Committee will not make reductions in fire budget

By ANDREW MARTINS
Staff Writer

A lthough the majority of voters who participated in the recent New Egypt Fire District election rejected the fire district’s 2014 budget, the Plumsted Township Committee will let the spending plan stand.

Voters rejected the proposed fire district budget by a count of 129 to 88 on Feb. 15, sending the spending plan to the governing body for review.

At their meeting on March 5, committee members said they were unable to find anything in the budget that could be trimmed enough to produce a major savings for residents.

“At this point, we did not really see anywhere we could cut the budget. We are going to leave the budget where it was,” Mayor Dave Leutwyler said.

According to the state, the governing body of a municipality has the authority to certify a local tax levy to support the fire district’s operations if the proposed budget is defeated at the polls.

Fire district officials proposed a budget of $1.98 million with a $1.6 million tax levy for 2014.

Voters rejected the tax levy, but the committee has decided to let it stand. The tax levy is the total amount of money to be paid by all property owners in Plumsted to support the operation of the fire district this year. The remainder of the budget will be supported by other revenues.

According to a document provided by the fire district to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the 2014 budget represents a decrease in spending by $101,481 from 2013. Fire district officials said there were no major changes to the operations budget.

In 2014, the fire district tax rate will increase from 18.3 cents to 19.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a home assessed at the township average of $275,900 can expect to pay about $546 in fire district taxes in 2014. That same property owner paid about $505 in fire district taxes in 2013.

According to a DCA document outlining the fire district’s budget, fire officials cited a reduction in Plumsted’s total assessed value by $307 million. An “all-time low” unrestricted fund balance of $42,283 was also blamed for the uptick in the tax rate. “We stayed below the 2 percent [tax levy] cap. We actually lowered the budget this year, and the amount to be raised by taxation is lower than it was in the previous year,” Fire Commissioner Aaron Heller said.

Within the budget, salaries went up by about $41,000, and benefits increased by about $10,000 from 2013.

Fire officials said the increase came from contractual obligations, as well as the need to hire part-time employees for Plumsted’s emergency medical services (EMS) unit due to a lack of volunteers.

The fire district budget also covers the expenses of the New Egypt Fire Company and the New Egypt First Aid Squad, which municipal officials merged with the fire company in 2009.

Between the fire company and the EMS unit, there are 11 full-time career (paid) members, and between 40 and 50 volunteers.

According to Heller and members of the Township Committee, an option was discussed that would have resulted in a $2,000 reduction to the fire district’s surplus.

That option, however, was determined to be inconsequential in the long run.

“I appreciate the fire district’s willingness to give up $2,000 from its surplus, but that was not going to make a dent at all,” Committeeman Michael Wysong said. “There is no room to cut in the current situation we have.”

Heller praised the committee’s decision to leave the budget intact. He said any reductions could have hurt the quality of service for residents.

“Obviously, it was a wise choice in my opinion,” Heller said. “I understand people are upset about their taxes and I feel the same way … but I still want my family protected.

“I think the committee members realized that even if they had made a cut, it would not have had any effect on the tax rate. The tax rate [as proposed] would not have changed, but the service would have,” he said.

Although voters rejected the budget on Feb. 15, Wysong said he felt the decision came down to making the right choice instead of making the popular one.

“I don’t feel that the 200-plus people who came out to vote is representative of the entire township … so when it falls back on the committee, we need to make tough decisions and we need to do what we think is best for the taxpayer and the fire district,” he said.

Contact Andrew Martins at amartins@gmnews.com.