While the overall budget will drop in the coming fiscal year, the amount of money raised by taxes will be slightly increased. It will call for the average homeowner with an assessed property value of $140,000 will pay an additional $22 in taxes over the coming year.
The total budget is actually lower than the 2005-06 budget of $71.2 million, meaning that this year's budget is $300,000 less than last year's.
"I've never seen that before," North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco said. "We've been introducing budgets for more than 20 years now and this is the first that I can remember actually going down. It's a very solid budget with no gimmicks. Our goal is always to stay within the rate of inflation and I didn't know it could actually be done [having a lower budget]. It's always a struggle with rising property taxes. We've seen skyrocketing property taxes in other municipalities."
"Operation costs always go up," said Township Administrator Chris Pianese. "But if you can keep the total budget level and flat, then that's great. Our spending is down. Sure, what everyone cares about the most is the amount raised by taxes, and we've kept that increase to a minimum. It's just a continuation of us stabilizing our tax record."
Pianese said that way back in 1999, North Bergen residents actually paid $76 more in property taxes than they currently pay.
"What's helped us is the recent commercial development, places like Target, Lowe's and Columbia Park," Pianese said.
When there is new construction, more properties can contribute to property taxes, lessening the burden for individuals.
The construction of a new Home Depot on Tonnelle Avenue has already begun, which means the new home improvement center, directly adjacent to Lowe's Home Improvement, will be on the tax records for the coming year.
While North Bergen has benefited from the development of luxury complexes like Half Moon and Roc Harbor along River Road, the major development is just beginning.
"We anticipate 1,000 more units to increase the tax ratable base by over $1 billion over the next five years," Pianese said. "It will help tax bills in the future."
Pianese said that the township benefited from Gov. Jon Corzine reinstating the Regional Efficiency Aid Program (REAP) at the last minute during the state budget crunch. The REAP program benefits North Bergen residents because of the township's participation in the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue. North Bergen will receive $2.4 million from the state in REAP funds, and in turn, homeowners will receive tax credits of $340 each coming off their property tax bills over the coming year.
At first, Corzine was going to eliminate all REAP funding. The reinstatement helped North Bergen produce a smaller budget than a year ago.
"We faced going into this budget with major increases," Pianese said. "Getting the REAP money back was a huge help."
Utilities and insurance up
There have been major expenditures over last year's budget. Utilities, like heating oil and gasoline, have gone up $500,000, a 6 percent increase. Insurance premiums, both for employees and the township's blanket coverage, have gone up $1.6 million, a 15 percent increase. Pension costs for employees have gone up by $900,000, a staggering 60 percent increase over a year ago.
"That last number only came out within the last week," Pianese said. "It hit us in the head."
Salaries for both the police and emergency medical services personnel have gone up $600,000. Part of the reason for that is that the police department has grown to 120 members, the largest it has been in almost a decade.
In addition, the township decided to go to paid EMS workers (albeit part-time) instead of having a volunteer ambulance squad.
"We faced a way to handle all the increases," Pianese said.
The full tax levy increased by $500,000, from $43.2 million last year to $43.7 million in 2006-07. That figure represents a 1 percent rate increase ($17.48 per $1,000 of assessed property value).
One of the major reasons for the budget success was an increase in the tax collection rate, going from a 96.7 percent collection rate last year to 97.9 percent this year. The increase in tax collection meant an additional $1 million in revenue.
"It also allows you to budget a lower reserve for uncollected funds," Pianese said.
The township was able to save $1.5 million in snow removal from 2004-05, because of the new DPW salt depot that allows the township to store more salt, plus fewer measurable snowstorms.
"The year before, we had a number of significant storms, but not last winter," Pianese said.
The township also had a surplus of $12.2 million, the highest in township history, so Pianese then earmarked $1 million of the surplus to offset the burden raised by taxes.
"I felt pretty comfortable using part of the surplus," Pianese said. "Going into the budget season, we were very concerned about possible tax increases. We thought we were staring at $7 million in increases. We knew it was coming, but we weren't sure of the level of a hit we were going to take. We started to prepare for the worst and it didn't happen."
Pianese said that it was amazing that the budget was kept so low.
"I think it is incredible success that we came away with only a $22 tax increase," Pianese said. "There were no cuts in services. In fact, we actually enhanced our police and EMS services. It really is a solid budget that we're proud of."
"We're very pleased," Sacco said. "We all worked hard on it, the commissioners, Chris Pianese, Bob Pittfield [the township's chief financial officer]. We worked on it under very difficult circumstances."
The township's capital budget was also introduced in an ordinance at the commissioners' meeting. It calls for $2.2 million for regular spending on street and sewer improvements and capital improvements on township owned buildings.
One of the biggest expenditures in the capital budget calls for a new ambulance at the cost of $120,000. The township just had a new ambulance donated via a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security, but Pianese said that the township needed another one to enhance the active fleet.
Other expenditures will be park improvements on the 64th Street playground and a new sod for the 46th Street baseball and softball fields.