If the village can't get its fiscal house in order, property taxes will soar to more than $25,000 for the average resident in less than a decade's time, a volunteer finance team commissioned by the mayor reported Wednesday night.
According to the finance group, known as "The Tiger Team," the genesis of the problem lies in the village's municipal budget. The municipal budget has increased 410 percent from $8.7 million to $44.5 million over the past three decades, Tiger Team member Bayard Demallie told the council.
"If we do nothing, the average property tax bill in Ridgewood is expected to increase 60 percent from $15,606 in 2011 to over $25,000 in nine years," Demallie said. "The largest drivers of the budget growth have increased 78 percent as a percent of the total budget in the last ten years and have accounted for almost 51 percent of the total budget in 2011."
The consequences could be dire unless "immediate and dramatic changes" are made, the report stressed.
"If the village council and village management fail to take bold steps, an increasing number of residents will no longer be able to afford to live in Ridgewood in the coming years," Demallie told the council. "The village, in our opinion, must start living within its means."
The Tiger Team's analysis did not include the school board's $90 million budget, which accounts for roughly 65 percent of the total tax bill.
Both local government boards are limited to increasing the tax levy to 2 percent thanks to laws that went into effect in 2011. There are, however, notable exceptions to the cap, like states of emergencies, pensions, health care, and debt service. Basically, the two percent is not an absolute.
Ridgewood's municipal budget rose 3.1 percent last year.
Disturbingly, said Demallie, the undisclosed three drivers (likely to be salaries, pensions and benefits) are "growing 11 percent faster than the overall budget and 143 percent faster than the rate of inflation over the last ten years. In nine years, three budget items alone are projected to be 20 percent greater than the entire 2011 budget."
Members of the team say the 50-page report contains 19 specific recommendations to potentially increase revenue and reduce costs.
The recommendations – by no means unanimous among the members of the group – don't necessarily align with the fiscal mantra espoused by the mayor or deputy mayor, nor the recent course of making tough personnel decisions.
"We don't think that widespread layoffs are an acceptable or long-term solution," Demallie said, hoping "more creative solutions" to reach long-term fiscal sustainability can be found.
The village laid off more than 30 employees in 2010 and acknowledged cutting too deep in 2011, hiring several workers back.
In recent months, Mayor Paul Aronsohn and Deputy Mayor Albert Pucciarelli have pressed management to craft a budget at a zero percent tax increase (acknowledging it may be higher when finally passed). Village Manager Ken Gabbert expressed hesitancy, telling the council that trimming millions is extremely difficult without forcing layoffs.
But the short-term road to zero isn't the solution, according to the Tiger Team.
"Our belief is that zero percent budget increases for a year or two would be an inadequate approach to address Ridgewood's financial sustainbility and quality of life," Demallie said.
As for the actual recommendations, the Tiger Team decline to elaborate on Wednesday night.
The only major sticking points noted by Demallie were the council creating an independent, resident-comprised fiscal oversight board by March 31, and the village developing a five-year fiscal strategy. Aronsohn favored those recommendations.
The report was not immediately made publicly available but is expected to be posted on the village website and will be on file at the Village Clerk's office.