Lucky 7? Morristown Mayor rolls another no-hike budget

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In an era when the price of everything seems to rise inexorably, Morristown residents can count on one constant: Local taxes.

For the seventh straight year, they are not budging.

“It’s a solid budget. Our revenues are good, our surplus is healthy,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty, who at Tuesday’s council meeting introduced a $53.7 million 2017 spending plan designed to keep “Morristown a desirable place to live, work and visit.”

Controlled expenses, increased revenue from Morristown’s building boom, and the town’s landmark 2015 settlement with Morristown Medical Center all combined to help the town hold its tax rate at 99 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Mayor Tim Dougherty introduces his 2017 budget proposal. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mayor Tim Dougherty introduces his 2017 budget proposal. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The $40.9 million operations portion of the budget calls for the addition of two police officers, two firefighters and a building department inspector, for a full-time work force of 185 employees.

If the council approves the budget as proposed, all patrol cops will get body cameras. Streetscape improvements are planned for Washington and Martin Luther King avenues (traffic calming measures for the former, a park at Patriots Path for the latter), and two parks are in the works.

Rainy days –make that monsoons–should not scare town hall. Thanks largely to the hospital settlement, Morristown is carrying a $14.8 million surplus.

While this is the sort of news politicians love in an election year— Dougherty seeks a third term, and faces a primary challenge next month from Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris—the bottom line isn’t quite as rosy for taxpayers.

That’s because taxes from the Morris School District, Morris County and the Morristown & Township Library are going up. So a resident with a home assessed at $352,000 will pay an extra $283 this year, totaling $9,668.

Paradoxically, the hot real estate market and hospital settlement that are stabilizing municipal taxes are driving up the town’s share of the regional school budget, which is apportioned based on property valuations, explained town Administrator Jillian Barrick.

Dougherty praised Barrick, now in her second year, for her fiscal expertise and diligence. “Her work ethic on the budget is superior,” said the Mayor, adding kudos for town Chief Financial Officer Frank Mason.

A public hearing on the budget could come at the council’s May 23 meeting, said Council President Stefan Armington.

Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick and Mayor Tim Dougherty at 2017 budget presentation. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick and Mayor Tim Dougherty at 2017 budget presentation. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

BY THE NUMBERS

Morristown has added about $7.1 million in assessed value over the last year, for a tax base of $2.26 billion. The 2015 hospital settlement added $40 million of value, Barrick said.

The amount to be raised by taxes for municipal purposes is $22.5 million, up by about $200,000 from last year. (All figures here are rounded.)

The capital portion of the spending plan, which does not directly affect residents’ taxes, is $4 million, of which the town anticipates bonding nearly $3 million. The other $1 million is coming out of a one-time $10 million tax settlement payout from the hospital.

Scheduled capital projects include about $300,000 to create a passive recreation park on two wooded acres on Hillcrest Avenue and approximately $250,000 towards a linear park near the Modera 55 apartments now under construction.

Mayor Tim Dougherty honors sorority of his June primary opponent, Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris, right. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mayor Tim Dougherty honors sorority of his June primary opponent, Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris, right. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The administration also wants to purchase of a pair of trucks for the public works department and a new bus for the Colonial Coach seniors program (which will add Saturday service, the Mayor said); and continue street paving and re-striping.

Morristown’s annual debt service is $3.5 million on $18.7 million of outstanding debt, a figure that has been steadily decreasing. Separately, the town has whittled debt on its sewer utility to $6 million, and expects the sewer plant to achieve a pay-as-you-go status within five years.

“I feel pretty good,” Barrick said of her second budget as town administrator. “I think this is a good budget, a fair budget. We were able to make decisions investing in things that are important to the town, while also keeping the tax rate flat and being prudent with tax dollars.”

Factors behind Morristown’s zero-increase include:

  • A payment of $550,000 in penalties and interest from Morristown Medical Center; it’s the second year of a 10-year payout stemming from the 2015 tax settlement.
  • In-lieu-of-tax payments totaling about $600,000 from the Modera 44 apartment complex the CVS pharmacy on Speedwell Avenue.
  • Town pension payments are down slightly from last year.

Big-ticket items are salaries ($17.3 million, an increase of 7.2 percent driven largely by police and fire contracts) and employee health insurance ($5 million, up 9 percent).

Salaries are a line item to watch next year.

Negotiations are scheduled later this year with all six municipal bargaining units—two representing police, two for firefighters, and one each for blue collar workers and supervisors.

Police and firefighters are in the last year of three-year contracts with annual raises of 1.75 percent plus step increases based on rank.

The Mayor’s 13-minute speech was sprinkled with references to future projects — a Cambria hotel, environmental studies of Foote’s Pond, possible conservation of an 11-acre Loyola retreat, a municipal ID program to prove the town “is Fair and Welcoming to all.”

And there were a few other nuggets:

Three town engineers have received FAA certification to fly drones, for aerial photos for mapping, Dougherty said. Police saved nine overdose victims last year using the medication Narcan. The town issued more zoning permits last year than in the prior five years. Revenue from building permits rose by 18 percent.

Video: Delta Sigma Theta chapter V.P. Marian Sykes Johnson thanks Mayor for proclamation

IN OTHER BUSINESS…

Council President Stefan Armington. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Council President Stefan Armington. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The council introduced an ordinance banning pet shop sales of cats and dogs.

A small community garden is coming to the Elliott playground, thanks to some grant money and spade work by the town Environmental Commission and Grow It Green Morristown, announced Stefan Armington, the council president.

Mayoral proclamations honored Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., an African American nonprofit service organization celebrating 30 years in Morristown; and organizers of last weekend’s gun reform rally that included the Team 26 cyclists from Newtown, CT.

Members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. were honored at Morristown council meeting. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. were honored at Morristown council meeting. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority members receive plaque from Mayor Tim Dougherty. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority members receive plaque from Mayor Tim Dougherty. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mayor Tim Dougherty honors gun reform activists Theresa Piliero, Leslie Moran and Thea Lintern. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mayor Tim Dougherty honors gun reform activists Theresa Piliero, Leslie Moran and Thea Lintern. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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