TC passes 8.5-percent tax hike

With 3-2 vote, Council approves 2019 municipal budget of $85.7 million

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved the 2019 municipal budget of $85,780,920.31 at its July 16 meeting, approving a tax increase of 8.5 percent, the highest increase in the last 10 years. The budget passed with a vote of 3-2, with Councilman Joe Krakoviak and Councilwoman Susan McCartney casting the opposing votes.

Mayor Robert Parisi said at the May 29 meeting when the budget was introduced that the increase is due to the township’s tax levy cap bank expiring in 2019, meaning it will not be available in 2020, 2021 or 2022. The alternative would be to keep the 2-percent cap on this year’s budget but raise taxes approximately 12 percent next year, because the cap will no longer be available. The average taxpayer will pay approximately $297.50 per month, or $3,570 for the year.

If the township decided not to raise taxes by the proposed amount this year, Parisi said there would be no room for a capital budget, no added township positions, no filling open township positions and no expansion of services. There would be a reduction of services. It would eliminate $5 million in salary and wages, the equivalent of 70 part-time township positions and 55 full-time positions. At the July 16 meeting, Chief Financial Officer John Gross and Business Administrator Jack Sayers repeated these points.

Fire operations take up the bulk of the 2019-2020 budget, with the township spending 18.1 percent on running the department. Second is miscellaneous expenses like municipal health, environmental health, code enforcement, payroll, fire prevention, legal services, animal control and senior services; which will take up 18 percent of the budget. The Police Department expenses are broken down into different divisions that include patrol, criminal investigations, staff services, traffic and the community services unit. Patrol is the most expensive at 13.4 percent of the budget, the third most expensive line item in the overall budget.

Municipal taxes will take in $60,871,569.71, or 71 percent of the overall revenue sources in the budget. No other revenue source brings in more than 17 percent, the amount that local revenue will make. The township receives $4,696,469 in state aid.

A breakdown of what will be included in this year’s budget was included in the presentation, which can be found on the township website. The town will be hiring a full-time planning and economic development consultant, two new police officers, a part-time senior livability coordinator and a tree climber position. Five open firefighter positions will be filled in addition to expanding traffic safety enforcement and assisting the West Orange School District in adding GPS technology to school buses. The proposed budget is also asking the council to consider $50,000 in funding to the West Orange Public Library.

The township parks and pool will be improved, a new sound system for the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center will be purchased and Luna Stage will receive township support.

Other improvements in the township that are included in the budget include new firearms for the Police Department, new police vehicles, refurbished ambulances, continuing firehouse renovations, updating the sound system inside Council Chambers and installing LED high-visibility street signs.

McCartney said she voted against the budget because she did not believe economic development should be a part of it. Krakoviak voted against the budget because he believed there were three areas that could have been addressed, including charging commuters to ride the jitney, reducing the capital budget and changing the insurance brokerage consultant to go out for competitive bidding. He moved to make the amendments to the budget, but did not receive a second.

“Two out of the three of those would not be able to improve the budget or have any savings this year,” Gross said in response to Krakoviak at the meeting. “If you reduce the capital improvement fund, that would have an impact. That would also reduce part of your ability to keep the tax cap at 2 percent. If you don’t want to vote for this budget then you have to propose mass cuts in services.”

During the budget hearing at the July 16 meeting, resident Clare Silvestri urged the council not to approve the budget, saying there are cuts that could have been made to reduce the tax increase.

“There are ways to make a dent in the 8.5-percent increase, including not filling all of the current openings in the fire department and shaving the capital budget to a reasonable size,” Silvestri, who is married to Krakoviak, said. “I’ve been wondering for some time what is really driving this. Is it the police contract, relocation of the library or something else? I urge you to take compassion on the most vulnerable in our community. Allow seniors who want to stay in their homes to be able to do that and vote no on this budget.”

Other residents asked the council to approve the budget, saying there was nothing else that could be cut without cutting services or employees. Susan McAbee was one residents who supported the budget during the hearing.

“You have spent all this time going through all these things, down to very small amounts, talking about $300 here or there,” Susan McAbee said at the meeting. “I feel like you guys have looked as much as you can. The Citizens Advisory Committee came back and couldn’t even suggest cuts. I don’t like taxes going up, no one does, but at some point we just have to bite the bullet and do it.”

Susan McAbee’s husband, Lawrence McAbee, also encouraged the council to approve the budget.

“The process worked,” Lawrence McAbee said. “No one could come up with money to cut out of the budget. It’s not a matter of compassion; it’s a matter of dollars and cents. Put it to bed.”