ROBBINSVILLE: Mayor’s budget plan carries 12-cent tax rate hike

By Matt Chiappardi, Staff Writer
    ROBBINSVILLE — Mayor Dave Fried, who expressed hope just a few weeks ago that there would be no tax hike needed this year, has proposed a $17.2 million municipal budget that carries a 12-cent tax rate increase.
    The mayor says the bulk of the increase is a result of the $1.7 million in lost tax appeals last year and $1.5 million set aside this year for potential losses, both resulting from a 2006 tax revaluation he’s called “arbitrary and unfair.”
    And he adds that the potential impact on residents is softened by a recent reassessment that lowered the value of some township properties and the money some taxpayers are due to receive from their tax appeals. But a county official said this week he doesn’t foresee many successful township appeals in 2010.
    Regardless, the average homeowner in the township would pay more than $400 more in municipal taxes if Mayor Fried’s budget is approved by the Township Council.
    The mayor made his budget presentation at the Feb. 4 council meeting, calling this year’s fiscal plan the “toughest budget we’ve ever had to put together.”
    It includes about $643,000 in cuts from last year’s budget, which mostly are a result of the round of layoffs (six employees), furloughs (four-day work weeks for all employees) and employee health insurance increases the mayor implemented near the end of 2009.
    “This is not an easy time,” Mayor Fried said. “The economy continues to fester. None of the people we let go were expendable.”
    The proposed fiscal plan also includes $340,000 in budget increases from what the mayor characterized as mandated costs outside the township’s control.
    That breaks down to $150,000 in contractual salary increases for employees, $87,000 in solid waste disposal fee increases, a $62,000 increase in pension costs, a $21,000 increase in Social Security costs, and a $20,000 increase in workers’ compensation costs.
    Under the mayor’s proposal, the tax rate would rise from 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 52 cents, he said. The mayor said the increase comes from the mandatory spending hikes as well as the money the township has had to spend to pay a number of lost tax appeals resulting from the 2006 tax revaluation, which wound up tripling the town’s assessed value. According to records from the county, the township was ordered to perform the revaluation in 2004, but delayed the process until 2006.
    The township paid $1.7 million back in lost tax appeals in 2009, and has set aside an additional $1.5 million expected to be paid back this year, virtually wiping out its entire surplus, Mayor Fried said. However, county Tax Administrator Martin Guhl said Monday that he does not expect many successful tax appeals in the township this year, because of a recent reassessment of 2,450 residential properties in December. He said it is impossible at this point to be more specific in such a prediction.
    That reassessment was requested by the township because of the large amount of tax appeals it lost over the 2006 tax revaluation. He withheld $347,000 from the township’s fourth-quarter 2009 county tax bill in October over the issue, but has since been paid the full bill so as not to complicate a lawsuit it filed against the Mercer County Board of Taxation, Mayor Fried said. The lawsuit demands every municipality in the county be ordered to undergo a tax revaluation.
    If nothing in the budget changes, a homeowner assessed at the township average of $387,781 would pay $2,016 in municipal taxes. That’s an increase of $407 from last year, even though the average home value has been adjusted down from the $402,276 it was in 2009, according to figures from Assistant County Tax Administrator Tina Rooney.
    During last year’s budget season, Mayor Fried unveiled a proposal he said would have a 1-cent tax hike, but council wound up adopting a $18.2 million budget with a 4-cent increase.
    Late last year and just a few weeks ago, the mayor said, when asked, he hoped to not have to raise taxes.
    “I hope not,” he had said. “I think we’ve done everything we’ve needed to do going into this year.”
    The Township Council had little reaction to Mayor Fried’s budget proposal. Council President Rich Levesque said he wanted some time to read through the large budget binders he and the rest of the council received Feb. 4 before he makes any comment. And council members Vince Calcagno and Sheree McGowan echoed that sentiment after the meeting.
    Ms. McGowan added that she “appreciates they got (the budget) to us so early.”
    It is not scheduled for final adoption until July.
    Mr. Levesque said he didn’t want to schedule any budget workshop sessions until after Gov. Chris Christie’s state budget address March 16 in order for the township to have an idea of how much state aid it will receive.
    “My frank opinion is that we won’t get any state aid this year,” he added.
    The proposed budget includes $1.6 million in Energy Tax Receipts from the state, the same as last year.
    He added that the township’s first budget workshop session could be set for Saturday, March 20.