The mayor and school board officials are urging resident to reject the proposed $19.5 million budget for the 2006-07 school year.
Officials say that if the budget is voted down, it will give the township additional time to try to avoid a substantial tax raise - due in part to the loss of expected state aid.
The budget, up from $18.1 million a year ago, calls for an additional $1.6 million to be raised by taxes. That means that the average homeowner with property assessed at $140,000 will pay an additional $340 per household when the tax bills are sent out in October.
Voters will also get to vote on April 18 for school board candidates (see sidebar).
The state giveth, and the state taketh away
"We've been able to keep an extremely stable tax rate over the last six years," Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said last week. "Our overall tax rate (which includes county, school, and municipal taxes) has gone up 5 to 6 percent during that time, while the state average has been about 40 percent. But it's painfully clear that this projected increase cannot stand."
The reason for the substantial increase is simple. Last July, State Sen. Nicholas Sacco adopted a plan that would benefit the five "rim" school districts, which are districts - like Weehawken - that border on at least three poor Abbott "special needs" districts, but do not receive Abbott funding.
The bill was passed through the state Assembly and Senate and signed into law by then-Acting Gov. Richard Codey. It called for Bayonne, North Bergen, Weehawken, and two other districts to receive a substantial increase in state education funding.
In fact, Weehawken received an additional $450,000 in funding last year and was expected to receive $770,000 this year and a little over $1 million in 2007.
However, Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan received a phone call from state Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy a few weeks ago, stating that Weehawken would only receive the $450,000 it received last year and not the projected $770,000 it had already budgeted.
"A week before the public hearing on the budget, we received word that we weren't getting that 'rim' money," Board of Education President Richard Barsa said. "We thought we were entitled to it and put it in the budget for the coming year. Losing that money hurt, and that's substantial for a town like Weehawken."
Expenditures are up $1.2 million over last year in terms of salaries ($550,000) and health benefits (more than $300,000). Special education costs were also increased by $150,000.
"We made sure that we spent what the state expected us to spend and nothing more," Barsa said.
Needless to say, McLellan was quite angry when he received the news.
"Whenever you get a call from the state commissioner of education, you know it can't be good news," McLellan said. "I've been the superintendent for 12 years and I never received a call before. This was a law that was signed by Governor Codey and now they're reneging on that law."
Added McLellan, "This wasn't a competitive grant that we applied for. This wasn't a special grant. The origin for this funding is in law. And this all happened a week before we're having the public hearing on the budget."
By law, if the budget is voted down, then lawmakers have 30 days to come up with an alternative plan, with the Township Council having the final say.
"If the budget is voted down, then that will buy us some extra time to first approach our legislators to see if they can help us, then work with the council to come up with a solution," McLellan said. "So it's our recommendation to the voters to reject the budget that will appear on the ballot and that will send a message to the State House that this latest action has major ramifications here."
Turner said that he has already been in contact with the sponsor of the original bill, namely Sacco, who vowed to make sure that the funding somehow returns.
How votes go
Unlike many other Hudson County municipalities, Weehawken's school board budget has passed 12 out of the last 13 times. Most in the area get voted down in massive proportions.
Turner said that by the time an amended budget can be presented, it will include new projected tax ratables like the 90 new units at the Riva Pointe luxury housing development along the Hudson River waterfront, as well as 25 new condo units on Hackensack Plank Road that should be ready by the time the 2007 tax bills are sent out.
"In recent years, our increase in ratables has been tremendous," Turner said. "We will have new units, new ratables on the books next year, but there was no time to adjust the budget after receiving the news about the 'rim' cuts. Now, if this gets voted down, we'll have a little time to state our case that the cuts were unfair, time to approach the legislators, time to sit down and look at the numbers and put our budget back together by the fall."