LIVINGSTON, NJ — After months of hard work from Livingston’s department heads and management, the Livingston Township Council adopted a municipal budget that has the smallest tax increase in 12 years, with the total increase for the average Livingston homeowner at $47.53—just under $4 per month.
Based on last year’s average tax bills, Livingston has the fifth-lowest cost out of the 22 municipalities in Essex County. Although expenditures may be higher for Livingston residents based on the township’s estimated median household income, which is approximately double the amount of the average, the tax base has increased for the first time since 2009 and all service levels are being maintained at an affordable price.
Livingston’s average municipal tax of $234 per month purchases all of the things seen in the 2016 Municipal Budget, including public safety, road maintenance, trash removal, street lighting, health services and more. Livingston Township Manager Michele Meade, who presented the budget in full to residents on Monday, April 25, thanked the township’s department heads and Chief Financial Officer Bill Nadolny for working so diligently to keep expenditures under control.
Upon adoption for the year 2016, this budget authorizes $3,858,302.82 for municipal purposes and contains the necessary expenditures to run the day-to-day operations in town.
“I think one of the things that makes this a responsible budget is that no services are being cut and also includes money to properly maintain our infrastructure,” said Councilman Rudy Fernandez. “These important infrastructural improvements—water, sewer, road—are in this budget to not only enhance our quality of life but also save us money in the long run.”
Fernandez also said that the council could have reduced the budget to zero, but that this would force the township to eliminate programs like community policing, field maintenance, teen programs, or others.
“The budget represents the lowest tax-rate increase since 2004, the amount of surplus use has been reduced and building permit activity and ratables are increasing,” said Councilman Ed Meinhardt. “I am very proud to present this budget to the residents of Livingston.”
Councilman Michael Silverman was also enthusiastic about the council’s ability to work together and follow a plan to make the 2016 budget the tightest since 2004 as well as the lowest tax increase since 2004, at 1.5 percent.
“I believe over the next four years, we’ll be able to see even greater improvements,” said Silverman. “I’d like to see each department find a way to present a budget in 2017 that’s either the same or leaner than 2016. There are tough decisions to be made, but the residents of Livingston demand fiscal responsibility and I believe we, the entire council and management, are bringing it to them.”
Deputy Mayor Shawn Klein acknowledged that some of the township employees work on this budget year-round and applauded those people for being, as Silverman said, fiscally responsible.
“Given all of the fixed costs that go into a municipal budget, it is hard to keep costs down, but I am proud to say that our town has done that,” said Klein. “The 1.5 percent is the smallest increase in 12 years. We get a lot for our money [in Livingston] and we’ve achieved these goals with careful spending.”
In summary, local revenues will decrease by $97,000, or 1.9 percent in 2016; state payments will remain flat, as they have since 2010; the budget will include a one-time donation of $1.3 million from Saint Barnabas Medical Center for the Madonna Field Project; and debt-service reimbursements will increase by $243,000 to eliminate any impact on the tax levy for increases in principal and interest payments.
In accordance with Livingston’s financial policies, surplus supporting operating expenditures will be reduced by $100,000 in 2016 and will continue to be reduced in future years until it is eliminated from the budget to the extent that it funds ongoing operating costs. In addition, inter-local revenues will increase slightly and the amount of grants will decline due to the change in the fiscal year for the municipal alliance grant, which used to be awarded in the calendar year and is now awarded based on a fiscal year that will begin on July 1.
Surplus dedicated to tax-appeal refunds has been removed from the budget in 2016 and tax-appeal refunds will be paid from current operations, which is how the township has been funding the majority of payments in recent years. Overall, non-tax revenues will increase by $839,000 or 8.6 percent.
“If we exclude the changes for the one-time donation of $1.3 million and surplus use for tax appeals, both of which have off-setting appropriations, total non-tax revenues will be $16,000, or .2 percent lower compared to last year,” said Meade, who also clarified that the total appropriations will increase by $1.5 million, or 3.6 percent, due to the $1.3-million donation. “If the one-time capital improvement (funded by the donation from Saint Barnabas) and the appropriation for state-tax-appeal refund (funded by surplus) are excluded, the increase in spending in 2016 is $673,000, or 1.6 percent, compared to last year.”
On the spending side, proposed operating appropriations will increase by $427,000, or 1.2 percent in 2016 and tax appeal refunds, which are funded by surplus, will be eliminated from the budget and funded by current operations. Increase in debt service, which is offset by additional debt service reimbursements, will increase by $246,000.
The most important piece of information, according to Meade, is how these changes and revenues and appropriations affect the tax levy and the tax rate. Net increases in revenues will decrease the tax levy by $838,000, while net increases in appropriations will increase the tax levy by $1.5 million. The net effect of this increase is $689,000, or 2.1 percent, in the property-tax levy for municipal operations
The 2016 local property tax levy is $288,000 under the permissible tax-levy cap, and is $491,000 under the permissible tax-levy cap when Livingston’s cap bank from previous years is taken into account. On the spending side, the 2016 Municipal Budget is above the cap by $361,000 because this year’s spending cap is 0 percent.
According to Meade, state tax appeals remain a significant challenge for the township’s financial operations. However, the amount of surplus used to support budget operations has been reduced from $500,000 in 2015 to $400,000 in 2016 and more surplus has been retained for financial stability.
“I want to thank everyone who’s part of the process—I particularly want to thank the department heads, who really tighten their belts and make due on what’s reasonable and not what’s desired,” said Mayor Alfred Anthony. “Despite the economic downturn, we’ve maintained services. I think this budget is a mixture of maintaining the many services that our town is known for, while keeping our taxes reasonable. I think we’re heading in the right direction—I hope for even lower next year I know this council will work as hard as well all can to achieve this.”