LITTLE FALLS, NJ - A formal 2017 budget presentation was introduced at the Little Falls council meeting on Feb. 27 by Mayor James Damiano.

The proposed spending plan has residents seeing a $61 increase in municipal taxes this year for the property assessed at the township average of $303,700 if the budget passes in its current form. That brings the municipal part of the tax bill for the average homeowner to $2,520 for the year.

Some of the budget line items that Damiano highlighted was the fund balance utilized at $400,000. The receipts from delinquent taxes is up to $700,000. The amount raised by taxes is $12,339,428.

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Damiano added that there was no wasteful spending and that a clear indication of that is the total budget of $17,434,736 for this year, a decrease of $25,820 from the prior year's budget.

"For the most part, municipal expenses continue to rise and what you see is a decrease in the total budget," he explained, noting that the total budget for 2016 was 17,460,556.

The township is anticipating a surplus of $400,000 from the 2016 budget being applied to the 2017 budget.

"The purpose of doing this is for tax rate stabilization to ensure there is no dramatic spike," he added.

Other highlights he noted are library taxes, down slightly this year at $537,475, and appropriations, which have been set to reflect salary increases in the Teamsters Bargaining Unit  contract Department of Public Works (DPW) staff of 1.75 percent for 2016 and 1.5 percent for 2017. Administrative salaries have been set to reflect a 1.85 percent salary increase and public employees retirement systems cost reflect per employee of $8,187.47. He added that the cost is an average number for all municipal employees and not include police or fire staff.

Police collective bargaining increases have been incorporated into the 2017 budget at a 1.85 percent increase in salary. Police and fire pension costs reflect a cost per officer at $21,642.82.

"This budget also anticipates maintaining the current staffing level of police at 28 and our DPW at 13," Damiano said.

Also highlighted is the vehicle acquisition program for police established in 2015, which continues with the purchase of two new police cars this year. He emphasized that it will ensure there is no spike in the budget by purchasing the same amount of vehicles each year for the years remaining. The goal, he added, is to stabilize the costs of the police department.

"Unfortunately, last year, one of the vehicles was cut and the extended warranties on the vehicles that we had," he said, adding that township is moving back to the two vehicle purchase program each year and putting the extended warranties on the vehicles that don't have them.

"Police vehicles are used heavily on a day-to-day basis responding to calls and there should be a substantial savings to residents by entering into a warranty with each vehicle of approximately $2,500 versus paying for expensive repairs due to traveling on the road 24 hours a day and seven days a week."

Additional budget highlights are insurance costs up at $92,000 over last year and the EMS program costs are budgeted at $310,150 with offsetting revenue of $225,000. The prior year's debt service costs have been reduced by $400,000 due to the refunding bonds issued by the township.

Assessed township values have increased in 2017 by $6,798,100, which Damiano said has not occurred since 2010 and is a sign the township is headed on the right track.

He added that the previous EMS program had slower response times to get ambulances to residents. With a full-time EMS services implemented, the response time to residents has decreased to under five minutes. He said there should be no actual impact to the budget of what he called " a generous estimate" of the cost of the EMS program.

"It's better service and better response times getting our ambulances out to our residents," he said. "We're hoping to generate better revenue this year so that we have better services at reduced costs."

Damiano also noted that the amount to be raised by taxes this year is $12,339,428.

"This budget has really gone through a fine tooth comb," he reassured. "Municipal spending is on the rise but this year, the total budget has decreased, albeit, a minimal decrease."

Damiano also emphasized that the numbers projected are estimates subject to what the schools locally and regionally portion of the budget will be. Those figures have not been reported by the districts. Also, he said that the county's official tax rate number, currently listed in the budget as a flat number, would tentatively be going down significantly this year. This assumes a 2 percent increase for the local and regional high school.

Damiano also noted that despite many decreases in line items, the increase in taxes for residents is a result of a loss of ratables in the township due to some of the buyouts of flood prone homes by FEMA. Additionally, the construction project on Route 46 and Route 3 and Montclair State University acquisitions have been also attributed to expenditures this year.

"Each of those remaining properties are homes that Little Falls residents have to make up, in terms of the difference in total expenditures in this year's budget, so that is why you will see that increase of $61 on the average home in Little Falls," he said.

A public hearing and adoption of the proposed budget is set for March 27.