Will Secaucus join the list of New Jersey municipalities that will – due to rising costs and declining state aid – have to raise taxes this year? Members of the Town Council will begin to answer this question next month when they get their first look at the proposed 2009 municipal budget.
Last year, Mayor Dennis Elwell and the council approved a $42.9 million budget, which represented a $2.8 million increase over 2007, and led to the first tax increase in Secaucus in several years.
Unlike most Hudson County towns, Secaucus’ fiscal year runs from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. (Other towns in the county run from July 1 through June 30.)
Secaucus’ budget usually isn’t passed until the summer. The 2008 budget, for example, was not passed until last August. The town operates under a temporary budget until a final one is approved by the mayor and council.
With the country in the midst of a deep recession, local residents are fearful of tax increases. If anything, the economic picture has worsened since last year, leaving residents worried about déjà vu in 2009.
No promises yet
Without addressing what the 2009 budget might hold in store for residents, or whether there will be another tax increase, Town Administrator David Drumeler vowed last week that the budget will be conservative and lean.
“In Secaucus we’ve have no structural budget deficits, like you see in other municipalities, and we’ve had unbelievably low – maybe even historically low – taxes,” Drumeler said. “We’re looking for any opportunity to save taxpayers money.”
Margaret Barkala, the town’s Chief Financial Officer, has met with municipal department heads to see what their funding needs are this year. She and Drumeler will now meet to sketch out a budget that reconciles spending needs with the town’s projected income. Their proposed budget will then be given to the mayor and council for the governing body to finalize and approve.
Council members want discussion
Town Council members John Bueckner, Gary Jeffas, and Michael Gonnelli have urged Mayor Elwell to hold work sessions for the governing body to discuss the 2009 budget in detail. Elwell has agreed to hold work sessions, although council members have disagreed about when to have them.
“We want the opportunity to go through the budget line by line,” Bueckner said. “We want to have discussion around some things in the budget.”
Bueckner pointed to a $10,000 “promotion ceremony” spent last year for 22 kids who graduated from the town’s day care program as an example of a line item ripe for discussion.
Bueckner also suggested that town officials meet with the Secaucus Board of Education to further cut costs. The municipal budget and school budgets are separate, but when planned independently of one another homeowners can get hit with tax increases on both fronts.
Property owners pay quarterly property taxes that are divided among the town, Hudson County, and the local school system. The county and school tax rates are determined when those entities pass their budgets between April and June.
“So that we don’t kill people with big increases, maybe the school system has to forgo something or maybe we have to forgo something,” Bueckner said.
Drumeler said he and Barkala routinely look for ways to trim costs.
“When we have personnel vacancies, for instance, we already look to see if there are ways to craft the position to save money,” Drumeler said. “I’ll look to see if the duties of that job can be divided among staff we already have.”
Cautiously eyeing the state
Town officials are also closely watching the state budget, since cuts in state aid to Secaucus would impact the city’s budget.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Jon Corzine introduced a $29.8 billion state budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Although state funding to municipalities is spared the worst cuts under Corzine’s proposal, towns are expected to see some reductions.
“His budget will affect our state aid numbers,” Drumeler acknowledged. “We’ll have to see how much we get cut. I think we’ll probably take a minor hit.”
Unfortunately, local tax increases would come at a time when Corzine also wants to eliminate certain tax relief measures at the state level. For example, most homeowners would lose the ability to deduct property tax fees on their state income tax filings. Under Corzine’s proposed budget, only senior citizens would be able to deduct those fees. The governor’s proposed budget would also trim property tax rebates for households earning $50,000 to $75,000 – and eliminate them entirely for households earning more than $75,000. (Again, seniors would be spared under Corzine’s plan and wouldn’t see their rebates affected.)
Although the state Assembly must approve the governor’s plan, few expect major changes in these areas.
Reach E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.