HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Jane Staats and Harry Burke, Democratic candidates for Hillsborough Township Committee, call the proposed township budget a continuation of the annual ritual of misleading claims of saving taxpayers’ money (according to the Township’s press release of April 25, 2017).
However, taxes continually go up and opportunities for improvement decline, according to the candidates. Staats and Burke called for truthful and transparent information to be shared with the township’s residents so that people can draw their own conclusions about the township’s priorities and how to fund them.
“In recent years, we have heard that the township has come in just under the 2 percent cap on local taxation. That is still a significant increase in our taxes. If you look beyond the time of imposed caps, you would see a shocking change. In 2002, the municipal tax levy was $9,180,188 and in 2017, it is proposed at $18,937,386. The tax burden has more than doubled over 15 years,” Burke said.
There is a difference between a budget increase (which includes non-tax revenues, such as grants, fees, licenses, payments in lieu of taxes, and energy receipts) and a tax increase, because the latter is the part taxpayers feel. While the total budget has gone up since 2002 from $20,438,159 to $28,954,044 – a 42 percent increase -- the tax burden has gone up 106 percent, very disproportionately, according to Burke.
“Essentially this demonstrates that taxpayers can pay a lot more for the same or less services in this town. In 2002, taxpayers paid roughly $9 million of a $20 million budget, or 45 percent. In 2017, taxpayers pay roughly $19 million of a $28 million budget, or 68 percent,” he said.
The Township Committee also points out the many years that they have not taken allowed exceptions to the 2 percent cap for additional health benefit costs, pension obligations, or for needed capital improvements. However, this year’s exception amount of $194,071 would translate to approximately $12 for the year on a $350,000 home.
“The Committee calls it a savings but it is truly a choice that affects services,” Staats said. “For one dollar a month, it’s an opportunity to fund additional infrastructure needs. When we don’t do maintenance projects today, they become reconstruction projects tomorrow, and cost a lot more than that dollar.”
During a recent Capital Planning Committee presentation, a statement about the roads was made that “when you do those cost benefit ratios, and you put a coating on there and you get only 5 years out of it and it starts flaking off, sometimes when you figure it out, you’re better off milling and repaving a road every 15-20 years. We have over 250 miles of roads … We’re completely falling behind.”
“We appreciate the township employees’ efforts to work better with less resources, but while the Mayor and Deputy Mayor claim ‘a business-like approach’ and ‘the same level of service excellence,’ they also state that court revenues went down because of lower available enforcement grants – that’s a double loss." Burke said. "hey state less building inspections took place -- and residents complain of delayed home improvements. There seems to be more privatizing of some services – and quality control often suffers. Revenue administration and social services departments were reduced sharply in this budget, and our community-based EMS service was defunded. There are serious financial and social consequences of these budget decisions. I would like to see some departmental service statistics that actually demonstrate how much gets done for how much money,” Burke added.
“The Township Committee also plays a shell game, shifting municipal costs to other levels of government or to the public, or both. For example, rescue and extrication were previously performed by HEMS, and will not be included under the new contract with Robert Wood Johnson EMS. Now it will be the responsibility of the fire companies. So while this cost will be removed from the Municipal Budget, it will now appear in the Fire Budget at possibly greater cost. All taxes ultimately funnel down to the same point – the pockets of homeowners,” Staats said.
The Township touted the increased town-wide total ratables of $112 million which increased the base over which taxes are distributed and kept the rate down. “That number represents increased assessment from improvements to existing homes as well as new development. It creates immediate new costs for some taxpayers whose assessments went up, as well as potential new costs for everyone due to the impacts of additional development on our schools, our uniformed services, our roads and other infrastructure,” said Staats.
The Township Committee’s 2017 budget utilizes various unreliable or unpredictable sources for reductions: police attrition, a mild winter with less snow removal, and lower fuel costs, which are all beyond our ability to control, according to the Democrat candidates.
Burke and Staats said that increased employee contributions to healthcare costs can also be overrun by uncontrollable premium increases. “What does that mean for the future, especially if these trends reverse in a major way? It is unsustainable to budget this way,” Staats said. “We need to stop the annual gimmicks, and the statistical and verbal sleight of hand, and have a serious public discussion about our service priorities and how we can move our township forward. Perhaps some transparency and bipartisan representation in the decision making would help. ”
Staats and Burke committed that, if elected, they will protect taxpayers’ interests by balancing true financial controls with addressing priorities. “As we campaign door-to-door throughout the town, we hear from people who feel ignored and we hear about many issues that are not being addressed,” Burke said. “We will include every willing participant in township governance and represent all of the people in town.”