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Ridgewood Officials: Budget Process Ain't Over Yet

Mayor Keith Killion concerned about public perception of initial budget forecast, which suggested a possible 7.5 percent increase

Citing over an , Ridgewood Mayor Keith Killion said slow down, folks – this is just the first pass and that number is likely to fall over the upcoming few months.

A 7.5 percent tax hike would amount to a $262 increase for the average homeowner assessed at $794,000, according to budget officials.

At the Wednesday afternoon budget presentation, Killion reiterated certain municipal expenses lie outside the local 2 percent tax levy cap enacted by the state, but still account for a raw increase to taxpayers.

"I'm getting a lot of e-mails that other towns are bringing it [the tax increase] to 1.8 [percent]...it is a deceiving situation and I know all my council people know a 2 percent cap is a 2 percent cap but there are some things we don't have control over," Killion said.

Neighboring .

"Medical costs, health benefits, contracts that have already been agreed on – we have no control over that; whatever it is, it is," the mayor said, adding pension contributions to the list. "So if it goes up 6 percent, that's passed onto the tax base outside the cap at 2 percent."

Among the major costs outside the cap are health insurance figures, which represent a net 6.6 percent increase ($108,000) after employee contributions are weighed; and expenses related to two major storms ($1.1 million).

Though the village is under the mandated 2 percent levy cap, Village Manager Ken Gabbert said it faces some of the same issues afflicting other municipal bodies, and others some municipalities don't have to battle.

"What is happening in the village which is not happening in some other towns is we have a very large staff," Gabbert said. "We have seven contractual union agreements, we have many things that are locked in place that are not easy to change and maneuver with over time. They're within the cap."

Notably, salary and wages are in the cap, as are overtime expenses and pension obligations.

In 2011, the village renegotiated the contracts of its two biggest cost drivers – and fire. Both contracts lowered starting salaries and increased the number of pay scale steps to bring more emergency responders into the fold and realize millions in savings over the life of the contract. The raises for both forces are just over 2 percent, when in the not-so-distant-past they hovered around 4 percent.

Still, there is overtime, longevity payments, compensation time, step increases, and this budget year, minimal health insurance contributions from the department employees (1.5 percent contributions kick in during 2013). Those costs all weigh heavily on the budget.

"We have a large population of employees, a large base to work off from, and we get quite a few of those out-of-cap situations," Gabbert commented, summing up the major increases. "And this year, because our extraordinary expenditures happened in the fall, we have some carry-in situations that are very large. As I explained last time, that will drop as we receive confirmation from FEMA for example on what reimbursements we have." 

The village still expects to get about 60 percent of FEMA and insurance and , which according to Gabbert will knock the taxes down. A roughly $450,000 claim has already been put in for the October snowstorm, he said. A full tax point is $661,000.

With no definitive date to receive FEMA money back and many departments still waiting to make requests, it remains unclear how deep cuts may have to be or how high taxes will rise.

"There's a lot in flux right now that we don't have control over," Gabbert concluded. He previously said that at this time last year, the number bandied about was significantly higher than 7.5 percent. Taxes last year rose 7.39 percent.

All the early budget chatter has the mayor on edge.

"Things are going on here that are alarming residents," Killion said. "They see 7.5 [percent] on a preliminary first time go through and they want to know about the 2 percent. This is how it's broken up. I don't think the word is out there. Just to print word that is bad, to me, I don't appreciate it. Print it fairly – this is the explanation."

Officials did not make preliminary budget documents available to the media.

Department highlights:

Tax Assessor's office

With $1.4 million suffered in tax appeals this budget year, the village is making plans to do a reassessment. Though Tax Assessor Mike Barker said a reassessment – at an approximate cost of $300,000, bonded over 5 years – would reduce the number of appeals, the village isn't out of the woods. 

"It wouldn't eliminate appeals. What it does is eliminate exposure," Barker said. The village has $40 million in assessed valuation in jeopardy, and has a total of $6 billion in assessed value. Ridgewood's highest assessed property – the office building across the – is appealing its assessment, currently at $27 million.

Fire Department

The budget request shows a total growth of less than 1 percent, according to Fire Chief Jim Van Goor. The chief said overtime was reduced due to the department restructuring with an increase of new captain promotions. Five firefighters were hired, three thanks to federal grants. Tom Riche said he thought the level of "chiefs to indians" was too high and also took issue with EMT stipends, which went up roughly $20,000 dollars.

The department will be seeking full accredation, Van Goor said. Should it receive the status – after painstaking paperwork duty – it would be one of only three in the state. It could save 5 percent on liability insurance annually, Van Goor said.

sandy March 19, 2012 at 02:43 PM
If salary, wages and government expenses are supposed to be included in the cap, how can we be so far above 2%? Is that merely a guideline to be ignored at will? How come other towns read that law differently than Ridgewood?

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