Local fire district budgets to face voters

Millstone, Plumsted and Washington Township residents will vote on proposed fire budgets and elect fire commissioners.

By: Lauren Burgoon and Sarah Winkelman
   Residents in Millstone, Plumsted and Washington will go to the polls Feb. 21 to vote on their town’s proposed fire budgets and elect fire commissioners. To help residents make an informed decision at the polls, what follows is a closer look at the budgets and board candidates.

   The township’s fire elections feature one unopposed candidate for the Board of Fire Commissioners. Michael Ackerman is looking to replace Ed Reed, who decided not to seek re-election.
   The district is proposing a $2.2 million budget for 2004, of which the district plans to raise $822,397 from local taxes, according to Fire Commissioner Frank Leonard. That is an increase of $89,027 over last year.
   The budget calls for a tax rate of 6.7 cents per $100 of assessed property value, an increase of .5 cents over last year. That means the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $265,000 can expect to pay $177.55 in fire taxes. This is an increase of $13.25 over last year’s figures.
   According to Mr. Leonard, Millstone is growing and with new subdivisions and commercial properties generating new tax revenues for the town, the tax rate will stabilize.
   "It has been our experience that the fire tax rate will go down based on the final assessed values of the township once all the ratables have been accounted for," he said.
   He added that the budget includes a minimal increase over last year’s budget.
   "Our largest increase is for the salaries for our professional firefighters," he said.
   In the past year the number of active volunteer firefighters in the township dropped by 25 percent, Mr. Leonard said, resulting in the need for salaried workers.
   "Millstone is a rapidly growing municipality and we have to protect our residents," he said. "That is getting increasingly more difficult because our volunteer numbers are down."
   The budget also includes $1.3 million for a second firehouse in the northwest corner of the township, which Mr. Leonard said is the farthest point from the current firehouse. The money has been held in reserve for a number of years. Polling will occur at the Millstone Township Fire Company at 461 Stagecoach Road. Polls will be open from 2 to 9 p.m.
   The Plumsted fire district has proposed a budget of $451,740 for 2004. Taxes will pay for $358,936 of the budget.
   The budget is an increase of over $70,000 from last year’s spending plan. However the tax rate for residents will remain stable at 9 cents per $100 of value assessed on homes. That means a resident with a home assessed at the 2003 average of $144,045 would continue to pay $129.64 in fire taxes this year.
   In 2001, the fire district promised to keep the tax rate stable for five years after the company purchased a ladder, according to Fire Commissioner Steve LaChance.
   There is one seat up for election on the Board of Fire Commissioners. Two-term Commissioner LaChance and New Egypt First Aid Squad member Michael Benham are vying for the seat.
   Last year voters passed the fire district’s budget 90-46.
   Plumsted residents can vote at the New Egypt Fire Company, 59 Main St., from 2 to 9 p.m.
   Voters will decide who will fill one open seat on the township’s Board of Fire Commissioners and whether to approve a proposed fire budget that calls for a 1-cent increase in fire taxes.
   The proposed $2.1 million budget is "bare bones," according to Fire Chief Kevin Brink. The budget calls for a tax rate of 24 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
   In Washington, the average cost of a home is $167,000, township tax assessor Greg Busa said. This means the average homeowner can expect to pay $400 in fire taxes this year, a $16 increase over last year’s bill.
   "There are no large ticket items in there like equipment or anything," Chief Brink said about the proposed budget. "We kept the budget to a minimum, but the cost of living always goes up, as do operational expenses. We did manage to cut down on overtime and other expenses where we could."
   Last year, voters defeated the fire district’s proposed $2.2 million budget, which had called for a 3-cent hike in the fire tax rate. After its defeat, the budget went to the Township Committee for review, resulting in $236,922 in cuts. The tax rate remained at 23 cents per $100 of assessed property value for 2003.
   The 3-cent increase in the tax rate included a cost-of-living assessment as well as a plan to hire additional firefighters to have a fourth person on each shift on the engine, which was cut by the committee.
   In the district’s 15-year history, the fire budget has passed only three times — in 1988, 2001 and 2002.
   According to Chief Kevin Brink, Fire Commissioner Ken Crosley decided not to run for re-election, resulting in one open seat. There are two candidates vying for the seat — Elwood Fell and Peter Marsch.
   Polling will take place at the Washington Township Fire Department on Route 130 from 2 to 9 p.m.