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Metuchen to focus on recycling costs and tree maintenance as they look forward to 2021


METUCHEN – The cost of disposing of recyclables and tree maintenance are at the forefront as borough officials look ahead into the future.

With a tough 2020 municipal budget year due to the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, borough officials expect an even more dire budget situation for 2021.

Officials are using $1.6 million from surplus funds (savings) as revenue in the 2020 budget. Borough Administrator Melissa Perilstein said they don’t expect the borough, which will have $3.5 million in surplus remaining, to be able to replenish any surplus for the next year due to revenue losses.

Borough officials are paying attention to two areas as they look ahead to 2021. Perilstein said the cost of disposing recyclables almost tripled in the 2020 municipal budget to $144,000. Perilstein said after surveying fellow borough administrators in the county, there is no other way to absorb the costs except through taxes at the moment.

“It’s the direct result of the market,” she said, noting grants are not available and cannot be used towards the cost of disposing recyclables.

Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen said if they can’t control the recycling aspect of the market, she suggested a needed county discussion on food waste.

“If we can decrease the amount of food waste and compost, I think we’d be able to save a lot of money,” she said.

Mayor Jonathan Busch said along with recycling costs, tree maintenance has been an ongoing issue in the borough. He said trees contribute to the health and beauty of the community and don’t become a problem until storms like Tropical Storm Isaias hit with 80 mile-per-hour winds.

“It’s not just a Metuchen issue, it’s a statewide issue,” he said. “All trees around the state get to the age and need to be addressed.”

On Aug. 19, Busch testified before a Joint Hearing of the State Assembly on the impact of Tropical Storm Isaias, which hit the area on Aug. 4.

“During Tropical Storm Isaias, more than 20 borough trees came down resulting in the closing of a number of our roads, some for days,” Busch said during his testimony. “We had six or seven homes that had trees fall on top of them. In at least one case, residents were essentially ‘trapped’ on their street because there were trees down on both sides of their homes. Five transformers blew out or came down and a total of 1,318 homes were without power for varying periods of time, some for as many as five days.”

Busch continued stating the borough does its best to manage its aging tree population, “but we simply do not have enough money in our annual budget to maintain and remove our trees at the pace that is necessary to diminish this significant risk.

“While we recognize that even healthy trees can come down during a storm, it is imperative that the state and the Board of Public Utilities force utility companies like PSE&G and Optimum/Altice to do more for communities like ours so that we can diminish our risk and better withstand storms like Isaias,” he said. “Climate change is real and many experts believe that our storms are becoming more dangerous. I very much appreciate the assembly’s interest in tackling these issues, but it is imperative that we not let too much time pass before we take action. One of my biggest concerns is that, with everything else going on, we will lose our focus on this important issue until the next storm hits New Jersey.”

Perilstein said tree maintenance is an extraordinary expense. The borough has done limited tree trimming maintenance except for utilities that have come in to address issues of trees going through wires.

“We cannot touch any trees that go through wires,” she said. “It is the responsibility of PSE&G. We have some money available [for tree maintenance] but nothing significant. My hope next year is to build into the budget at least possibly $50,000 to address the trees.”

Perilstein said with the leadership of Fred Hall, director of the Department of Public Works (DPW), they will start tree maintenance in a fair judicious manner. She said in the meantime she is looking for grants; however, the grants available are centered around tree plantings, not around tree maintenance.

Councilman Todd Pagel said the borough’s Shade Tree Commission has been discussing tree maintenance for at least a decade since he served on the commission as a resident. He said the commission came up with a variety of plans to triage which trees need to come down or trimmed.

“It is a financial burden with $2,000 for a tree to come down,” he said.

Pagel noted residents who don’t want to wait for DPW can trim a borough tree on their own except for trees that go through wires. He said a permit, which is free, is required and can be filled out and sent to him.

The Borough Council approved the $22.5 million 2020 municipal budget at a meeting in August. Metuchen officials will collect $14.86 million in taxes from Metuchen’s residential and commercial property tax owners in 2020 to help fund the municipal budget.

The increase in the tax levy adds 4.5 to 4.6 cents to the municipal tax rate. The municipal tax increase on a parcel with an assessed value of $200,000 is $90. The average homeowner will pay $2,746.

The borough estimated a $500,000 loss of revenue from the parking authority and municipal court in the 2020 municipal budget.

Metuchen will receive a flat state aid of $1.45 million. Officials will use $1.6 million from surplus funds (savings) as revenue in the budget in 2020; a $500,000 contribution from the Metuchen Parking Authority; $662,264 from local revenue – fees, permits and licenses; $600,000 from the collection of delinquent taxes; and $808,413 through library property taxes.

The largest percentage of the municipal budget is 22% for public safety (police), including salaries and wages, 20% for sewage treatments, health care costs, 19% for pension, FICA (Federal Insurance Contribution Act) and insurance, and 11% for public works.

The proposed budget includes the purchase of a garbage truck; milling and paving of Desser Place, Ross Street, McCoy Avenue, Brunswick Avenue, Lake Avenue, Stoneham Place, and Revere and Hale courts; and the implementation of ADA (American with Disabilities Act) compliant sidewalks and curbs at the end of Lake Avenue.

The proposed milling and paving continues commitments made with supplemental funds from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, officials said.

Municipal taxes account for a portion of the total taxes that are paid by a property owner. The other taxes include school, which is expected to see a tax increase of $226 for the average homeowner; county, which is estimated to see a tax increase of $36 for the average homeowner; and library, which is expected to see a tax increase of $4 for the average homeowner.

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