The Township Council is continuing to look for ways to reduce a municipal tax increase, while some difficult decisions regarding services for residents are being discussed. , from 72 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 75 cents. The council has since reduced the 3-cent increase to 1.6 cents, prior to last night's budget meeting.
"I've been pretty clear that I think we have to get the increase down to zero. I don't think it's out of the question," Councilman Joseph Camarota said Tuesday morning. "It's something that would be very hard to do. We don't want to do more furloughs and lay people off. So to get down to zero, we'd be talking about cutting approximately $600,000."
With a 1.6-cent increase, the owner of a home assessed at $195,000 would see an increase of about $30 in municipal taxes. While pleased with reducing the tax increase that was initially introduced, Camarota said the township must keep looking for ways to pass a budget with no increase.
"I think it becomes a philosophical issue," he said. "Let's say we get down to a half-cent increase, maybe about a $15 to $20 increase on people's tax bills. Philosophically that's still an increase. People don't want to hear about an increase, even if it's $15 it's still an increase. People want to hear no increase and we've heard that loud and clear. That's our job to try and get this down to zero."
However, cutting another $600,000 from the budget may not be feasible if the town wishes to maintain the services it currently provides.
"I haven't seen anything presented to reduce the budget further than we've gone that would not create major problems," said Mayor Frank Gambatese. "I just don't see us getting to a zero increase. I would like that, and if I thought it was doable I would be the first to jump on it. But it reaches a point where you say what are we trying to accomplish?"
which increased by 1.15 percent over last year. The budget lowers the general fund tax levy by about $630,000 to $96.2 million, but the tax rate increased by about 5 cents to $2.85 per $100 of assessed valuation.
The owner of a township home with an assessed value of $200,000 will see their school taxes go up by about $100, while the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 will see an increase of about $148 in school taxes next year.
"The school taxes are going up by 5 cents, and the county, I don't know where they're at yet but it will probably be about a 1 or 2 cents increase," Gambatese said. "No matter what amount we raise taxes, we would still get blamed when people’s taxes go up. So to me, let's keep some things so we don't have a major problem to worry about at the end of the year."
Camarota said his chief concern is the impact of a tax increase this year, because he believes there will be other factors at play next year that could improve the township's economic situation.
"There is some concern about next year, and that's understandable," Camarota said. "But there are a couple things we need to consider for next year. I think the economy will continue to recover, and the pension and health reforms from last year will take more of an effect next year. So I'm not worried about next year. I'm worried about this year."
Camarota said some tough decisions will have to be considered by the council moving forward, such as the feasibility of the township maintaining its own Department of Health. South Brunswick continues a community partnership with limited contracts for service with the municipalities of Edison and Woodbridge, Camarota said. South Brunswick is one of three municipalities in Middlesex County to maintain its own health department.
Camarota added that in the past, the council has considered using the county's health department if savings could be found.
"It costs about $398,000 to have our own Health Department, and the last time we looked at it, for the county to absorb our Health Department would've only saved us about $40,000," he said. "So if that's the savings then we might as well keep it. But we need to look more at outsourcing. We need to look at anything we can to regionalize some of our services."
Councilman John O'Sullivan, who serves as liaison to the South Brunswick Advisory Board of Health, said he would not support eliminating the township Health Department.
"The council has looked at this before, so it's nothing new," O'Sullivan said. "Having our own health department brings it down to the local level. What could be done if this was at the county level? They would be worrying about 25 towns. So how would the resources be used or split over 25 towns?"
Gambatese said the council is waiting for numbers from the county to see if eliminating the Health Department makes sense, but there would have to be significant savings realized to make it a feasible option.
"We looked at this two years ago and for the savings they just couldn't provide the same services," he said. "It wasn't worth saving the money when we have programs here that no other town can provide. We make sure people have generators for heat when the weather is bad or for people on respirators, for example. We do things no other town does and I'm proud of that. Health issues are one of the responsibilities of this council, so we don't want to see that turned over to the county for limited savings when they can't do the things we're doing now."
Camarota also believes the town should consider using some money from the snow budget to apply to a tax reduction. The light snowfall this year left about $140,000 in the fund.
"I think we should consider tapping into that $140,000, maybe take $75,000 from it," he said. "We obviously don't know what the weather will be like at the end of the year, but we need to think about looking at these small areas where we could save $10,000 here and $10,000 there. We're still looking at every little thing to get down to zero."
With the cost of the October 2011 snowstorm coming in at about $225,000, Gambatese said the township must keep the snow budget intact in case of emergency.
"We'd be taking a real gamble by saying let's just leave $25,000 in there," he said. "That $25,000 would not cover even a 1- or 2-inch snowstorm. We have to be realistic. We've been lucky so far. We have to be safe, because once the budget is struck you have to adhere to it."
When considering possible areas to cut, O'Sullivan said that some tough decisions must be made, but the council should take into account the long-term impact from any of those decisions.
"The decisions we make right now may provide a temporary fix, but down the road they won't be good," he said.
While a budget without a tax increase would be ideal, Gambatese noted the cuts that would be needed to make that a reality could have a detrimental impact to the services he believes South Brunswick needs to provide. Gambatese said he's hopeful the council will be able to adopt the budget at its meeting on April 10.
"I think we've done a really good job to get down to where we are," he said Tuesday morning. "We started January looking at a 10-cent increase. Then we got down to about 7 cents, and now we've brought it down to 1.5 cents. So we've cut around 8.5 cents, which is over $2 million that’s been cut. We've taken a lot of money out of the budget and I think we're at a reasonable and acceptable amount in this economy."
What are your thoughts on a $1.6 cent increase? Would you sacrifice services for savings? Share your opinion in the comments.