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Madison Council Reviews Budget Issues, Open Space Tax

Liz Keill

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 • 7:13am

MADISON, NJ – Councilman Ben Wolkowitz, who heads the finance committee, reviewed the highlights of the most recent budget meeting. Two more meetings are planned: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21 and 9 a.m. Saturday, March 1.
 
“We’re all taxpayers,” Wolkowitz said and urged the public to attend those meetings. He said the budget is not complete, but so far he notes the tax increase for residential property owners will be 1.48 percent, well below the 2 percent cap allowed by the state. There will be no increase in water, electric or fees and no layoffs of personnel. Operating expenses are down, he said. The borough will not need to get emergency funds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, thanks to Councilman Robert Landrigan’s efforts with FEMA, which may reimburse the borough 75 percent of its costs. He said there would be a decline in the rate of the Open Space tax.
 
But later in the meeting, this brought a reaction from Councilman Robert Catalanello.  He and Councilwoman Jeannie Tsukamoto had written to the Madison Eagle urging the council to have a public debate on the open space tax and its impact. A question came from resident Sam Cerciello as to whether the letter represented the views of council.
 
Borough Attorney Matthew Giacobbe said that any council member who writes a letter that will be published should clarify that it is an individual opinion, not representative of the council as a whole. “Governing body members have the right to speak their views,” he said, but should state ‘I’m writing this letter on behalf of myself.’  He added, “My recommendation is to establish guidelines for everyone. The healthiest thing is that it’s good for the public to watch the dialogue. You want people to be here to participate.”
 
Wolkowitz concluded his remarks by stating that the municipal tax is just one portion of the property tax and that the school tax represents 60 percent of the overall tax bill.
 
Board of Education President Lisa Ellis said the school district faces numerous challenges. The state would not release its figures until Feb. 28 and Madison has lost $3 million over the last three years. Programs have been cut and fees have been charged to make up the balance. She said health contracts have increased by $600,000 to $800,000. 
 
“We would love to come in low,” she said, but the state has new mandates, costing half a million for teacher training and a similar amount for new technology testing programs. In terms of infrastructure, new roofing will be needed on some schools. “The state has made an absolute mess of school funding,” she said.
 
In other matters, resident Betsy Uhlman of the Sustainable Madison Advisory Committee,  provided an overview of the Green Forum held on Jan. 24. She said short term action teams will explore several recommendations, such as safe biking, walking and shared transportation; saving energy and water; connecting paths for green spaces and providing a dog or skate board park. “We hoped for 50 people and over 100 came on a cold night,” she said, “and there was a healthy exchange of ideas.”

Borough Engineer Bob Vogel said a recreation trails grant for $24,000 would be submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection if approved. The resolution was adopted by the council. 

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