Morristown budget holds the line, fourth year without a hike

 

For the fourth straight year, there will be no municipal tax increase in Morristown.

Mayor Tim Dougherty, who managed to decrease taxes in the prior three years, on Tuesday proposed a $35.9 million 2014 spending plan that holds the line despite negotiated pay increases for union employees and more overtime budgeted for snow removal.

Morristown Administrator Michael Rogers and Mayor Tim Dougherty after presenting proposed 2014 budget to town council. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Morristown Administrator Michael Rogers and Mayor Tim Dougherty after presenting proposed 2014 budget to town council. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Rest assured, Morristown is moving in the right direction,” the Mayor said on Tuesday during his budget presentation to the town council.

When school taxes are factored in, Morristown residents still will see a small bump in their tax bills:  The owner of a home assessed at $350,000, the town average, will pay an additional $56 a year, for an estimated total of $9,103.50.

Town Administrator Michael Rogers explained that under a complex formula, Morristown will pay a larger share than Morris Township this year to support the regional Morris School District.  The town’s school portion is increasing by an estimated percentage of 0.72; the town and library rates are the same as last year while Morris County taxes are decreasing by 0.67 percent for Morristown taxpayers.

Viewed another way, schools this year will account for 48 cents of every local tax dollar in Morristown. The town share is 39 cents, the county is 11 cents and the Morristown & Township Library will get about 1.5 cents of each tax dollar.

The council, which still must approve the budget, voted unanimously to introduce it. A public hearing tentatively is set for May 13, 2014.  On Wednesday the administration will post its budget documents online, Michael Rogers said.

Budget slides. Please click icon below for captions.

BALANCING ACT KEEPS TAXES STEADY

A combination of past and present moves are responsible for keeping the municipal tax rate in check, said Michael Rogers, who was praised by the Mayor for working “tirelessly” with other department heads to bring the budget $166,000 under the state-imposed 2 percent cap.

Layoffs earlier in the Mayor’s first term trimmed the workforce.  Today there are 183 employees, down from 214 in 2009, before the Mayor took office.  The reductions, along with increased contributions from workers, have eased the town’s pension obligation somewhat; costs are down almost $200,000 in this budget.

And although salaries are up by $663,000, negotiated raises are smaller than in previous eras. Contracts finalized last year for police, fire and other unionized municipal employees have average increases of just 1.8 percent annually, according to the Administrator. The town’s municipal operations still cost less than they did in 2009, he said.

Town employees also are a bit healthier than the average, and they are contributing more towards their premiums, factors that have helped trim the town’s health insurance costs by nearly $564,000 in this budget, Michael said. Employees will not see any increase in their premiums this year, he said.

Additionally, the town has farmed out its recycling pickups, health services and emergency dispatching.

A surplus of more than $5 million–the town’s largest cushion in the last decade, according to the Administrator– is another factor in the stable tax rate.  Some $1.7 million of that figure is being counted as revenue, to offset the amount to be raised in taxes.  The rest will help the town handle any emergencies, Michael said.

The Mayor pointed to a $2.2 billion tax base that has grown by $7.6 million, added valuation that he said will provide new revenues to offset a municipal tax levy that actually is $67,000 higher than last year.

Close observers of the budget will note that the $35.9 million operating budget is about $2 million lower than in 2013.  That’s because the town received large grants last year to purchase property for the Early Street Community Garden, Michael said.

In all, the town must collect $22,394,526 in municipal taxes in 2014. About 63 percent of the town budget will come directly from residents, in other words.

SOME ADDED REVENUE:

  • An additional $194,000 in construction fees is anticipated in 2014.
  • Hotel taxes are expected to generate $139,000 more than last year.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency is scheduled to reimburse $128,000 to Morristown for Hurricane Sandy emergency expenditures.
  • Municipal court fines are projected to fetch an extra $82,000 this year, thanks in part to more aggressive enforcement of residential parking violations, Michael said.  Last year the court was projected to bring in more than $864,000 in revenue.

WHO GETS WHAT:

  • Police and firefighters account for almost 26 percent of the town operating budget.
  • Insurance and pensions account for almost 23 percent.
  • The Department of Public Works gets a slice of nearly 16 percent.
  • Debt service is about 14 percent, a percentage that has been inching downward.
  • The rest of the town government accounts for slightly more than 13 percent.

WINTER’S BITE:

Morristown Airport measured 67 inches of snow in the winter of 2013-14. The town spent approximately $200,000 in overtime for snow plowing and removal, and another $100,000 for road salt, Michael said.

The town had budgeted $95,000 for DPW overtime; the Mayor said he is budgeting $350,000 this year.

TAX SETTLEMENTS

Some $443,000 was refunded in tax settlements last year; Michael anticipates that number will be significantly smaller in 2014.

DEBT SERVICE

Michael said the town continues to chip away at its $30 million debt obligation.  The town plans to pay off another $4.1 million this year, a number comparable to 2013.  Nearly $14 million of operating budget debt has been repaid over the last four years, the Mayor said, enabling the town to maintain a AA rating from Standard & Poor’s.

Separately, the town owes almost $15.5 million for its municipal sewer plant, built in the early 1990s in Hanover.  Some $10 million in sewer debt has been pared since the Mayor took office, he said.

To avoid adding debt, the town has adopted a pay-as-you-go approach for capital projects at the sewer plant, Michael Rogers said. A sludge-reduction project there last year was funded with money from sewer fees, he said. Another $300,000 of projects may be funded this way in 2014.

CAPITAL PROJECTS: ROADS, SECOND WARD STUDY, LIBRARY

Mayor Dougherty said his proposed capital improvement budget allocates $2.6 million for assorted projects.  About $1.8 million is for infrastructure: Roads, sidewalks and streetscapes.

The Mayor seeks $100,000 for a “corridor improvement study” for Martin Luther King Avenue, to identify revitalization priorities for that area in the Second Ward.  Another $250,000 is earmarked for renovations to the 1987 wing of the Morristown & Township Library. Morris Township has pledged a similar amount.

 

 



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