East Brunswick mayor introduces $70.5M municipal budget for 2021

EAST BRUNSWICK–With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continuing to affect municipalities and state budgets nationwide, Mayor Brad Cohen introduced a $70.5 million municipal budget for taxpayers in East Brunswick.

“At my last State of the Township address, which I made a couple of months ago, I talked about the horrible year we endured with the pandemic and the economic recession or depression that it produced,” Cohen said. “My administration spent a good part of the year in fear of what would happen in 2021 as we saw revenues dry up. I worried about the message that I would need to provide [regarding] the economic reality which we found ourselves and the difficult roadmap with the need to follow in order to see ourselves clear on what seemed like doom.”

With that as a backdrop, Cohen said he is pleased to report that 2021 is not as gloomy as township officials feared and he is happy to introduce this year’s municipal budget for the township to review and adopt.

Delivering his presentation on April 12 during the council meeting via video conference, Cohen said, “This year the total municipal budget is $70.5 million, with a property tax levy of $41.7 million. This represents a tax rate of 2.182, which is 0.8 of a penny increase over last year which was 2.175,” Cohen said. “For the average house that’s assessed at $100,000 in value, therefore at $400,000 since our assessment ratio is 24.8%. this represents a $7.75 cent increase in municipal taxes over 2020 per year with the average assessed home.”

Highlights from this year’s budget, Cohen said, pertain to state aid.

“I would like everybody to refer to my video on East Brunswick Township’s website explaining the history of property taxes because state aid really should only be referred to as energy taxes,” Cohen said. “These are revenues due to old townships for taxes that would have been due directly to the municipality for energy companies that use our land, services, right-of-aways and roads.”

Cohen said this amounts to almost $4.2 million and has remained flat for over 10 years, because the state cannot statutorily reduce that amount without the risk of losing the ability to collect those fees from the energy company, and that would result in the township being able to bill the energy company directly.

The point of all of this, Cohen said, is that it’s not energy tax receipts, it is your money which means it’s the township’s money.

“The other highlight is that we continue to get our host community benefit from the [Middlesex County] landfill that amounts to revenues of about $3.5 million,” Cohen said. “This budget will also call for the use of $3.2 million in surplus, which is a small amount considering the fact that this budget does not include the following expected revenues for this year.”

Cohen said the township is expecting to get a little more than $4 million in money from the most recent federal COVID-19 relief package. There are many restrictions on the use of those funds. Thus, holding up the township’s ability to include that in the 2021 revenue.

“For example, funds cannot be used for property tax relief, they cannot be used for pension costs, and they cannot be used for debt payments, and we may have even more restrictions,” Cohen said. “This year’s budget does not include expected pilot money from 39 Edgeboro. That doesn’t include expected pilot money from 110 Tices Lane. And this budget does not include any money that we’re going to be getting from the first CARES Act, reflective of expenses of the last few months of 2020.”

Cohen said the other thing also highlighted in his State of the Township address was that the township carries a debt ratio of 0.56%, which is the net debt as a percentage of the three-year average of property values which is an unbelievably low level of debt to be carrying.

“Residents are reminded that municipal tax accounts for 19% of the total tax bill as the final bill must reflect school, county and fire district taxes as well. State law requires the municipal government to collect these levies, as well as our own,” Cohen said. “Your packet will also include budgets for the five utilities that the township runs. These are the water, sewer, pool, parking and police range utilities.”

While there were challenges this year in the pool and parking utility due to the pandemic and the lockdown, Cohen said these utilities all remain self-liquidating and have not affected the general municipal budget.

“The council and public are free to review this budget and are encouraged to do so. Compared to many other towns and despite our fears, we have entered into 2021 in a surprisingly good position,” Cohen said. “The final analysis attributes to five main facts: one, there was an increase in total taxable property valuation, essentially, the pie was made bigger by increasing new properties that came on board to our tax rolls. This trend is expected to continue as new properties come out of the redevelopment process already underway.”

Cohen said second, the township refinanced its debt at historically low rates. The township also moved from short-term bond anticipation notes to longer term bonds, plus insurance stable debt payments, which allows for longer term strategic planning.

Third, Cohen said the township collected its CARES Act money, which was approximately $1.8 million for COVID-19-related expenses in 2020.

“While we’ve not fired or furloughed any employees during the pandemic, we did not refill positions vacated by those who retired or chose to leave in 2020,” Cohen said. “So we did have savings in some of our personnel costs.

“Finally, and probably most importantly, we maintain a 98.36% property tax collection ratio through 2020,” he said.

In the end, Cohen said it has been a complete team effort to get the township to this point and they will continue this open and transparent process and hope to remain on good solid sound economic footings.

“I’d like to thank Angel Albanese, the township chief financial officer, and our entire finance department, Joseph Criscuolo our township business administrator, the staff, the entire staff of the township who worked extremely hard to this challenging pandemic, our Township Council, and most importantly the residents of the Township of East Brunswick,” Cohen said. “In the end, it is our role as leaders to provide the highest level of service our residents deserve in a financially sound manner. I believe that this 2021 budget does exactly what we have been charged to do.”

A budget hearing and final reading for the budget resolution is scheduled for May 10, according to information provided by the township.

For more information, visit www.eastbrunswick.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=39.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.