The Maplewood Township Committee said Saturday they aim to keep tax increases in 2013 within two percent, in spite of continuing complications from Hurricane Sandy.
At the first budget meeting of 2013, the committee agreed that a 2013 tax increase is inevitable in the wake of hurricane damage over the past two years. They said that while the township and the budget committee have been working hard to keep the tax increase as small as possible, the need to equip township departments with adequate personnel and equipment must be carefully weighed against the cost to the average homeowner.
“Two percent is an objective,” said Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee, “but we need to make the requisite investments to maintain the future of our town… it’s a tough situation.”
“[This committee] has been responsible for keeping taxes as low as possible,” said Mayor Victor DeLuca, “balancing residents’ needs for services… We need to balance that information with department heads. Our equipment is being used longer and failing, our parks aren’t being maintained as much as we’d like. We’ve had some bumps in the crime rate.”
DeLuca added that it’s important to “understand that we have some needs that we’ve been deferring for a while and [we want to take care of them now] so we don’t hurt ourselves in the long run. As we learned from the storms, we need to be prepared.”
Township administrator Joe Manning said Maplewood has yet to receive its FEMA reimbursement and has not included it in their budget in case it doesn’t come out to the expected amount. Should the reimbursement come, it may be added to the township’s surplus.
Meanwhile, state aid is not expected to come until June at the earliest, according to Manning, who speculated that too would be cut, as Trenton deals with its own post-hurricane fiscal concerns.
Committeeman Jerry Ryan brought up concerns about an ongoing lawsuit Maplewood is defending itself against, NJDEP v. Occidental Chemical, that has put added strain on the budget. Ryan said that services to Maplewood residents should not be cut because of it.
“We want to explain to the public the effect of this ridiculous lawsuit,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to cut municipal departments and services so we can pay a legal bill that has nothing to do with us.”
Manning told Patch that he and the committee would make more information available to the public as they are advised legally on the matter, saying, “It is a big issue that affects the budget.”
Additionally, the committee heard from department heads to get an idea of what they are attempting to accomplish in 2013. Each head outlined their plans for the new year and how they are working with their staff to keep costs down.
Police Chief Robert Cimino said Maplewood had enjoyed several years in a row of reduced crime until 2012. He said that, due to turnover in the department early in the year and changes in operating procedures, along with increased criminal activity, 2012 was a challenging year.
Going forward, Cimino said the police department’s emphasis is going to be on preventing burglary. Violent crime on the whole has been on a downward trend. The department will increase parking enforcement, as well as employ new technologies and strategies to combat specific trends in crime that become statistically more frequent during certain times of the year.
Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Eric Burbank said his department’s first goal is still to cleanup from Hurricane Sandy, including removing dead trees and pruning and repairing damaged ones. The department also plans to close one athletic field to organized sports for repairs and, due to merging its former eight divisions to just four over the summer, Burbank said some additional funding will be required to train or refresh staff in new responsibilities.
Overall there is no increase in the budget for the DPW; however Burbank characterized his department’s work over the past two years as “reactive maintenance, as opposed to preventative maintenance” due to prolonged belt-tightening.
The committee will hold another budget meeting next Saturday, Jan 12. They hope to introduce the budget in mid-February.
“It’s very clear what [the committee wants],” said Manning. “Our goal is a two percent [increase] and that’s where we’re going to stay. Our department heads are very creative and will do everything they can.”