BY KATHY CHANG
OLD BRIDGE — Due to a significant increase in employee group health insurance costs and a decrease in state and federal grants received, the 2016 municipal budget will see a $26 tax increase for the average homeowner in Old Bridge.
The Township Council adopted the $54.3 million budget at a meeting on March 21, which represents only a 20 percent portion of the tax bill that township officials can directly control. The remaining portion of the tax bill includes the Old Bridge Public Schools, Middlesex County and the four fire districts in the township.
Business Administrator Christopher Marion said group health insurance costs increased by $615,654, and there was a major decrease in state and federal grants of $294,519.
Marion said township officials are continuing to work on cost containment strategies for health care insurance as well as cooperative purchasing for goods and services, new technology-related initiatives and shared services to get the “best bang for the best buck” for the township.
The tax rate for both municipal and library purposes is estimated to be $1.0320, which reflects a tax increase of $0.10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation over the 2015 municipal tax rate for the average home.
The municipal and library tax increase totals $26 — a $20 increase in municipal taxes and a $6 increase in library taxes.
The owner of an Old Bridge home assessed at the township average of $152,500 will pay $1,574, increasing from $1,548 in 2015.
The budget has a $33.03 million tax levy, which increased by $609,334 over last year.
The library tax levy increased by $100,000 from $2.3 million last year to $2.4 million this year.
Despite the tax increase, township officials said they are spending less money this year than four years ago, which saw a total budget of $56.9 million.
“We’re spending less money and providing better services for our residents,” said Mayor Owen Henry. “It’s proof that we can overcome a financial disaster with good government, proof that we can operate under a 2 percent cap, proof that we can improve and deliver services at a higher level and proof that we are financially responsible to the taxpayers.”
Township officials noted that the township’s bond rating has changed from Aa2 in 2014 to Aa1 last year, which reflects the township’s large tax base, above-average wealth indicators and strong financial position.
The salaries and wages line in the budget has decreased by $46,382 from $21,098,633 in 2015 to $21,052,251 in 2016.
Marion said the budget includes one new full-time police officer, one new full-time employee (bus driver) in the senior services division and one part-time employee (secretary) in the Office of Economic Development.
The budget sees a $1.16 million increase in revenues from $50,700,748 in 2015 to $51,858,418 in 2016, which includes increases in uniform construction and code fees of $75,000 from $1.55 million to $1.63 million.
The budget does see a decrease in municipal court fines and costs of $25,000 from $500,000 in 2015 to $475,000 in 2016.
The municipal state aid the township receives has remained flat since 2011, which totals $6,270,857.
Marion said potential challenges for 2016-17 are national, state and local economic conditions; weather-related emergencies and related costs; additional contractual cost increases from insurance, pensions and utilities; collective bargaining agreements and related negotiations that are coming up again; accumulated time payouts for retirees; an increasing number of tax appeals; new and unfunded state mandates; and potential further cuts to municipal state aid.
Council President Brian Cahill said he was proud to support the budget.
“I went through the budget line by line and I think anywhere we could save a penny we did while balancing the needs of the public,” he said.
Councilwoman-at-Large Anita Greenberg-Belli said although township officials have made great strides of not using non-recurring revenues to balance the budget and spending less than previous years, she said she had to vote against the tax increase.
“I do feel with deeper review of the budget, additional areas could be saved,” she said, adding that she hopes the Board of Education would follow suit and avoid any tax increase.
Contact Kathy Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.