BRIDGEWATER, NJ - In what has already proven to be a challenging and unorthodox year, Bridgewater Township finally got its 2020 municipal budget introduced.

The Bridgewater Township Council unanimously approved the introduction of the budget at its virtual meeting Monday night. The total was $43,259,860.

The five council members also approved an ordinance to exceed the municipal budget appropriation limits, and to establish a cap bank for the 2020 calendar year.

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“It’s been an absolutely extraordinary year,” said Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench, who took office in January after a dozen years as a councilman.

He remarked how the township has suffered the loss of $2.1 million in revenue that was directly attributable to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including the shutdown of the Bridgewater Commons Mall and its stores, the loss of interest payments, the loss of municipal court payments and the lack of permits issued, along with delayed payments.

“The long-term economic impact of this crisis on our community is as yet unknown, but it may alter the way in which every sector, including municipal governments, will operate in the future,” said Moench in his prepared budget address. “We need not only to adjust for these short-term disruptions, but also plan for future crises of any magnitude, and to take the necessary steps to protect our community today, tomorrow and for years to come.”

He also said that the tax increase on town residents would have been in the double digits if the loss of revenue had been incorporated into the budget, with all the uncertainty still going on, and that it had been a challenge to still provide expected municipal services in a responsible fashion.

“There are no really good answers,” said Moench.

He added that taxpayers will see a 1.94 percent municipal tax increase this year, which will translate to about a $3 increase in the average tax bill. There is also a 4 percent decrease in municipal spending from 2019, among $1.5 million in reductions that were made.

“That reduction was not easy to reach,” said Moench of the 4 percent cut. “It required a lot of very difficult decisions that will have ramifications on how our government will operate.”

Those numbers were achieved beginning with a reduction in the number of township employees. A total of 10 vacant positions were eliminated, with 14 other positions the victims of layoffs due to the budget situation. The township is also looking at possible unpaid furlough days for employees, along with a reduction in operating costs.

The mayor explained in his budget address that the township is only responsible for 11 percent of residents’ total tax bills. The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District encompasses 68 percent, and Somerset County another 19 percent, tax figures that the township has no control over.

Moench also pointed out the township can not simply go to banks to provide loans over the next five years, as that is not allowed by state law. Instead, the municipality has to bond for specific items.

He also said the township will push off its Social Security taxes for now, but will have to pay them eventually.

“There were a lot of hard choices,” he explained.

He added that there was no federal aid forthcoming to assist the township with its lost revenue, although he said Bridgewater might be eligible for FEMA assistance in a year or two.

“That is the budget I present to you tonight,” said Moench, who particularly thanked council president Howard Norgalis and vice president Filipe Pedroso, among others, for their work on the council’s finance committee.

Moench also explained that if the council voted to introduce the budget that evening, it would have at least 28 days to allow public comment and to take final action. He said the township will release a video this week regarding the budget.

Norgalis commended Moench and his staff for “digging deep,” regarding the budget.

“It looks grievous,” said Norgalis, ostensibly of the cuts that were made. “It’s a tough budget, and you really worked through.”

Moench also thanked his staff for all their hard work. He admitted it was the hardest budget he had worked on in over a decade of publicly serving Bridgewater, and one that he and township administrator Michael Pappas had struggled with every day.

“There are no easy solutions,” said Moench of the budget, which he believed had been done in the best interests of the township.

He also said there might be some variance in the 1.94 tax increase figure, due to different home assessments.

Councilman Michael Kirsh also thanked the mayor for his efforts, and added that when the council had begun work on the budget in January, no one could have predicted what would ensue in the following five months in their “wildest nightmares.” He also said this budget had considered every “lever, dial and switch” potentially available, including cost reductions, furloughs, reductions in force and not filling positional vacancies.

Moench said that was “absolutely” true, after having gone over the budget line by line, although the township still has to provide services. He posited the township could save money by not doing roadwork this year, but quickly added that was not feasible.

He also said Bridgewater still needs to provide recreational programs in the fall.

Kirsch asked about a lack of federal and state aid, in regard to municipal revenues lost due to COVID-19. Moench reiterated that the township might qualify for FEMA expenses, not revenues, in a year or two, but not this year.

Prior to ratifying the budget introduction, the council unanimously approved the cap bank ordinance, which will have its public hearing July 6. The measure will increase the budget up to 3.5 percent over the previous year’s final appropriations, which, according to the ordinance, will amount to $328,121.

The limit is normally 2.5 percent, unless authorized by ordinance.

The council then voted unanimously to introduce the budget, which will hold its public hearing on July 20. The budget synopsis is expected to be published shortly, with copies to be made available to the public at no charge as a PDF file.

Following the budget’s introduction, the public comment portion of the meeting was initiated. Bridgewater resident Cathy Franco questioned the cost of layoffs, and wanted to know what positions had been eliminated and which new ones had been introduced since January.

She also questioned the 3.5 percent increase in appropriations for this year.

Resident Colleen Mcintosh asked about the number of layoffs that came from the Department of Public Works, which she said was a total of nine positions,  while Tim Kolvites inquired about which departments had been affected by the 14 layoffs and what the immediate effects on services would be.