Government

Bridgewater Council Tables Budget Amendments Amid Administration Concerns That 0% Tax Increase Will Lead to Decrease In Services

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BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater Township Council tabled Monday an introduction of amendments to the budget that would  include a 0 percent tax increase after Mayor Dan Hayes expressed concerns that the expected changes would impact services and operations in the township, and instead proposed that the excess funds be directed toward roadwork.

The budget subcommittee is expected to meet with Hayes prior to an emergency meeting called for Wednesday at 7 p.m. for an expected introduction of amendments. Public hearing on the budget is expected May 18.

The budget, as introduced in early March, was set at $43,604,621.89 for 2017. It originally called for an increase in taxes of $17.16 for the average house assessed at $425,900.

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Expected amendments were to eliminate the increase in taxes, creating a flat budget over 2016.

The amendments were also expected to include increases in investments in roads, sewers and infrastructure. It was expected to be an increase of $600,000 in investments, over the $5.5 million already currently included in the budget.

Hayes said he has some concerns about how the amendments would impact operations.

Instead, Hayes said, he would propose that instead of making a 0 percent tax increase, the council make its proposed budget cuts and keep the increase, using those excess funds for road improvements.

“The magnitude of the cuts you wish to make could have a significant impact in terms of how many roads we can address and what we can do,” he said. “We have received no comment from anyone about the magnitude of a budget increase, but we have a small book about discussions of road quality.”

“The engineers stand ready to make improvements if you give us money,” he added.

Councilman Filipe Pedroso, who serves on the budget subcommittee, said they are in fact already increasing expenditures for roadwork and capital improvements with the amendments, despite the elimination of a tax increase.

Instead, Pedroso said, the cuts would be in postage, tax collecting, utilities and other similar line items.

“I don’t see how those would impact roads,” he said.

Hayes said his proposal is to maintain the budget level and use the several hundred thousand dollars the council intends to cut and redirect it to roadwork as opposed to tax relief.

“That is how we can positively impact the number one thing our residents request, which is paving and construction of roads,” he said.

Hayes noted the proposed additional increase for roadwork in the amendments is $30,000.

“We do agree with that, and we are ready to put it right to work,” he said. “We just feel you are taking another cut for about $1.40 in tax relief that can be turned around and placed into several millions of dollars in roads.”

Councilman Matthew Moench said that, although he does agree that residents want as much roadwork to be done as possible, he does believe they want tax relief too.

“This budget would put another $30,000 in roads and make additional money available for sewer projects to the tune of over $600,000, which could include roads,” he said.

Essentially, Moench said, the additional $30,000 would allow the township to do $600,000 worth of roadwork because the money is used as a down payment to bond. That would put the total, he said, at $600,000 for roads, plus an additional $600,000 for sewer, which is typically paid in cash rather than through borrowing.

“I do believe residents want roadwork, but they also want tax relief,” he added. “I don’t think the answer is to continue to raise taxes. This way, we can increase for roadwork and ensure that taxes are not going up for those who are the most vulnerable.”

Moench said he reviewed the concerns raised by the mayor regarding cuts to the budget, and he doesn’t believe they would affect services.

“If the administration can’t provide the level of service with these cuts, that’s a failing on the administration,” he said. “These cuts don’t dip into services, they dip into areas where the line items already increased over the years or there was money not spent last year.”

For example, councilman Howard Norgalis said, the budget as approved in 2016 was $40,413,000, but the amount expended was only $38,513,000.

And, in another example, Pedroso said the township paid $418,000 in utilities in 2016, and this year they are proposing a cut of $135,000, which would still allow for spending $565,000 this year in utilities.

“We’ve considered all these items, and put in quite a buffer,” he said. “Some of the items we just felt were excessive spending.”

Hayes said he believes residents are willing to pay that extra $1 for the services they have come to expect over the years.

“I have laid out for you the goals for land protection, and things residents have come to expect,” he said. “We have agreed to $200,000 in reductions, and we are saying that we can go for immediate paving for roads that don’t require sewers.”

But Moench said he believes the cuts being proposed are non-programmatic and therefore wouldn’t affect residents.

“The amendments were careful and specific to look at items that would not have programmatic impacts,” he said. “We can’t go back year after year and say we will raise taxes. This year we have an opportunity where we can say we will not raise taxes, and will increase money for roads.”

Council members expressed concerns about having received a letter from the mayor regarding the amendments just hours before Monday’s meeting.

Council president Allen Kurdyla said that would be the impetus for him wanting to table the introduction of the amendments, so as to allow for some time to consider what was said.

“Obviously there are still some questions that need to be asked and answered,” he said. “It is our obligation to residents to come up with a budget that we all could agree on with proper investigation and proper dialogue.”

Despite a no vote by Norgalis, the council voted, 4-1 to table the introduction of the amendments Monday, and to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the courtroom in the municipal building on Commons Way.

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