Inflation, rise in health care costs drive municipal increases in Lawrence Township

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The Lawrence Township Council has introduced a $61.7 million municipal budget that will see a 2-cent increase in the municipal property tax rate.

The municipal property tax rate is proposed to increase from 63 cents per $100 of assessed value to 65 cents. The owner of a house assessed at the township average of $284,792 would pay $1,851.14 in municipal property taxes, or $82.50 more than last year.

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The spending plan was introduced by a 4-1 vote at a Lawrence Township Council meeting March 7. Township Council members Christopher Bobbitt, James Kownacki, Catherin MacDuff and Michael Powers voted “yes.  Mayor John Ryan voted “no.”

Ryan proposed holding a special public meeting to allow for a line-by-line review of the budget. Residents would be assured that the elected officials did their due diligence in a transparent and accountable manner, he said.

“I believe (the forum) is in line with Lawrence Township’s long-standing history of being a leader in open and transparent government. It should be exhaustive,” Ryan said.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to educate the public on what’s under the hood of their tax bill,” Ryan said.

There was no support for Ryan’s request from among the Lawrence Township Council members.

Township Councilman Michael Powers said the municipal department heads present their budgets to the Lawrence Township Council at a regular council meeting before the budget is introduced. The Township Council members can ask questions, he said.

“In my 20 years (on the Township Council), I rely on the department heads,” Powers said. If there is a question about a departmental budget, he said, he asks Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski to look into it.

The proposed $61.7 million budget is $8.9 million more than the 2022 municipal budget. The increase is driven primarily by two factors, Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski said.

The budget includes $4.9 million in grants received by the township, and a transfer of $3.3 million from the surplus account to the capital improvement fund, Nerwinski said. Setting aside money in the capital improvement fund allows the township to pay for projects out-of-pocket. It would not need to borrow money through bond ordinances to cover the costs.

“Both have absolutely nothing to do with an increased burden on our taxpayers, and must be included in our budget as required by law,” he said.

Nerwinski said the challenges facing the 2023 municipal budget are the same that residents face as individuals – the rising cost of all things across many industries in a post-pandemic world. In a word, it is “inflation,” he said.

The “rising costs” include health benefits increases; contractual increases to salaries and wages; an increase in trash collection fees; an increase for emergency services dispatch services; and an increase in the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) pension contributions, he said.

Nerwinski said the township is hiring three additional firefighters, two additional emergency medical technicians (EMT), and two additional Department of Public Works employees.

The new firefighter and EMT positions are needed to create an additional shift for each department. The new Department of Public Works employees are needed to help maintain the Brunswick Avenue streetscape, the Hero Dog Park and other community parks.

The “inescapable” increases across all categories of appropriations have been partially offset by an increase in ratables; a half year of a new cannabis tax; and a successful grant program, Nerwinski said.

The result is a $1.2 million increase in the amount to be raised by property taxes – from $29.4 million in 2022 to $30.6 million, he said. Property taxes make up the main source of revenue to support the budget.

The township also relies on miscellaneous revenue as a source of income. Miscellaneous revenue, such as fees and permits, liquor licenses, the hotel and motel tax and the new cannabis sales tax will generate $20.3 million in revenue.

Lawrence Township also will receive $4.1 million in state aid.

Township officials anticipate using $9.9 million in surplus funds as a source of revenue to balance the budget. This is an increase of $3.1 million over the $6.8 million in surplus funds that was used in the 2022 budget.

Lawrence Township had $20.6 million in surplus funds on Dec. 31, 2022, as compared to $17.5 million at the end of 2021.

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