Next tax rate hike quickly starts to fall

Sikorski broaches police consolidation

By: Vic Monaco
   HIGHTSTOWN — The pencil sharpening has begun, and the delicate subject of consolidation has been gently set on the table.
   Just a week after unveiling a preliminary 2006 budget that carried a 27-cent tax rate hike, without salary increases, Borough Council looked at revisions Tuesday that cut that potential increase by 3 cents.
   The changes came on a night when Police Chief James Eufemia made his case for about $417,000 in spending, including the hiring of a new officer, and the sensitive subject of consolidation was broached by Councilman Walter Sikorski.
   Borough Administrator Candace Gallagher explained that the main reason for the 3-cent cut was the discovery of an additional $80,000 in surplus, which brings the borough’s current surplus to $560,000.
   "That’s really a wonderful number," she said, later adding that all of the surplus would be used in the 2006 budget largely because the borough is counting on extraordinary state aid to cut the potential tax rate hike by another 13 cents.
   A large chunk of the surplus, Ms. Gallagher later explained, is the result of the borough’s recent sale of an Academy Street property for $150,000.
   Ms. Gallagher had presented on Jan. 31 a preliminary budget of $5.15 million, up from the current budget of $4.8 million. That document would have raised the municipal tax rate from $1.125 to $1.395 per $100 of assessed property value.
   The most recent changes would mean a tax rate of about $1.37. For a homeowner assessed at $120,000, that would mean a municipal tax increase of about $290.
   However, none of those numbers take into account potential salary increases for municipal employees, which are currently under negotiation. Last year the workers got a 3.5 percent increase, which is equal to about 3½ cents on the tax rate.
   The largest new expense in the budget is the $139,000 the borough will pay the Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service to provide emergency medical services.
Chief Euphemia presented a department budget of $192,065, which includes about $79,000 worth of capital expenses. Ms. Gallagher explained that only 5 percent of capital expenses ultimately are listed in the final department budget with the remainder being put into a capital budget plan, from which the Borough Council can decide to use bonds for financing.
   The largest capital expense request is $45,000 for a mobile data system. While there is a large initial outlay, annual fees would drop to $6,000 from $12,000, the amount the borough pays to use South Brunswick’s system, the chief said.
   The 2006 department budget, which is about $20,000 higher than the current one, does not include salary increases. It does include the hiring of a new officer.
   Chief Euphemia explained that one of his officers recently underwent surgery after injuring his heel while on duty, but that a new officer will be needed even after the injured officer returns.
"I really want to hire a new officer in April," the chief said, adding that the salary cost from April until the end of the year would be $28,262.
   After swearing in a new officer last month, the department comprises 11 officers, including the injured one, one detective and the chief.
   The department budget also includes $30,000 for a lease agreement for three new police cars along with $500 for computer software that officers could use to learn to speak Spanish.
   Chief Eufemia also presented separate budgets of $122,904 and $101,810 for 9-1-1 operations and communications, respectively. Both are largely comprised of dispatcher salaries.
   Acknowledging that the topic is a "hot potato," Councilman Sikorski asked if the borough has had any discussions on consolidating some police work with East Windsor. Mayor Bob Patten responded that the borough is always looking at consolidation and not just with East Windsor.
   "It ain’t easy," he said. "Sometimes neighbors can’t even be friendly."
   Councilman David Schneider asked if there are any nearby communities that might want the help of the borough Police Department. Ms. Gallagher said that question has been asked of some neighboring government officials, including those in Roosevelt, and at the moment the answer is no.
   While not a proponent of consolidation, Chief Euphemia said he understands why local leaders need to discuss it.
   "Certainly economics are going to come into play over time," he said.But, that could affect local service, which, he said, is "second to none."
   Borough Council plans to hold more public budget meetings but no dates have been set. The borough is legally required to adopt the budget by March 20 but that will likely be subject to delay as the borough waits for its state aid figure, Ms. Gallagher said.
   Since 1997, with the exception of 2000, the borough has received extraordinary state aid, Ms. Gallagher has said. Last year’s amount was $280,000.