MADISON, NJ –Residents can anticipate a 1.48 percent property tax increase in the coming year, Finance Chairman Ben Wolkowitz said at Monday's Borough Council meeting.
“We’ve tweaked some numbers,” he said, “but the tax increase is well below the 2 percent cap mandated by the state.” He said the conservative budget represents no reduction in services or layoffs and $1 million in capital improvements, “a very positive development.” He said the 2012 budget had been strong, keeping expenses down. In the coming year, employee contributions to pension and health costs, as well as some retirements, will help cut costs. Of the surplus, he said, “We’re close to the levels we should be maintaining.”
But, he cautioned, “What can go wrong? Pfizer Pharmaceuticals is leaving Madison. That is not good news” and the national sequestration could jeopardize the anticipated FEMA donation of $750,000 following Hurricane Sandy. Wolkowitz praised the hard work of employees, especially Borough Administrator Ray Codey, Assistant Administrator Jim Burnet and Chief Financial Officer Robert Kalafur. “A number of residents have contacted us with probing questions and ideas,” which had been very helpful, he said.
Public Accountant Dave Evans praised the work done on the budget, saying he deals with 58 towns. “Most would kill to be in your position,” he said. Looking ahead to 2014, he said it is possible that Standard and Poor could downgrade Madison’s Triple A rating, but the modest tax increase was positive and protects the surplus. Upcoming challenges, he said, could be $300,000 less in delinquent taxes and less anticipated in revenue. “When appeals go up, tax collection goes down,” he said. Two benchmarks to govern the surplus, he said, are a month’s worth of expenses and a month’s worth of tax levy.
Councilwoman Jeannie Tsukamoto said she could not support the budget introduction. There was not enough time to review the 44 page document, she said, and objected to the proposed tax increase. She also expressed concerns about the open space tax. She noted that $100,000 revenue from the Health Department was not included. “The budget should reflect revenue contracts,” she said and urged the council to “give the taxpayers a break.”
Mayor Robert Conley said the open tax issue will not be reflected in the April 1 bonding discussion and that it’s a two-year cycle. The 2013 budget hearing is scheduled for Monday, April 8.
Councilman Robert Catalanello agreed with Tuskamoto concerning the open space tax and the need for that discussion before the budget was introduced. “I’m not confident we’re doing the right thing,” he said of the proposed tax increase and also voted against the introduction.
“I share your disappointment,” Wolkowitz said of the open space issue, but added, “My feeling is that increasing the surplus is the right way to go.” Eventually, he said, the borough could reach the point of no tax increase at all. “I’d like to say zero, too, but that’s not the right decision today.”
Councilman Robert Landrigan said, as Captain of the Ambulance Corp, that prudent budgeting was essential, especially with unexpected expenses.
Council President Carmela Vitale noted that 2007 was a difficult year in real estate and that the borough should not rely on the surplus. She said Wolkowitz had done “an amazing amount of hard work” on the budget and that trying to balance the budget was not an easy job.
In other business, the council approved funding for water main replacements on portions of Ridgedale Avenue and Green Village Road, appropriating $50,768. The council also adopted an ordinance to establish a standing finance committee for joint meetings with the Madison Board of Education.
A voluntary gun buy-back program will be held at Bayley Ellard on Friday, March 15, in an agreement with the Diocese of Paterson. “Cash will be given to those turning in guns, with no questions asked,” Councilwoman Astri Baillie said.
Baillie is also heading a Street Advisory Committee, which is looking at foot traffic, bicycling, school traffic and transportation on various roads throughout the borough.