Howell council introduces $51 million budget for 2018

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HOWELL – Members of the Howell Township Council introduced a 2018 municipal budget at a special meeting on March 28, eight days after they failed to introduce a spending plan for the year.

The budget was introduced in a 3-2 vote with Councilman Bob Walsh, Councilwoman Pauline Smith and Deputy Mayor Rob Nicastro voting yes. Mayor Theresa Berger and Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell voted no on the motion to introduce the budget. A public hearing on the spending plan has been scheduled for May 1.

The $51.06 million budget will be supported in part by the collection of $26.8 million in taxes from Howell’s residential and commercial property owners. The municipal tax rate is projected to be 38.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, the average home is assessed at $343,544 and the owner of that home will pay $1,329 in municipal taxes.

In 2017, the budget totaled $48.14 million and property owners paid a local tax levy of $26.34 million. The municipal tax rate was 39.7 cents per $100, the average home was assessed at $332,528 and the owner of that home paid $1,320 in municipal taxes.

The total budget for 2018 has increased by $2.92 million over 2017 and the tax levy has increased by $460,000. Officials are covering a significant portion of the increase in the budget with a $2.6 million increase from Howell’s surplus funds (savings). In 2017, council members used $3.6 million from surplus. In 2018, council members will use $6.2 million from surplus as revenue in the budget.

Municipal taxes are one item on a property owner’s tax bill. Howell property owners also pay Howell K-8 School District taxes, Freehold Regional High School District taxes, Monmouth County taxes and other assessments.

During a March 20 meeting, the proposed appropriations before the council totaled $51.35 million according to Chief Financial Officer Louis Palazzo.

Between March 20 and March 28, the following items were removed from the budget: $86,400 in overtime increases, $75,000 for fuel costs, $14,000 for contingencies, $10,000 in communication services agreements, $11,000 in public works overtime, and $88,600 in  the reserve for uncollected taxes.

Commenting on the budget that has been introduced, Nicastro said, “I believe this is a fiscally sensible budget which lowers the municipal tax rate and continues to allow the township to be financially and operationally capable; maintains public safety initiatives including fighting the opioid epidemic and providing school safety resource police officers, it maintains senior services, Department of Public Works operations, ensures we continue to make infrastructure improvements and maintains our paving/resurfacing road program, to name a few.

“This budget, as in past budgets, invests in programs and initiatives that provides a quality of life we are accustomed to and enjoy in Howell with a look to the future.

“This budget offers financial stability with the use of our reserves (savings), but the governing body and administration will have to continue to scrutinize all aspects of the town’s operations, including shared services, to ensure we operate in a lean manner with efficient and cost-effective operations to thwart unsustainable rising operational costs.” Nicastro said.

After the council narrowly voted to introduce the budget on March 28, Walsh asked Berger and O’Donnell, “what do you want changed?” after they voted no on the introduction of the spending plan.

“My ‘no’ vote is because I do not think we should take that money out. I think the uncollected taxes should be in there because it is appropriate, I think the overtime for (the Department of Public Works) was appropriate. When we first looked at this budget, nobody had a problem with this. All of sudden in the 11th hour there is an issue, so my ‘no’ is because I feel the budget in its total was appropriate, accurate, and in the best interest of residents, myself included, because I pay taxes,” O’Donnell said.

Berger said that on March 20, “I had (Nicastro) as well as Councilwoman O’Donnell saying the taxes were too high, the taxes should not be going up, that they wanted to make additional cuts. I worked with the deputy mayor and we went over the budget, we did cut some things. I have heard no cuts from Mrs. O’Donnell, who also discussed talking about some shared services in town. I do not know what shared services, there was no discussion about shared services.”

O’Donnell said her position on shared services was not necessarily to save money in the 2018 budget, but to save money in the future.

“I had asked for the opportunity for our professionals to look into what could be done to best deal with the budget in the future because as I have said and I will say it again, this budget will go up every year just like your electric bill does, your grocery bill, your gas, your mortgage taxes. There is no mystery here. Next year it is going to cost more to live in New Jersey so I think we should be looking toward the future, now shared services, if we shared something today, it is not going to save us a penny in this budget, so that is the future,” O’Donnell said.

Walsh said he is not offended if “anybody wants to cut anything.”

“I do not know what else to do here, someone give us a bonafide reason to cut more money, give it to me, I will second the motion and I will be glad to go with it and vote for it, but it bothers me, it truthfully does, it bothers me that both of you voted no to introducing the budget, when there is nothing bonafide on what you want to cut to introduce this budget,” Walsh said.

O’Donnell said she did not want to cut anything. Walsh said he would appreciate it if she voted yes next time.

Walsh asked Berger again what she wanted to cut and the mayor said she already made recommendations.

“Recommendations that I have made, some were accepted and some were not,” Berger said.

Nicastro asked what was not accepted because everything they spoke about was accepted.

Berger asked “What is the issue? Your budget (was introduced).”

Walsh responded, saying, “It is our budget, it is the town’s budget, it is not my budget, it is not your budget, it is not his budget, its not her budget, it is our budget.”

Smith said Howell needs to function and in order to function the township needs an approved budget.

O’Donnell said talking about cutting thousands of dollars from municipal departments is not the real issue to save money. She said the real issue to save money would be to reduce the number of departments and she said she does not want to do that.