BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Just over halfway through a most unique calendar year, the 2020 municipal budget for Bridgewater Township is official approved.

The town council ratified the $43 million budget by a unanimous vote of all five members at its virtual meeting Monday. The approval came following a public hearing that featured comments from several residents.

The municipal operating expense for this year’s budget is $43,259,860. There is also a sewer utility expense listed, for $11,547,824.

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Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench gave a short slide presentation about the budget that highlighted key points and explained several facts.

“It’s been a tough year,” he said.

Almost half of the budget, or 48 percent, is to be raised by property taxes, just under $21.6 million.

Miscellaneous revenues comprise 25 percent, or just under $11 million. State aid provides 13 percent, or $5.9 million, while the anticipated surplus checks in at 11 percent, or about $5.05 million.

Moench reiterated that only a small part, or 11 percent, of residents’ tax bills go to the township. The school system takes up the greatest proportion, at 68 percent, while the county claims a further 19 percent.

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) that has shut down much of the nation since March, Bridgewater has lost some $1 million in revenue from travelers not staying in local hotels, or shoppers patronizing the Bridgewater Commons Mall, which recently reopened as per the governor’s executive order, but with limited capacity.

“We have $2.1 million less revenue (this year),” Moench said of revenue loss directly attributable to COVID-19.

The drop in anticipated revenue from 2019 to 2020 goes from $45 million to $42.9 million, according to a bar graph. Moench then spoke of subsequent budget cuts, which reached about $1.6 million this year.

“We laid off employees, and didn’t fill vacancies,” he said. “We didn’t take that lightly. They were tough decisions. Next year’s budget will be tough as well.”

He further explained that every year the township had a budget surplus it provided help, although the average tax bill in Bridgewater is still set to go up about $3 this year. There will also be a 1.94 percent tax increase this year in the municipal portion of the property tax levy, with an overall tax increase this year of $480,000.

"The only thing that was clear about this budget was that we knew we could not make up our lost revenue solely on the backs of our residents and taxpayers," Moench said.

Regarding universal road assessment and repairs in the township, Moench said there will be less new spending, but more construction this year by utilizing past funds.

“It’s a tough budget,” said council president Howard Norgalis. “We had to be a team on this, with significant revenue losses. I’m proud of the administration, and the folks who made this happen.”

Some residents expressed concerns during the public comment portion. Resident Howard Glasser asked the council and mayor to “reconsider the budget,” and to reallocate monies that were going to the police department to health and other areas.

He said he would also like the township to make public such items as police use of force reports, so residents can raise their concerns and start a dialogue with the police.

Bridgewater resident Cathy Franco asked about significant increases in legal line items, and also asked for an explanation of a decrease in reserves. Allan Papp said he didn’t understand why two dozen positions in the township had been eliminated or furloughed, and also questioned adding 5 percent to the police department.

As for increased legal costs and less reserves, Moench explained that the township had more legal work going on this year, and that budgets have also gotten “leaner and leaner.” He added that reserves are built into the budget each year, but that this year has seen higher expenditures along with less revenue.

Norgalis said municipal legal expenses have increased due to the township’s involvement in litigation concerning the ongoing Center of Excellence project. He said he expects the town will continue to be “deeply embroiled” in related court activity on that matter over the course of the year, with, in his view, the township “appropriately pushing back versus an overzealous developer.”

Moench said there is “nothing more important” than safety in the community, starting with the police department, and he elaborated that rhetoric about re-allocating funds was “not a premise I believe in at all.”

He said that no services have been cut specifically to provide more funding for the police department, and later added that he would never support re-allocating money away from the police.

The general consensus among the council was that its members supported funding the police department, and Norgalis said he fully supported Moench’s comments. Councilman Michael Kirsh pointed out the police are also currently not at full strength in terms of manpower numbers, but he believes the department is appropriately funded in this year’s budget.

Councilman Timothy Ring said the number of recorded uses of force by local police have dropped a third, from 2o13 to 2018, that cutting the budget wouldn’t necessarily reduce use of force and that funding could be used for training.

Vice president Filipe Pedroso said he doesn’t deny that there are difficulties in current society, including in law enforcement, but added that “defunding the police department doesn’t solve the problem.” He said that besides public safety, his biggest priority is the budget and saving tax dollars for Bridgewater’s residents.

Prior to the vote, Kirsh said the current climate is an “unprecedented situation,” and that the proposed municipal budget is the best one available.

Councilman Allen Kurdyla expressed concerns over the services that will be provided, and said that another look will be needed at year’s end, with the council ready “to make adjustments if necessary.”

Ring said he would like to keep taxes as low as possible, even with staffing reductions, and admitted this year is not an ideal situation.

Pedroso cited the impacts of COVID-19, despite wanting to keep money in the pockets of Bridgewater residents, and added that it “wouldn’t be fair” to ask residents to pay for departments that aren’t able to provide services at present due to the ongoing pandemic.

“It’s the best we can do under the current circumstances,” said Norgalis.