LIVINGSTON, NJ — Due to surplus built up over the course of several years, the Livingston Township Council was able to adopt its 2020 municipal budget with a $0.07 tax decrease to the average home (assessed at $704,754) while still maintaining the current level of services despite the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As he outlined the budget during last week’s public hearing, Livingston Township Manager Barry Lewis explained that the township revisited the drafted budget in response to the coronavirus outbreak in order to minimize the tax impact on residents.
Although 2020 was “shaping up to be a really good year budget-wise,” Lewis said the pandemic presented a significant challenge—particularly with its impact on local revenues from the typical drivers such as the building department, court fees, licenses and permits, pool memberships and more.
In anticipation of this loss in revenue and in recognition of the financial hardships that many residents and business owners are facing as a result of the pandemic, the township dipped into its surplus funds in order to “mitigate reduced revenues and to provide relief not only to the businesses, but also to the taxpayers.”
Stating that the mayor and council “were very sensitive to the needs of the business community,” Lewis stated that the adopted budget includes $125,000 in small business relief. Despite needing to dip into surplus for these funds, Lewis said the program has been “incredibly well-received” within the community and that it will “provide relatively modest grants and other opportunities, such as a gift-card-matching [program] to help generate business."
“We are fortunate because we are in very solid shape that we are able to absorb some of these hits by utilizing some of our surplus, which is sort of our ‘rainy day fund,’” said Lewis. “But it’s not an amount that causes me concern, and I’m confident that we can regenerate and get back to where we were…I think it’s very prudent and very responsible, but we were able to do so and then still bring in a budget that on the average assessed house is flat.”
With or without a pandemic, however, Lewis reiterated that the goal is always to present a budget that maintains the current level of services and improves upon them whenever possible.
In addition mitigating reduced revenues and providing small business relief, the 2020 municipal budget also maintains all services as well as current staffing levels; benefits from new ratables and shared service agreements; and budgets very highly anticipated projects such as the new public works facility and a new program dedicated to sidewalk improvement.
“What’s really important here […] is that if you had an average assessed house last year and an average assessed house this year, the municipal portion of your tax bill will actually go down $0.07—and that’s while continuing to provide all the services that the residents are entitled to and that I think are important to keeping Livingston the 'Grade A' community that it is,” said Lewis, who credited the mayor and council for making this their top priority.
Commending Lewis for his work on this year's budget, Mayor Rudy Fernandez felt it important to “recognize that this wasn’t easy” and expressed pride in the administration for coming up with a budget that did not add to the financial strain of the pandemic.
“A number of years ago, this council had put in place a long-term financial plan, and it’s a plan that a lot of other places don’t have,” said Fernandez. “Being able to have that and follow it allows us to be in a position, when times get really bad, to not have to struggle nearly as much as other municipalities are struggling now.”
Lewis reiterated that the municipal portion of a resident’s total property taxes only accounts for 18.3 percent while 59.5 percent is allotted to the public school system and 22 percent goes toward the county.
This breakdown can be seen in the pie chart above along with a breakdown of local revenue, which indicates that approximately 76.2 percent of funding comes from property taxes, as well as a breakdown of how the municipal portion of property taxes is being spent.
About one third of the municipal budget, or 33 percent, is allotted toward public safety, which encompasses the police department, fire department, 911 dispatch, equipment to all public safety departments (including the first aid squad) and more.
The next-largest budget items include debt and capital projects (17 percent), such as paving the roads; public works (9 percent); the Livingston Public Library (8 percent); trash and recycling (7 percent); and administrative (7 percent). (See photos above for a more detailed distribution.)
“[Public safety] is roughly a third of the budget, but it provides a lot of services and safety to the public,” said Lewis. “The rest is fairly evenly distributed across the various different departments. We are very service-driven and I think we have efficient operation when you look at the extraordinary level of services that are provided to residents and that I think the residents expect.”
In explanation of the larger-than-usual capital budget seen above, Lewis reminded the public that the majority is being allotted toward the Department of Public Works facility being built on Industrial Parkway.
Lewis recommended the adoption of the 2020 municipal budget as presented, stating that it is something the mayor and council should be proud of and commending the township's department heads for submitting responsible budgets and using their resources efficiently.
“I think it’s a credit to the organization as a whole that we’re able to continue to maintain the very high level of services that we deliver with very minimal (and in this case no) increase to the homeowner,” he said.
The mayor and council voted unanimously in favor of the budget and took turns praising Lewis for presenting such an impressive budget in the wake of the pandemic.
“The longer I’m on the council, the more I realize that you should just let the professionals do their job,” said Councilman Al Anthony, adding that Livingston already has the “best in the state” and that all the council had to do was “give them the tools to succeed and trust them to get the job done.”
Councilman Michael Vieira stated that this budget “is very symbolic because it’s coming in even lower than last year when usually budgets don’t do that.”
“In this town, we have a lot of people who were laid off or out of work or furloughed, and as a council we did as much as we could to help these people with their taxes and other issues that they had, so this is a symbolic budget,” said Vieira, who justified dipping into the “rainy day fund” by stating that “Livingston was hit with a hurricane.”
Councilman Ed Meinhardt pointed out that although many residents move to Livingston for the outstanding school system, the “outstanding town manager and employees” should be among the reasons to choose Livingston.
Deputy Mayor Shawn Klein agreed, stating that Livingston has adopted municipal budgets with very small increases over the last several years, but that it was especially impressive to do so this year with the economic hardships facing the community.
He noted that in addition to extending the tax deadline and reducing late fees to help residents financially during the pandemic, the township has also been able to provide regular services such as clean drinking water and garbage/recycling pickup plus programs for local youth and seniors and more.
Klein also reiterated that the Livingston Health Department has remained extremely active during this time, reaching out to businesses and assisted-living facilities to ensure compliance while regularly communicating with COVID-19 patients and providing contact-tracing services as well.
CLICK HERE to see Livingston's 2020 municipal budget in its entirety.
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