Borough tax hike may be large one

State aid could slash 30-cent rise in rate

By: Kip Berman
   HIGHTSTOWN — Borough residents could be looking at a tax rate hike of about 30 cents if municipal employees get raises similar to last year and the borough does not receive extraordinary aid from the state as it did in 2005.
   But borough officials stress that the 2006 preliminary budget unveiled this week is just that — preliminary.
   "I don’t want people to be alarmed about a large tax increase," Mayor Bob Patten said Thursday. "Once we start sharpening our pencils, fine-tuning and placing our priorities, it will come down quite a bit."
   "I’ve been through seven of these budget cycles. It always starts at a high note and over time the number invariably comes down," he added.
   Last year, by comparison, the proposed budget increase of 22 cents was reduced to 4.5 cents after the state aid was granted and the 2005 budget was approved in July.
   The preliminary budget of $5.15 million is up from $4.8 million and eyes a 27-cent tax increase. If adopted as initially proposed, the municipal tax rate would rise from $1.125 to $1.395 per $100 of assessed property value, costing the owner of a house assessed at the borough average of $120,000 an additional $324 per year.
   But the budget does not take into account salary increases, which are under negotiation, and each 1 percent increase would represent about 1 more cent on the tax rate. Last year’s salary increase was 3.5 percent, according to Borough Administrator Candace Gallagher.
   "It is extremely premature to predict what, if any, the salary increases would be," Ms. Gallagher said.
   On the flip side, if the borough were to get the same amount of state aid as last year — $280,000 — that would reduce any tax increase by 13 cents, according to budget documents reviewed publicly for the first time Tuesday night.
   Ms. Gallagher said the borough is "very hopeful" to receive the state aid again, noting that it has received the money every year since 1997, with the exception of 2000.
   The largest single new expense in the preliminary 2006 municipal budget is the 139,000 the borough will pay the Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service (MONOC) to provide emergency medical services. Increased pension costs, debt service and heightened utilities and fuel costs also factor into the increased expenses.
   On Tuesday, Borough Council also began discussing potential capital improvement purchases, the down payments of which would be included in the 2006 budget. The possible expenditures include:
   • a firetruck for $600,000;
   • two garbage trucks for $400,000;
   • roadway reconstruction on Cole Street and Clinton Street with an estimated cost of $327,000, with $180,000 coming from state grants;
   • water meters for $200,000; and
   • a police mobile data system and radio equipment for $46,000 and $21,150, respectively.
   Councilman Larry Quattrone emphasized that the request for the garbage trucks does not mean the borough has made a decision yet to begin performing its own garbage collection.
   Roger Cook of the borough’s water/sewer committee said a $160,000 septage acceptance unit included in the preliminary budget is needed to improve the treatment plant’s capacity. He said that while additional revenue would be generated by increasing capacity, the primary concern is the declining reliability of the current unit, which broke several times last year, costing the borough $37,000 in lost revenue.
   The preliminary municipal budget reflects $457,000 less in revenue. Most of that amount, $280,000, is the extraordinary aid that may or may not be granted this summer. The major remaining portion, $150,000, is due to the fact that AT&T Wireless’ 2005 payment to lease antenna space on the borough’s Leshin Lane water tower was a one-time payment.