HIGHTSTOWN: Budget draws criticism from Wyckoff’s Mill

By Sean Ruppert, Staff Writer
   HIGHTSTOWN — Just a handful of residents spoke out this week at a public hearing on recent amendments to the borough’s proposed $6.01 million budget for 2009.
   The Borough Council held a special meeting Monday for the hearing after slight alterations were made to the spending plan at its July 6 meeting. The council has not yet adopted the budget, however, because it has yet to receive word on its application for $250,000 in extraordinary aid from the state.
   The recent changes dealt mostly with inserting some grants earmarked for specific programs that have been received since the budget was introduced, as well as some adjustments for changes in the town’s emergency medical services agreement with Robbinsville, certain Public Works functions and a capital project recently approved.
   The changes inflated the budget from $5.98 million to $6.01 million; however, they had a negligible effect on the tax rate.
   The budget, as it currently stands, calls for a tax rate of about 75.6 cents per $100 of assessed value. That means the owner of a home assessed at the borough average of $270,500 would pay $2,045 in municipal taxes.
   Should the state approve the town’s entire extraordinary aid request, it would lower the tax rate by a little more than 5 cents and result in a $1,909 municipal tax bill for the average homeowner. This is about $136 less from where the budget currently stands.
   The borough received $200,000 in extraordinary aid from the state in 2008.
   Only one resident, Eugene Sarafin, of South Main Street, spoke during the official hearing on the amendments, for clarification on a specific line item. However, two Wyckoff’s Mill residents — Susan Bluth and Jennifer Peppe — were critical of the budget during a public comment held later at the meeting.
   Ms. Bluth, president of the development’s homeowners association, has in the past been extremely critical of the recent property revaluation. In January, she and about 30 other homeowners from Wyckoff’s Mill descended upon a council meeting to voice disagreement with the revaluation, which saw most of the neighborhood’s property values rise more dramatically than much of the rest of the borough, increasing their share of the tax burden.
   ”I am very disappointed that you didn’t listen to us; I think you are now going to see a mass exodus from Wyckoff’s Mill,” Ms. Bluth said Monday. “You could have at least phased it in, but instead you whammied us with the reval, and then you whammied us with the budget.”
   Ms. Peppe said her taxes had doubled in the time she had lived in the borough.
   ”There are so many wonderful things going on in our borough,” Ms. Peppe said. “But when you can’t rub your last two nickels together to go out to the new boutique or restaurant, it can be very disheartening.”
   Mayor Bob Patten said, though, because the Wyckoff’s Mill properties were undervalued, it could be argued they were paying less than their fair share in previous years.
   He also said only about 25 percent of residents’ property tax bills come from the municipal government while more than half come from the school district.
   ”I don’t see anyone going to the Board of Education or the county freeholders or governor,” Mayor Patten said. “We’re the bulls-eye, the target. Everyone throws the darts at us.”