There will be a tax increase for the coming year.
But Pianese wants all township taxpayers to take heart. It's a 2.8 percent tax hike, below the national rate of inflation of 3.7 percent. It's not as substantial as has been rumored about town. Rumors of 7 percent or higher appeared in windshield and mailbox propaganda.
"Taxpayers can't think that it's going up 7 percent or even 3.7 percent," Pianese said. "The bottom line is that it's lower than the national rate of inflation. We've consistently done that during Mayor [Nicholas] Sacco's administration and we've done it again this year."
Because of the increases, the average homeowner with an assessed property value of $140,000 will pay an additional $154 in overall taxes this year. That average homeowner now will pay approximately $5,675 in municipal, school and county taxes annually.
$68.59 million budget The proposed $68.59 million budget covers spending from July 1, 2005 through June 30, 2006. It was introduced at the regularly scheduled Board of Commissioners' meeting last week.
The public hearing on the budget is slated for Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. at Town Hall. After that time, the council may take a final vote.
The $68,589,065 budget is $866,135 more than a year ago.
City, school and county taxes The new overall tax rate will be $40.54 per $1,000 of property owned, a number that includes municipal, school and county taxes.
The municipal portion is projected at $17.32 per $1,000 of assessed value, up 61 cents from last year. That accounts for $85 of the overall tax increase for the average homeowner.
The school tax rate is being increased by 34 cents to $14.60 per $1,000 of assessed value, while the Hudson County tax rate has increased by 15 cents to $8.62.
The portion collected from taxpayers (called the tax levy) stands at $43.1 million, $3 million more than was received last year.
Why the increase? Pianese said that perhaps the biggest obstacle the township had to endure in terms of expenditures came from employee health insurance, a $1.9 million increase over last year's budget.
"There are a couple of things in this budget that hurt us, and the biggest is our health benefit situation," Pianese said. "The costs have gone through the roof. We're self-insured and we pay per claim, but the claims got so high over the past year that we had to declare an emergency to appropriate money just to pay off the claims. We had a $1.2 million shortfall that we have to pay for in this budget. We had a bad year in terms of claims."
As a way to offset future financial woes due to medical claims, Pianese said that the township is looking into ways to have a group health program.
"We're exploring the options to go fully insured with premiums," Pianese said. "Medical costs are projected to go up 24 percent over the next year, so we're in negotiation with Horizon to give us a plan for health and prescriptions."
Pianese said that $3.1 million of the new budget has been itemized solely for health insurance claims.
More public safety Another $1 million increase will come in police salaries, from $7.7 million to $8.7 million, partly because the township plans to hire 16 new police officers at the end of this month to increase the current total of uniformed patrol personnel to 122. This will be the highest total since the NAACP lawsuit eight years ago that put a freeze on all police hiring. Since the suit was settled, the township has been slowly getting its entire complement of police officers back.
"We're committed to having a total of 120, so this will give us 122," Pianese said.
Pianese is looking into the possibility of hiring four or five officers with Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) funding, because the township usually has a patrol in the UEZ area (the business district).
Other expensive line items include an additional $537,000 in police and firefighter's pension plans and an additional $347,000 for North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue service operations.
Some of the other spending on tap will be the new $5.5 million swimming pool complex, the proposed $2.5 million multi-level parking deck at Town Hall, a new salt container dome for the township's Public Works department, a new ambulance for the township-run ambulance squad, and a communications upgrade to the police emergency system.
"The pool and parking deck are on the same timeline and should have contracts in place by the end of the year," Pianese said. "Construction should begin on both projects in 2006, with the pool season of 2007 our goal to have the pool complex done and open."
Others will share tax burden in future Pianese said that the township expects a new ratable base of nearly $3 million because of two housing complexes that are slated to have certificates of occupancy within the next year. There are approximately five other projects either being developed or in the planning stages, mostly all along the booming River Road section, that will contribute tax income in the coming years.
"Over the next 2-3 years, we should see a ratable growth of $50 to $100 million," Pianese said. "This year, it should be around $80 million. With two a year or three a year, we are predicting $50 to $100 million. That would help a lot."
The township will also authorize a new hotel room tax that will bring in an additional $300,000. The town also plans to sell off land it owns, approximately worth $3 million, to private developers, also cutting down the tax burden.
Of course, the school portion of the budget was helped by the $8 million in state aid North Bergen received as part of Mayor and State Sen. Sacco's bill that was signed into law to help districts that border three Abbott districts.
One of the things Pianese is most proud of is cutting down on the township's debt total. Ever since North Bergen had an all-time high debt total of $60 million seven years ago, the township has worked diligently to pay off some of its debt and the total now stands at $42 million.
"There aren't many municipalities that can have their debt below $50 million," Pianese said.
As for the tax hike, Pianese believes that it's much ado about nothing. In fact, he's proud of the way the tax rate has remained stabilized.
"It's below the rate of the state average, and it's below the rate of inflation," Pianese said. "We made a committed and conscious effort to keep taxes stable. I can confidently sit here and say we did that."