WEST ORANGE, NJ – After many months of delays and discussion, the West Orange Township Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to adopt a resolution approving the 2019 municipal budget with an 8.5 percent tax rate increase to the average homeowner after Chief Financial Officer John Gross presented amendments to the budget that brought the final total to $85,793,425.17.
According to Business Administrator John Sayers, this is a nearly $3 million increase over last year, which he said is the result of the rising costs of items that the township has no control. This includes an increase of $750,000 in trash disposal costs; an increase of $50,000 in the West Orange Public Library (WOPL) budget; and increases of $18,000 in state-mandated pensions and retirement plans for public employees and $550,000 for the police and fire departments.
Sayers added that reserved contract negotiation settlements for the fire and police departments, which occur every four years, ultimately cost the township $180,000.
“We got over $3 million dollars in increases in uncontrolled costs, which we have not had in the last four or five years,” said Sayers. “We have to pay these costs in order to run the township and that’s why we’re at [8.5] percent.”
Sayers explained that the municipality has been able to stay at a 0-to 2-percent tax rate since 2010 and that the township has not previously needed to go over 2 percent. This year, however, he said the township’s expenses increased to well above the 2-percent cap.
According to Sayers, the 8.5 percent tax increase as adopted will result in an increase of approximately $23 per month to the average West Orange home.
“We’re raising the taxes this year because we can’t raise them the year following in order to cover the expenses over a two-year period,” said Gross, who added that this is due to the township’s use of a bank cap.
He further explained that the bank cap expires this year and that if the township does not use it, the municipality would only be able to raise taxes by 2 percent or less. This would ultimately cause a need for the township to make sweeping cuts in staff and services, according to Gross.
Councilman Joe Krakoviak said he was not content with the current budget, expressing his belief that that there were still areas in which spending should have been reduced without making cuts in staff. However, his colleagues reiterated that a previous proposal from Krakoviak ultimately would not have affected the budget.
“I don’t think it’s fair to […] make it seem like we do not want to do what’s necessary,” Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown said on behalf of her fellow council members. “We do; but there’s no room in the budget to do what you’re asking—otherwise we would vote for it.”
Gross explained again that the only way to lower the budget would have been to “propose mass cuts in services.”
“If the council doesn’t adopt a budget, the administration will be forced to start working on a layoff plan to implement by the end of the year and layoff 55 or more people,” said Gross.
Sayers added that this iteration of the budget is necessary in order to maintain services for the community.
“If we layoff those 55 or 60 people, we’re not going to be able to provide the services that we’re providing today,” said Sayers. “We’re in favor of doing what we need to and to get the budget passed so that we can do what we need to do.”
Council President Jerry Guarino said that although no one likes their taxes raised, residents have accepted his reasoning when he has explained why the council did what they did.
Resident Susan McAbee agreed, saying that she feels the council members have “done as much as [they] can,” but that it was unfortunate that groups like the Citizen’s Advisory Board could not have advised certain cuts to the budget.
Another resident, Claire Silvestri, commented that not enough compassion is being shown toward West Orange’s most vulnerable residents—such as its senior citizens—to ensure that they are going to be able to stay in their homes when faced with high taxes.
Councilwoman Susan McCartney responded that the council showed compassion in other ways, such as not laying off any staff members and not charging passengers to ride the Jitney Bus, which had been previously considered as a possible source of revenue for the town.