The Hightstown Borough Council voted unanimously Monday evening to amend and pass a 2011 municipal budget of nearly $6.3 million. For the first time in 20 years, local taxes are not expected to increase.
The amendments to the budget increase it by $35,470, incorporating a number of minor revisions. Among them are the addition of $7,520 in revenue for a Clean Communities grant, savings of $20,000 in police salaries and wages and $7,800 through salary revisions; and a $20,000 increase in legal expenses.
The budget was in March. Overall, it will raise $4.3 million via taxation.
Chief Financial Officer George Lang noted this is the first year the borough isn’t applying for Extraordinary Aid from the state, which allows it to switch from annual reviews to one review every three.
“In prior years, every year we applied for extraordinary aid,” he said. Now, without that, he said, the municipality is like the majority of others in the state.
With a nearly static tax rate of 87.6 cents per $100, the owner of a home valued at the borough average of $269,637 can expect to be pay $2,337 in local property taxes for the year, actually about $25 less than in 2010.
In the portion of the meeting devoted to public comment on the budget, several residents made suggestions to the Borough Council.
Hightstown Republican Club Chair and former mayor Scott Caster told the council he was unhappy Lang had changed the budget this year to separate administrative expenses from those for water and sewer. He said about a third of every item involving the council and its staff should be paid from the water/sewer budget because the council is the ultimate administrator.
“I’m uncomfortable about this because I look at you all as water/sewer commissioners of the Utility Authority,” he said.
Officials told Caster there are allocations in the budget for water and sewer, but Caster said they should be for “a lot more” money.
“It just doesn’t seem like the formula is significant enough to be in favor of fair distribution of expenses,” Caster said. “Even everything, the administrative costs of the whole building, the cleaning service in this room, 30 percent of it should be water and sewer, because this is the administrative place for the water and sewer.”
“Allocations are just that—something that’s reasonable,” countered Democrat Mayor Steve Kirson.
Not everyone expressed the same concerns as Caster. Former Republican committeeman Mike Theokas said the old allocations that Caster was advocating had been a bad choice for the borough.
“Part of pushing costs to the water/sewer plant was a shell game that’s been played for a long time, trying to bury our costs and pass a good municipal tax rate. That’s what got us in a lot of trouble,” Theokas said. “And on the flip side, we had water and sewer moneys that were put into the general budget years ago that helped to keep the tax rate down. That was a long-term, very, very poor choice that got us in a lot of trouble.”
Theokas said the council should keep in mind that new state mandates cap annual local tax increases at 2 percent, and that it will be hard in future years to raise money quickly without a referendum.
"Yes it's good we're going to keep things manageable this year, but next year is coming," he continued. "We made that mistake—I was guilty of making that mistake two years ago when we deferred pension payments for a year and it put us behind the 8-ball big time."
Rob Thibault, a Democratic candidate for Borough Council this year and a former Republican mayoral candidate, said the council needs to better understand and communicate just what the budget means.
“Not only do you not know what individual components cost,” he said, like police and public works salaries, benefits, etc., “the people who’re paying the bills don’t actually know.”
Thibault said the budget is too generous to borough employees, spends disproportionately more on police costs than on recreational ones, and that it's too confusing for most residents to understand.
“[Taxpayers] need to be informed buyers of government services and they’re not,” he said. “Maybe I’m like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but hopefully in next year’s budget you’ll have some transparency, things people can understand.”
For more on the adopted budget, see the PDFs in the gallery at the top of this article.