Try harder to find more savings in next year’s budget. That was the message the West Windsor Council told the administration before voting to approve the 2011 budget, 4-0, on May 16.
The $37.3 million budget was adopted after a public hearing and a presentation by Joanne Louth, the township’s chief financial officer.
The final budget, down from the $37,405,000 originally proposed by the administration, included reductions in a number of areas as requested by the council.
As a result of the shared services agreement with East Windsor for animal control services, the township saved $22,226 by the elimination of animal control officer Bettina Roed’s position. The township also saved $42,950 by the reduction in overtime and the elimination of one other position. The budget was reduced by another $5,800 from the 5 percent reduction in nonessential overtime. The budget also saw a reduction of $7,200 that resulted from the council’s reduction to the 2011 capital budget.
The final budget, at $37,340,000, also included the addition of grant money for a drunk driving initiative.
Louth said the budget represents a .79 percent increase over last year’s overall budget — the lowest annual budget increase in 17 years.
Among the largest areas of increase are the township’s contributions to the public, police/firemen’s retirement system, which increased by $425,710; debt service, which increased by $120,705; and costs for the Stony Brook Regional Sewerage Authority, which increased by $91,828.
The largest areas of decrease were in the health insurance, which decreased by $190,800, and the refuse collection, which decreased by $133,700.
All other departments within the township decreased their budgets by $20,743, said Louth.
Louth told the council she was concerned about the township’s increasing use of fund balance, or surplus, to offset costs. The amount of surplus used has increased from $3.5 million in 2006 to $4.435 million this year.
When it comes to impact on the township’s residents, the tax levy, or the total amount to be raised by taxation, is $22 million. The tax rate is 36.9 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Under the spending plan, the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $527,376 will pay $1,946 in taxes in 2011, an increase of $127 from last year.
Louth said that of the $127 increase, $52 comes directly from state pension costs. The remaining $75 comes from increases at the municipal level.
The capital budget, meanwhile, has been reduced from $4.82 million to $3.989 million. Those reductions came from the council’s earlier decision to forego renovations to the municipal building, at a cost of $680,500 and the final phase of the Duck Pond Park, at $151,200.
Councilman George Borek said the township must try to consider future unknown factors while going through the budget process. “There’s also reality,” he said. “We need to function here as a township. Without a budget, we can’t do that.”
He said the township must make changes when it negotiates all of its collective bargaining agreements this year, and officials must consider making changes to how different departments within the township are managed. “We need to come up with innovative ways of keeping the costs down in the future.”
Councilwoman Linda Geevers said the township should focus on trying to increase revenues. Councilwoman Diane Ciccone said the reduction in the capital budget will save money in the future, although it has minimal impact on this year’s budget. She also said she was encouraged to hear that the administration and the council will start working collaboratively on the 2012 budget in June.
She said she was also pleased to see that the township saved money in the new garbage collection contract it approved this year, while still maintaining collections twice a week in the summer.
“There is some movement, but I echo my fellow council colleagues that we have to do more,” said Ciccone. “We need to find ways to be more efficient.”
Council President Kamal Khanna said the administration had to work hard to keep the budget under the 2 percent mandated cap on the tax levy increase while maintaining the same level of service in this year’s budget.
He said, though, that “things are not getting any better” in the economy, and in order to do a better job next year, “we have to set goals early in the game.”
He said the efficiency study the township underwent this year was a “wakeup call” but that the township needs further study to see how costs can be reduced.
The handful of residents who attended the meeting criticized the council for not cutting more and for not looking at the budget with a decrease in mind. Resident Pete Weale said that the project the council approved earlier this month for the expansion of the parking lot at Community Park — at a cost of $398,934.44 — could have been saved if the township had its Department of Public Works employees take care of the work instead.
“Given the challenges we have, we don’t need to be building parking lots in Community Park,” he said.
Resident John Church said he was in the process of analyzing West Windsor’s budget and comparing it with Plainsboro’s and East Windsor’s. One of the facts he has already uncovered is that West Windsor spends $895,000 for fire hydrant services, which he assumes is a blanket charge to the township by its water company.
East Windsor, on the other hand, has its own water supply and is entirely self-sufficient. Meanwhile, “we have to import all of our water and export all of our sewerage,” Church said.
The $895,000 cost to the township “bothers me,” he said, asking the township to look into that matter in next year’s budget. “I don’t see how an expenditure of that amount is really justified,” he said.
He said East Windsor also handles its own refuse collection and does not contract the service out. “I was pleasantly surprised to learn how self-sufficient East Windsor is,” he said.
However, not everyone was urging the council to cut money. Kevin Friis, the chief of the Twin “W” First Aid Squad, said the squad has been requesting a $15,000 increase for the past three years in the money the township contributes to the volunteer squad. The money is needed for ongoing building maintenance, among other needs, he said. He said he hopes the township can increase its contribution to a total of $45,000 next year.
The request comes at a time when revenue is down. Township Business Administrator Robert Hary said the council can move some of the leftover funds in budget transfers after November 1 to try to help the squad this year. The council also set up a committee of Geevers and Borek to meet with the first aid squad to see what can be done in next year’s budget.
COLA. In related budgetary business during the May 16 meeting, the Township Council denied approval of an ordinance authorizing a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 3.5 percent and the re-establishment of cap banking.
The ordinance created confusion for the council after a few residents began questioning why it was needed. According to officials, the ordinance would have given the township the ability to appropriate money to protect the township against unforeseen items in the future, especially given the uncertainty of any caps or limitations imposed by the state in future budgets.
“There really was no liability or no reason why the township would not want to pass that,” said Township Business Administrator Robert Hary after the meeting. “All it is is an action the state allows you to take if you don’t spend up to your full 2 percent allotment.”
The ordinance is routine and was introduced in April by a 5-0 vote without questions or comments. “It gives you the ability to, if you don’t spend it in one year, to bank it in case you need it in another year,” said Hary. “The chances of needing that based on a 2 percent levy cap in the ensuing years is minimal, but there would be no reason not to give yourself the ability to use that if you had to.”
The ordinance would not have committed the township to anything. Essentially, it would have allowed the township, in case of emergency, the ability to spend more. “We would probably never use it because we still have the 2 percent cap,” he said. “The only time it could be used is if you had appropriate revenues to support it that would not put the township beyond the 2 percent cap in the tax levy.”
Still, residents, including Pete Weale, questioned the reasoning behind the ordinance. Weale called the ordinance an “extended line of credit. Who is protecting the taxpayers here?” he asked.
While Councilman George Borek made a motion to approve the ordinance, he voted against it, resulting in a 1-3 vote, with “no” votes coming from him, Diane Ciccone, and Linda Geevers. Because a council member cannot motion to approve something and then vote against the matter, a re-vote had to be taken, and Borek voted “yes,” even though he was not in favor of the ordinance. The re-vote resulted in a 2-2 vote, which has the same effect — a failed adoption. Councilman Charles Morgan was absent during the meeting.