Washington faces municipal tax hike

Rising municipal costs and lower revenue could lead to as much as 11-cent tax rate increase in Washington Township.

By: Sarah Winkelman
   WASHINGTON — A projected $1 million budget deficit could lead to cuts in municipal services and a substantial increase in municipal taxes this year, according to township officials this week.
   Residents could be looking at as much as an 11-cent tax rate increase as officials grapple with rising municipal costs.
   At a special budget workshop meeting on Saturday, committee members discussed potential tax rate increases ranging from 6 to 11 cents. Township officials recently told committee members they face a projected $600,000 increase in expenses and a $400,000 drop in revenue unless changes are made to the tax rate and budget.
   "We have one hell of a budget problem," said Committeeman Pete Chamberlin Tuesday. "We are going to have to raise taxes no question."
   Reasons cited by committee members for the large deficit include rising health-care costs, an increase in debt payments, a decline in fees paid to the municipal court and lower income from investments.
   The current tax rate is 40 cents per $100 of assessed value. Without budget cuts, the tax rate would increase more than 11 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That means that a resident with a house assessed at the township average of $167,000 could expect to pay $852 in municipal taxes.
   A 6-cent increase would mean $768 in taxes for the homeowner whose property is assessed at the $167,000 township average — an increase of $100 over last year’s tax bill.
   "It is still early in the process," Mr. Tobias said. "Nothing is set in stone. As far as I am concerned, no jobs are in jeopardy right now. We are still looking for public and committee feedback."
   Although no personnel cuts were agreed upon, the committee discussed reducing the Police Department by five officers, and cutting public works and recreation staffing.
   Mr. Tobias and Deputy Mayor Doug Tindall, both members of the township’s budget subcommittee, recommended layoffs in order to cut costs. The jobs of three public works employees also could be cut. Mr. Tindall could not be reached for comment before deadline Tuesday.
   In addition, Mr. Tobias is proposing to eliminate the Recreation Department until taxes stabilize, adding that the suggested cuts were not well-received by other members of the committee.
   "We wanted to present the possible cuts to the committee in order to get their feedback and hopefully get the budget pared down even further," Mr. Tobias said. "But as far as I can tell no one liked the idea of laying people off. They were all willing to make miscellaneous cuts, but nothing that would amount to more than a 1-cent cut. I want the municipal budget cut back down to a zero-cent increase."
   Mr. Chamberlin agreed with Mr. Tobias that laying off some public works employees and possibly rehiring them in the spring might help the township save money.
   "There are men down there who don’t have anything to do during the winter unless it snows," he said. "When we start cutting the grass in the spring we could rehire them."
   As far as layoffs in the Police Department goes, Mr. Chamberlin said he believes Washington is a safe town and would be comfortable with a few less officers.
   "It’s not like we live in a big city," he said. "Of course I don’t like the idea of laying off police officers, but we might have to let some go."
   He said the officers could be rehired in the next two or three years as the township gets more ratables.
   "Right now we have a real revenue problem," he said. "We aren’t taking in as much as we are spending and we don’t have the commercial ratables built that could offset our costs. We also have the new high school to think about and the school budget will also be increasing, thereby burdening the residents. We have to balance everything out."
   Mr. Tobias said he would continue to push to make the tax rate increase as close to zero as possible. He said he will be meeting with Mr. Tindall next week to go over the numbers again with Chief Financial Officer Karen Baldino and Township Administrator Jack West.
   "We will be taking the input from the committee and coming back with new numbers," he said. "We want to take everyone’s opinion on what is feasible and what isn’t and come up with a few different scenarios. The way taxes are escalating is a problem. I’m of the opinion that the municipal government will have to suffer a bit until the new high school is constructed."
   Mr. Tobias said he does not want to commit to anything this early on in the budget process, but said he believes the township needs to reduce services until the high school is paid for.
   "I don’t see this as a permanent thing," he said. "We just need to temporarily cut back, tighten our belts so to speak."