Howell council members adopt $54.84 million budget for 2021

HOWELL – It took two tries, but the members of the Howell Township Council, by a one-vote margin, have adopted a $54.84 million budget to fund municipal operations for 2021.

A public hearing on the budget was held during the council’s May 11 meeting. Several residents voiced concern about an increase in the line item for the five council members’ salaries from $37,500 to $60,000 (i.e., a possible raise in a council member’s salary from $7,500 to $12,000).

When the public hearing was closed, a motion was made to adopt the budget. Mayor Theresa Berger, Councilwoman Pamela Richmond and Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell voted “no.” Deputy Mayor Thomas Russo and Councilman John Bonevich voted “yes.” The motion failed 3-2 and the budget was not adopted.

After voting “no,” Berger said, “I will say that you (township professionals) did a really wonderful job on the budget. There was one thing I didn’t agree with, so that is the only reason why I (voted ‘no’), the only thing. But you did a wonderful job, I have to say.”

The mayor said she voted “no” on the motion to adopt the budget because of the issue of the salaries for the council members. She said she would reconsider her “no” vote if the matter was discussed.

“I want to discuss why I voted ‘no’ and it was for the reason of salary. I agree with the citizens. I think it needs to be done in a more logical way, a more reasonable way,” Berger said.

Township Manager Brian Geoghegan said the proper procedure to reopen the matter for reconsideration would be for a council member to make a motion to reconsider the budget and for another member of the council to second the motion, followed by a vote on the motion.

Geoghegan clarified the issue of the council members’ salaries.

“This (budget process) is just putting money in the budget to allow for that salary. It does not grant the governing body any salary raise. (Approving a raise) has to be done separately by a salary ordinance and you (council members) always have the right to either refuse or take a lesser salary than what was offered,” Geoghegan said.

Russo said, “To my understanding, this budget does not release any funds to council stipends. It just allows the discussion; you would need an ordinance to actually release the funds. That is why I supported this budget. You can have the conversation about a raise at a later date. You have to (because) this budget does not release any funds to council.”

Berger thanked Geoghegan for the clarification and said, “I was thinking it through. I didn’t want to stop the budget from moving forward.”

As explained, one person who voted “no” on the motion to adopt the budget had to make the motion to reconsider the issue. Berger made the motion and O’Donnell seconded the motion.

On the second vote to adopt the budget, Berger, Russo and Bonevich voted “yes.” Richmond and O’Donnell voted “no.” The 3-2 vote in favor of the motion meant the 2021 budget was adopted.

O’Donnell told the Tri-Town News why she voted “no” twice.

“The second vote on the budget was a result of the mayor changing her mind and then voting ‘yes.’ My vote was reflective of the information that was given to me as the result of my concerns and questions.

“It has been my experience for the past five years that when preparing the budget, it is customary to have clear and decisive information for deliberation. I feel it is my responsibility to put the best budget forward to the residents of Howell,” O’Donnell said.

Regarding her vote, Richmond said, “I voted (‘no’) on the budget based on information I received after my concerns on specific budget items. The answers I received were not clear or concise and in my opinion (making) no cuts to a budget is not a responsible budget.”

The 2021 municipal budget will be supported by the collection of $29.2 million in a local tax levy to be paid by Howell’s residential and commercial property owners.

Municipal officials said that in this year’s $54.84 million budget, $24.6 million will be appropriated to salaries; $25.4 million will be appropriated to non-discretionary other expenses; and $4.59 million will be appropriated to discretionary other expenses.

In 2020, council members adopted a $53.54 million budget that was supported by the collection of a $29.2 million local tax levy. While total appropriations have increased by $1.3 million from 2020 to 2021, the local tax levy will remain stable at $29.2 million.

Municipal officials maintained a stable tax levy by increasing the amount of money that will be taken from Howell’s surplus fund (savings account) and applied as revenue in the budget.

In 2020, officials used $6 million from the surplus fund as revenue in the budget.

In 2021, officials will use $7.28 million from the surplus fund as revenue in the budget.

Chief Financial Officer Louis Palazzo said the increased amount of surplus funds to be appropriated in 2021 will keep the tax levy stable from 2020 to 2021.

In 2020, Howell’s municipal tax rate was 39.45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The average home was assessed at $365,623 and the owner of that home paid about $1,442 in municipal taxes (0.3945 x 3,656).

In 2021, Howell’s municipal tax rate is projected to decrease to 38.6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The average home is assessed at $371,527 and the owner of that home will pay about $1,434 in municipal taxes (0.386 x 3,715).

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

The total amount of taxes an individual pays is based on the assessed value of his home and/or property and the tax rate that is set by each taxing entity.

A decrease in the municipal tax rate – such as is occurring in Howell this year – does not necessarily mean an individual will see a decrease in the municipal property taxes he pays.