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Municipal Taxes Will Rise But Services Should Increase

Introduced budget represents $255 increase; council to bring back laid-off workers, also willing to 'compromise' on library 'cut'

The village presented its introduced 2011 budget to the public, which may see the average homeowner's bill rise by $255, though village officials say the process remains fluid and the hope is to have a lower tax increase when the council moves the measure on June 8. The plan includes a return of some village workers cut last year, which administrators and officials have acknowledged reduced services below Ridgewood standards; as well as a "compromise" with the library's appeal to not close over some summer days due to declining property values.

The introduced budget–a 7.39 percent increase over that of last year–means the average assessed homeowner at $797,422 will be paying $3,844 in municipal taxes, though Village Manager Ken Gabbert said because the municipal bill only comprises 25 percent of the total tax dollar, the real increase "would be 2.76 percent."

Steve Sanzari, the village CFO, explained why that budget is increasing at that rate during a presentation to the council and the public at Wednesday night's public hearing.

While the village reached the 2 percent budget cap on increases per state law, it's something of a misnomer because of allowed exceptions to the cap, notably in pension and health care.

Pension increases totalling $732,713, health care increases of $529,560, and deferred charges for emergency appropriations totaled over $1.33 million, and are allowed outside the cap, which Mayor Keith Killion said are necessary given the budget tools afforded in "The New Normal" of New Jersey.

"If we included everything in the cap, we might as well shut the lights off because these costs are really, really outrageous," Killion said. "There is no way any municipality could face a cost and keep it within the 2 percent cap and still function on a day-to-day basis."

Cost drivers

Pension contributions increased $460,000 in 2011 for police and fire (23 percent) while PERS payments rose 62 percent over 2010, a $417,000 climb. There is some relief in 2012, Sanzari said, with numbers dropping into the teens on increases.

The village, Sanzari explained, was able to go out to bid for another health insurance provider, but it was unsuccessful and will remain with the state plan.

"Part of that problem is the market right now for health insurance costs is very volatile." Sanzari said because there were more claims for workman's comp than normal, insurance companies don't see as favorable a position in bidding.

There was some measure of solace, however. Because there is a greater level of employee contributions to health insurance, the real impact of the 16 percent impact on health insurance is lower, Sanzari said.

About $693,000 in deferred charges and emergency appropriations must be raised to cover inside-the-cap items, which will comprise of $428 of the average tax bill. Those notable costs include a reevaluation of property done in 2006; 2011 is the final year of payment, worth $116,000. The master plan study on recreation space cost the village $42,000 and that's in its final year while the parking utility, a loss of $189,173 in 2011 due to a failed eminent domain attempt on bonding, must be raised by taxes in this year's budget.

Workers to return, will have work to do

After cuts last year, the village will be bringin back a full-time clerk in the Building Department, a full-time mechanic in the Fleet Services Department and a part-time clerk for municipal court, to help process DUIs and collect on parking tickets, which the village is behind on.

The village is also replacing four positions – one full-time equipment operator in the Streets Department; one full-time planning board secretary, who has already started; and two full-time account clerks in the Finance Department, according to the CFO.

The capital budget includes replacing various vehicles, technology upgrades, a street resurfacing program, stormwater drainage system upgrades, building improvements, park and recreation facility improvements at Veterans Field and the tennis court rehabilitation.

Deputy Mayor Tom Riche was particularly interested in developing "a long range plan" to replenish the village fleet.

"Money has been tight over the last couple years, and we're holding together with bail and wire," Riche said, noting he'd like to see something of an audit of the gas-guzzling fleet, which sources say feature many vehicles that must remain idling or may not restart.

Killion acknowledged that there's no hard and fast rule to the budgeting in such difficult times. Some residents, he said, want more services raised, others want the taxes as low as possible.

"It's easier to lower as much as possible but services and infrastructure will suffer. So what's the compromise?" he said.

Library's budget fate

Supporters of the library also turned out in force to echo support for the library, which is faced with a loss of over $76,000 due to declining home values that could lead to shuttered days over the summer months.

Resident and Friend of the Ridgewood Public Library Jim Griffin, in an animated speech touching on the value of education in the library, said he needed to let the council know that the library is the first stroke in"cultivating the intellect of this town."

"No kid in this town doesn't want to go to school because it reminds them of the library," Griffin said.

He also touted the benefits to seniors for movie "date day," various functions that appealed to him as a bachelor, as well as the value of helping non-native speakers learn English and American culture, one of the featured programs of the library.

"It's a hub," he said.

Griffin remarked that the library's done a survey of other libraries and while it's good, it's not rated the best. While the "gem" has made great progress, "It's continual work to keep it there. So if you can help me help them [the library board], help the children," he would be appreciative.

"We have heard the library, and we do understand," Killion said after holding back-and-forth discussions with the council.

"But we don't understand $75,000. This council is willing to look at a compromise of approximately $35,000 and we'll try to work with the library."

Gabbert said the 7.39 percent may be further reduced when $300,000 in workman's compensation refunds come in and it may hit 6 percent, lowering the overall 2.76 figure. The next work session to see where that final number is is on Jun1 and the budget will be moved into law on June 8.

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