Hi, this is Stephen Yellin; I'm a lifelong resident of Berkeley Heights who's running for Township Council this year. You can find my name on the ballot in the lower left-hand corner (Column A, Row 9). To learn more about my campaign, visit http://www.bhdems.com .

Unlike my opponents, I have been actively going door-to-door over the last few months, speaking with hundreds of residents about their concerns and listening to their ideas to move Berkeley Heights forward. It should not come as a surprise to you, the reader that Property Taxes has been the #1 topic of discussion. I want to take the time in this article to address this critical issue, and what I propose (specifically) to do about it.

First off, the residents of Berkeley Heights need to know the truth: any candidate who says they will cut your taxes next year if elected is deceiving you. There are a few reasons why you should automatically dismiss candidates in Berkeley Heights who promise you this:

Sign Up for E-News

  1. Despite cutting 4.5% of its budget last year, and raising municipal property taxes by 9.01%, the Township Council does not have enough money to hire a new police chief. There is approximately $80,000 available for day-to-day expenses and/or emergencies, and no more.
  2. When you account for rising health and pension costs, virtually all new revenue from the 9% tax increase will be used up just to meet current expenses.
  3. Governor Christie and the legislature have imposed a 2% Cap on municipal spending, to take effect in the upcoming budget year. The Council will have its hands full trying to further cut back spending without "breaking the back" of municipal government and the services it provides.

The real question candidates ought to be asked is this: "What can we do to keep next year's property taxes from going up 9% again?" The vague answer, of course, is to cut spending. Another is the concept of "shared services", which is a great buzzword to use until the candidate is asked what services they actually want to share. While I fully support the concept, all "shared" services must benefit the taxpayers of Berkeley Heights for them to be worthwhile.

I propose the following specific ideas in order to try and lower what I expect would be another tax increase in the 2011-2 fiscal year:

  • Improvements at our Water Treatment Plant. The plant, located on Snyder Avenue as you head across the bridge into Chatham, currently takes in sludge and waste from our and neighboring towns' water systems, and processes them into clean water. Two other programs - FOG co-generation and Methane conversion - can also be performed at the Plant with minimal upgrade costs. Both programs convert unhealthy chemicals - toxic sludge("Fats, Oils and Greases", or FOG for short) and methane gas - into electricity, which can be sold back to the grid, used to power our downtown buildings, or sold to local businesses at a cheaper rate than they currently pay. This both saves the Town money and generates new revenue, without hurting the taxpayers.
  • Create a Business Improvement District (BID) for our downtown. While this idea has been included in the new "Master Plan" for Berkeley Heights, it has yet to be implemented by the Council. I will push to see a BID come to fruition if elected. The BID would create a governing body of downtown business owners and concerned residents, with a member of the Council acting as arbiter. 

That board would be charged with determining a) What businesses do we want to bring to downtown Berkeley Heights? b) How can these businesses be encouraged to move to Berkeley Heights? and c) How can our downtown be redesigned to better attract consumers and businesses alike? Creating a BID will ensure that new rateables can be brought to  Berkeley Heights in a cohesive and reasonable fashion, avoiding overdevelopment and vacant storefronts alike. 

  • Develop a Sewer Utility, with the long-term goal of a Sewer Authority.  Currently taxpayers in Berkeley Heights are paying a flat fee for all sewage costs incurred by the Township. This arrangement is unfair to those suffering the most in these tough economic times - our seniors and working-class residents. Separating the sewer portion of the tax bill, and basing it on usage instead of a flat fee, will greatly help our more economically vulnerable residents in this difficult economic time. A Sewer Authority would bring together neighboring towns to save money on sewage treatment, and would likewise benefit the taxpayers.

The three proposals listed above are tangible, specific ideas to lessen the property tax burden that our residents will continue to face in the next few years. While it is fiscally infeasible to lower or hold property taxes steady in 2011, we need a Township Council who will actively seek to keep a tax increase as low as possible. Electing me will give you a voice on the Council that is committed to doing just that.

Next week I plan to comment on a few other issues facing Berkeley Heights, including the conduct of the Township Council in the last few years.