit grant; $410,000 (applied for in 2018). By having grant funding cover various costs, our tax dollars can be allocated elsewhere.

We greatly appreciate the many residents who volunteer their time and efforts in keeping our small town beautiful. These people serve on committees, donating their time for free, and seek nothing other than the enhancement of our town in return. Their efforts can be seen when you walk down the streets of our downtown - from the hanging baskets as well as the historical and veterans’ banners that line Springfield Avenue, to the clock at Peppertown Park and the plantings around the town signs that welcome people to our town. These efforts make our town visibly more beautiful, and allow us to collectively take pride in the efforts that our friends and neighbors have worked tirelessly to implement, all without increasing our taxes.

I pledge to continue to work collaboratively with the volunteer community, the town council, and other shareholders in the community to control costs while maximizing services to the residents.