Officials reduce tax hike sought by fire district

Staff Writer

The Plumsted Township Committee has reduced the amount of property taxes the New Egypt Fire District sought to support its 2015 budget.

At a special meeting on March 16, the committee voted 4-1 to certify a tax levy of $1.55 million to support the fire district’s $2 million budget.

Voting to certify the tax levy were Mayor Jack Trotta, Deputy Mayor Eric Sorchik, Committeeman Herbert Marinari and Committeeman Mike Wysong.

Committeeman Vince Lotito voted “no” and said he did not have enough information about the fire district budget.

In the annual fire district election in February, officials sought to raise $1.58 million in local taxes to support the $2 million budget. The proposed tax levy was rejected in a vote of 88-68.

The committee is charged with reviewing the fire district budget if voters reject the proposed tax levy.

The outcome of the 2015 election marked the third year in a row the fire district’s tax levy was rejected by voters.

The tax levy is the total amount of money paid by all property owners in Plumsted to support the operation of the New Egypt Fire Company and the New Egypt First Aid Squad.

Both entities are overseen by the Board of Fire Commissioners.

The changes certified by the committee cut about $91,000 from the total budget and $27,000 from the tax levy.

Officials were proposing to increase the fire district tax rate from 19.8 cents to 20.2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation in 2015. The owner of a home assessed at the township average of $279,100 would have paid about $564 in fire district taxes.

The committee’s action regarding the tax levy means the tax rate will remain at 19.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and the owner of a home assessed at $279,100 will pay about $553 in fire district taxes.

Officials said the move to reduce the fire district’s 2015 budget reflects a need to lessen the tax burden being placed on property owners.

“Since I came to this township in 1995, my taxes have more than doubled. … The reality is we are going to be taxed out of our homes here,” Lotito said. “We need to be good stewards and justify the dollars we are spending.”

Attorney Richard Braslow, who represents the fire district, cautioned officials that cutting the budget would cause a reduction in services.

“The concern has been, as stated, that any further cuts to this budget would compromise some of the EMS service being provided,” Braslow said.

Currently, the New Egypt First Aid Squad’s career (paid) EMS staff provides 24-hour coverage to incidents in Plumsted and surrounding areas. Officials said the budget reduction could result in a gap in service.

According to Acting EMS Chief Jodi Byrne, there were more than 1,500 calls for first aid service in 2014.

While fire commissioners Gene Pullen and Dave Gindlesperger lamented the budget cuts, municipal officials said some line items in the budget could be reduced or cut altogether, including the salary for a vacant EMS chief position.

Township officials chastised the first aid squad for failing to use its balance billing practice when serving a number of communities outside Plumsted. Officials said that was an oversight that could have brought in additional revenue.

“Our taxpayers are being shortchanged, so we have to tighten up” the balance billing practices, Marinari said. “In today’s society, people are suffering and we have to make sure everyone’s payments are made.”

Balance billing is the practice through which a first aid squad bills an individual for services rendered after receiving partial payment from the individual’s health insurance provider.

According to Byrne, residents who live in the first aid squad’s coverage area of Plumsted and New Hanover, plus portions of North Hanover and Upper Freehold Township, were not balance billed for any calls.

Trotta said that exception was only supposed to have been afforded to Plumsted residents as a special discount for local taxpayers.

“We were under the impression that we were balance billing everybody outside of this town,” Trotta said.

Committee members asked fire district officials to immediately change their billing practices and to begin seeking full payment for services rendered to non-Plumsted residents.

Trotta said he plans to reach out to the other municipalities the first aid squad covers in order to seek restitution for any services provided.

“I am very much against the current situation … and I am going to go after those towns,” he said. “I am hoping that next year we have a fair budget for the whole area that [the first aid squad] serves.”

Pullen and Braslow said they were willing to make the changes requested.

“We are going to be looking at any agreements we have with different municipalities and they will be changed,” Pullen said.