FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Flemington governing body introduced its 2020 municipal budget at the April 27 council meeting.
Originally, the budget was scheduled to be introduced during the April 13 council meeting. Instead, Mayor Betsy Driver and CFO William Hance sharpened their pencils and went back to the completed document to find ways to slash the budget in the face of the pandemic emergency.
In an attempt to push non-essential expenditures forward to 2021, promotions and the hiring of additional personnel were cut.
“The great unknown is where we will be in six or nine months from now,” said Driver. “I don’t think any of us can predict that.”
The result is a $6.2 million budget, up 5.73 percent or $317,811.81 from 2019. The municipal tax rate goes from .964 to .981, an increase of 1.77 percent.
Driver attributed the increase to contractual obligations, and a rise in pension fund, health care costs “and the same stuff that goes up every year in our own household budgets.”
Flemington property values rose, with the average home price going from $268,762 in 2019 to $272,413 in 2020. In terms of municipal taxes, the homeowner of an average valued home will see an increase of $80.41, bringing the municipal portion of their property taxes from $2,590.87 to $2,671.28.
The mayor reminded everyone, “just keep in mind this is the municipal taxes, I know everyone’s tax bill is much higher because there’s county and school taxes (included).”
The borough’s staff increased over the past year from 70 to 72 employees. The cuts made by the mayor and council for this year’s budget include the elimination of funding for hiring a new police officer and reducing the capital improvement fund allotment.
“We have a healthy amount in the fund (capital improvement) for this year, enough to do all of the planned projects,” Hance said.
The budget surplus held on Jan. 1 was $842,686.52, 34.69 percent above the 2019 total. That surplus was reduced by $380,000 and applied to the 2020 budget.
In addition to the surplus funds added in and the outright cuts made to the budget, two changes were enacted by the council to potentially defer costs. The first was Resolution 2020-89, which was supported by the PBA (Police Benevolent Association) and the Teamsters unions, asking employees to voluntarily take compensatory time in lieu of overtime.
Under this plan, a worker that puts in overtime in 2020 will accrue comp time and defer payment until 2021.
“We really appreciate the unions’ cooperation,” Driver said.
Second, Police Chief Jerry Rotella has agreed to hold off on making the first lieutenant promotion. The new position was created and could be filled at any time at the discretion of the chief, said Driver, but he has agreed to wait until things normalize before moving on the promotion.
Driver noted that these two items constituted “kicking the can down the road to 2021,” when hopefully the economy across the board will be on firmer ground.
The water budget, which is paid through water bills not taxes, went up $88,000 to $1,560,000. The mayor attributed the increase to infrastructure maintenance required to keep the facility compliant with NJDEP standards.
On the other side, the sewer budget went down $10,300 to $2,565,000.
The PERS, public employee pension fund, increased $24,954 or 22.69 percent and the police pension fund, PFRS, rose $49,378 or 14.91 percent.
Department-wide police salaries went up $88,000 to $1,461,200, an increase of 6.42 percent. Department of Public Works salaries rose $15,000 to $170,000.
A big concern for next year are the costs for garbage and recycling. This year, there was a budget increase of $32,000.
“The garbage and recycling costs continue to go up quite a bit,” said the mayor. “We can expect our garbage and recycling to become astronomically expensive next year when the contract is up.”
Currently, the public works committee is looking hard at how to address this issue going forward.
The library budget went up $49,334, mostly because of how the health insurance costs are allocated, Driver explained.
Last year, Flemington’s tax collection rate was 98.2 percent, meaning that was the amount of billed taxes that were received by the borough. This year, due to COVID-19, the anticipated collection rate is 97.08 percent.
The budget includes a reserve of $435,000 for uncollected taxes.
“I think the biggest problem we’re going to see is from commercial ratables,” said Driver.
The borough’s current debt is $8,116,212.36.
The 2020 budget includes funding for an administrator and grant writer. The budget is $32,000.80 under the appropriations cap and $45,109.77 under the levy cap.
The council also passed a cap bank. The annual cap bank ordinance allows the borough to exceed the state mandated cost of living adjustment (COLA) for 2020 from its current rate of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent, and to bank any unused funds after the township’s final appropriation.
Typically, the cap bank ordinance is approved every year for emergencies. In 2020, it might be needed more than ever.
The public hearing for the 2020 budget is scheduled for May 26 at 7:30 p.m. (Tuesday instead of Monday because of Memorial Day.) Currently, the plan is for that meeting to be held online at GoToMeeting, and the link will be posted on the homepage of the borough’s website, along with instructions for joining the meeting via telephone.
Members of the public will be able to give public comment during relevant portions of the meeting. Anyone wishing to submit a public comment in advance can email PublicComment@historicflemington.com.