BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Despite continued reservations from a few council members, as well as a plea from Mayor Dan Hayes, the council unanimously voted to approve a municipal budget with amendments that eliminate a previously proposed tax increase for residents.

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.

The amendments eliminate the increase in taxes, creating a flat budget over 2016.

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The amendments also include increases in investments in roads, sewers and infrastructure. It is an increase of $600,000 in investments, over the $6 million originally included in the budget.

Hayes said the total value of the cuts and amendments is $400,000, or 1 percent of the originally proposed budget. He said that in conversations between the council budget committee and the administration, it was agreed that about $200,000 of that is available for savings.

“That is mostly a function of the budget having been acted upon for several months,” he said.  “The remaining $200,000 is where we disagree, we disagree on its impact to the residents.”

Hayes has been advocating to maintain the tax increase proposed in the original budget, and instead redirect the saved funds, either the $200,000 or the full $400,000, into continued roadwork and improvements.

“Myself and our professionals feel the cuts have the potential to negatively impact the services we provide, and can stall the progress we have made in the past several years toward making Bridgewater the exemplary community it is,” he said. 

“I’m here to advocate that the money should go directly toward the application of repairing and improving our roads,” he added. “Road improvements are something we need in our township.”

In the budget amendments, Hayes said, the township is allocating an additional $30,000 for road improvements.

“That $30,000 can improve a cul de sac, one road,” he said. “If you give what we believe, that would pave many miles of roads. If you should choose to not put it back into operations, then we would advocate putting the entire $400,000 into roads.”

Basically, Hayes said, that amount represents about 1 percent of the budget.

“It is roughly $1.62 per month,” he said. “I am here to say tonight to advocate for you to apply that to the roads and the improvement of roads. Throughout our township, we can make that impact as early as the fall.”

Hayes said he believes the residents would be best served by taking that $1.62 per month and applying it to roads needing pavement.

“And I feel that they will feel that more than they will feel the $1.62 that will be swallowed up and masked by other things in the tax bill,” he said. “Our residents have had and maintain among the lowest municipal tax rates in the county.”

Council vice president Christine Henderson Rose voted in favor of the amendments and the budget as a whole, but said she does not support the spending plan.

“I don’t believe it supports what is in the best interest of the residents,” she said.

Rose said the budget does not add for additional police officers and drug prevention programs, among other potential pieces.

“There is a zero increase in municipal tax, but it should be clear that resident tax bills will be going up because of tax levy entities that we have no control over, like the school tax,” she said.

But, Rose said, she was supporting the budget because it does include $75,000 for historic preservation, something that has never been included before.

The budget, Rose said, includes money for matching funds for a stabilization grant as required by the county for the Lane Brokaw House, as well as the ability to move forward with the purchase of Camp Cromwell.

“The budget, however, does not include funding to maintain those properties,” she said. “But this budget represents the first time there is a willingness to show support toward historical preservation.”

Council president Allen Kurdyla said he also had concerns over the spending plan, but would throw his support behind the budget.

“While I do understand the goal of a 0 percent tax increase, I also do respect the need for additional funding to address our infrastructure,” he said. “I hope and pray we don’t have a disaster that is going to stretch the budget beyond its limits.”

But several council members said they believe the budget amendments actually allow them to add funding to infrastructure improvements, while also keeping a flat tax rate.

Councilman Matthew Moench said he believes the amendments meet both goals of keeping the township affordable while also putting more money into roadwork.

Councilman Filipe Pedroso agreed.

“The amendments to the budget as presented to you today have nearly $600,000 less in operation costs than the original budget introduced in March,” he said. “After deducting the administration’s proposed cuts of $61,405, your budget finance subcommittee has found an additional $524,881.64 in savings and reductions to the operating expenses.”

Pedroso said it is important to note that the budget does not cut into the police budget, senior services or recreation.

In addition, Pedroso said, the amendments actually increase spending for roadwork.

“Our recommended changes to the budget actually add over $600,000 to be used for preparing our roads and making capital improvements to infrastructure,” he said. “And that’s in addition to the already allocated almost $6 million toward fixing the roads.”

In addition, Pedroso said, they were able to increase the sewer capital improvement fund from $1.7 million to about $2.3 million.

“This reinforces our belief that we take the task of managing Bridgewaters residents’ money very seriously,” he said. “We understand and respect the fact that the tax money belongs to the residents, and we continue to strive to provide essential services, while focusing on road and infrastructure improvements, simultaneously controlling our expenditures and maintaining responsible conservative budgetary practices.”

The budget, set at $43,164,476.06 with the amendments, was unanimously approved, along with a municipal capital budget at $7 million (subject to later bond ordinance approvals) and the sewer utility budget set at $12,834,463.09.