Millburn BOE Offers Lowest Budget Increase in Memory: Board Approves 0.65 Percent Tax Rate

Board President Michael Birnberg talks with resident Jeff Diecidue after the meeting. Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus
Lise Chapman talks with resident Ralph Inglese after the meeting. Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus
Superintendent James Crisfield and Board President Michael Birnberg. Credits: Sara Louise Lazarus

MILLBURN, NJ - At its special meeting on Thursday, March 1, a tax levy of $71,903,699 was approved by the Millburn school board, $464,357 more than last year’s tax levy of $71,439, 343. 

The 0.65 percent tax rate is lower than any in recent years or distant memory. 

The 2012-13 budget of $78, 980,354 will now be sent to the Essex County Superintendent for his approval.

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Board President Michael Birnberg started the budget conversation by saying that he feels it represents a fair compromise, and balances the equities of all constituents—students, residents, and staff.

Lise Chapman, Chair of the Finance Committee, declared that this budget represents property tax relief.

As Chapman describes it, the 0.65 percent is half of last year’s rate of 1.35 percent. It is, according to Chapman, “a $500,000 savings from what it could have been” had the committee held to the past year’s rate, “or a $964,461 savings if it had been 2 percent,” the rate in 2010-11.

Stating that the board needs to continue to smooth out the tax levy and avoid the “roller coaster ride” of the past, Chapman cited figures for tax rates that went from 9.64 percent in 2004-5 to 2.8 percent in 2005-6 back up to 7.44 percent in 2006-7.

Chapman attributes the BOE’s ability to offer a low rate this year in part to the “state aid surprise” of $1.8 million which was announced only last week. There is also a one-time savings this year of $1.3 million in benefits as a result of moving teachers and administrators to the state health care plan. Later in the meeting Mark Zucker, head of negotiations, thanked the teachers for “concessions in the negotiating process” by agreeing to a plan that represents such cost savings to the district.

Several members addressed why a zero percent tax levy was not advisable this year. The one-time health benefits saving is just that, according to Chapman, who cited a possible jump in premiums of 7 to 25 percent this coming January.  Former Finance Chair Jeff Waters warned that if we have too low a rate for a period of time, there may not be enough of a cushion against unexpected infrastructure breakdowns. In that event, the board could have to resort to a referendum to approve the expenses, amounting to a “twenty-year tax increase.” Waters concluded the board must “make the tax rate a real number, rather than a crowd pleaser.”

Member Jean Pasternak, who is on the Finance Committee along with Chapman, Zucker and Vice-President Eric Siegel, would have preferred a zero percent levy, and is the sole member of the board to have voted against the budget.

As Superintendent James Crisfield announced previously in his preliminary budget presentation, the greatest investments in 2012-13 will be in technology ($1.8 million, a 39.93 percent rise from 2011-12 expenses) and capital projects ($1.3 million, a 130.57 percent rise.)  The most notable capital project in the works is the renovation of the Middle School auditorium.

Crisfield noted that whatever portion of state aid is not spent on tax relief will go to the capital reserve. He promised, “We’re making a substantial investment in facilities.”

No major restructuring is planned this year as occurred last year when teachers were cut and courtesy busing was eliminated. Chapman assures that quality education will be maintained with stable class size.

“Thank you’s” and praise were plentiful among the speakers. Waters declared that “it’s a pleasure to have a Superintendent who can create his own financial model.” Waters sees this budget as a continuation of a “well-thought-out plan” begun in 2008 when the whole board, which included five members of the current board, agreed to take the surplus down over time, and to use it to lower the tax rate.

In public comments, resident Jeff Diecidue referred to his arguments from Monday night about the board’s vote to change the dates of school elections to November and thus eliminate a budget vote. He assured the board that he had not been accusing several members of acting inappropriately, but believes there is a flaw in the bill allowing boards to vote on this issue. He requested that the board retract the prior vote and go to the state’s ethics commission for a determination as to whether there is a conflict of interest in having board members vote for a change that would extend their term of office. 

Pasternak attempted to make a resolution to rescind the vote but could not because this was a special meeting and there was no provision in the agenda for old or new business.

Residents Dave Graziano and Ralph Inglese urged the board to avoid complacency about being called the number one school system in New Jersey. Graziano spoke specifically to Crisfield, asking him to “be bold, embrace change and lead.”

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