HOPEWELL TWP.: Municipal tax rate is estimated even lower  

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By Frank Mustac, Special Writer
Instead of a 1 percent municipal tax rate increase over last year estimated just a few weeks ago, the anticipated Hopewell Township increase is now expected to be lower, according to Mayor Kevin Kuchinski.
“It’s going to be very small,” Mayor Kuchinski said about the latest tax-rate calculation. “It’s going to be a tenth of a percent (increase).”
Last year’s 2015 municipal budget tax rate was 36.19 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The municipal tax rate does not go toward paying for public schools or county taxes.
Since January, the elected Township Committee along with the township’s appointed finance advisory committee have been meeting with department heads to hammer out the municipal budget for 2016. The final joint meeting between the Township Committee and the volunteer finance advisers was held on March 7.
“We did what we said we were going to do,” the mayor said about keeping the municipal tax rate increase as close to zero as possible.
Several things were done, he said, to help further reduce the rate from where it was about 21 days ago.
’We zero-based every departmental budget,” the mayor said. “We worked closely with the department heads and said that sometimes there needs to be trade-offs.”
The Township Committee, he said, has been were very selective in choosing programs it supported, and cut out some areas that were potentially less fruitful.
An example, he said, is the new way the township will be budgeting for snow.
“Instead of budgeting for a peak storm every year, we’re going to budget for a 10-year average, and over time, build up a snow emergency reserve like other municipalities have,” Mr. Kuchinski said. “So when we have that 10-year storm, we can get past it.”
“The other thing we did is scour previous capital ordinances. In some cases, there was unexpected money in those ordinances, which we redeployed do roadwork that needs to be done in the township.
“That means we’re able to do roadwork this year, but our net debt is going to go down, too. The cost of debt service, which was 30 percent of our budget, is slowly going to go down over time.
“For our (employee) overtime budget, we looked at a multi-year history, and in some cases, rather than asking taxpayers to foot that bill up front, we think we can be more disciplined on how we deploy overtime.”
As it did in 2015, the township will be using a portion of its surplus.
“You want to use less surplus than you returned the year before, which is clearly where we are at,” Mayor Kuchinski said. “We returned just over $2 million in surplus last year to this reserve fund, and using just under $2 million from than fund for the current year budget. Essentially, we’re going to building that reserve (back), but in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the taxpayer.”
“We’re actually using $300,000 less from that fund than we we did a year ago,” he said.
Another “major contributor” that helped reduce the increase to the tax rate, the mayor said, is the efficiency of Hopewell Township’s tax collection department.
“They have done a very nice job of delivering 99 percent-plus of tax collection, which is an almost unheard of rate,” Mr. Kuchinski said. “When you have a track record of collecting almost all of your taxes, then you don’t have to set aside as much money for a reserve for unpaid taxes.”
“That allowed us about $200,000,” the mayor said.
The fee for at least one service the township provides has been adjusted to reflect actual costs.
Earlier this year, the Township Committee approved increasing the price it charges to issue birth certificates for newborns delivered at Capital Heath Medical Center in Hopewell Township.
“About 98 percent of the fees for birth certificates are paid by non-township residents, and yet when we looked at it, we were not even recouping our costs,” Mr. Kuchinski said. “Our previous fees were 60 percent lower than Princeton, so by just looking at that and rethinking that, the fees that come in from now on will be more in line with the underlying costs. We are doing it in a way that relieves the burden on residential property taxpayers.”
“A couple of weeks ago, we said we would try to keep the tax rate increase under 1 percent,” the mayor said. “We’ve been able to go back and turn up additional savings. I think it’s a real credit to our volunteers and to our leadership.”
“This is what our residents have been asking us for,” he said. 