Morristown mayor presents $52.4M budget with small tax increase; pushes large surplus for future

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty presents his 2018 municipal budget to the council, April 24, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty presents his 2018 municipal budget to the council, April 24, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown residents may be getting something new this year:

A municipal tax increase.

After seven straight years of zero hikes, property owners will see a 1.3 penny increase in their tax rate, if the town council adopts the $52.4 million budget presented Tuesday by Mayor Tim Dougherty.

A Morristown resident with an assessed home value at the town average of $354,791 would see her municipal tax bill increase by $49 under under this budget.

Dougherty cited rising costs of healthcare (up nearly $700,000) and pensions (up more than $400,000), and six union contracts (police, fire and civilian employees) being negotiated this year as drivers of the increase. Debt service also is up by almost $93,000.

Even so, he said, the local tax rate still is lower than it was seven years ago. The proposed spending plan includes an $11.6 million surplus–some of it from the town’s landmark 2015 tax settlement with the parent company of Morristown Medical Center.

Saying he does not want his eventual successor to face a hole like the $5 million deficit he inherited as a rookie mayor, Dougherty persuaded the council to pass a unanimous resolution on Tuesday mandating the town maintain annual surpluses equivalent to 25 percent of expenditures.

“We’re in good shape and we’re going to leave it in good shape,” said Dougherty, who is starting his third term. “This year’s budget reflects a choice–not an easy choice, but the reasonable choice.”

The Morristown council listens to Mayor Tim Dougherty's 2018 budget presentation, April 24, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Morristown council listens to Mayor Tim Dougherty’s 2018 budget presentation, April 24, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The same average homeowner stands to see her Morris School District taxes rise by about $193, with an estimated $30 increase in Morris County taxes and a $17 rise in library taxes, for a total hike of $289.  This hypothetical resident’s full tax bill: $10,081.

Thirty-five cents of every Morristown property tax dollar funds the municipal government under this budget proposal. Fifty-one cents support the public schools, 12 cents go to the county, and the Morristown & Township Library gets 2 cents.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for the May 22, 2018, council meeting.

During a 20-minute speech, Dougherty praised town employees–184 full-timers and 15 part-timers–as the local government’s greatest asset.

His budget calls for hiring two police officers, one of them a veteran, to bring the police force to 58 members. An additional fireman will bring that department to 32 men, according to town Administrator Jillian Barrick, who has prepared the last three spending plans.

Artist's rendering of Metropolitan Lofts on DeHart Street.
The Metropolitan Lofts apartments in front of the DeHart Street garage soon will accept tenants. This is a rendering of the project.

“It’s a solid budget. We continue to provide value to our residents and be good stewards of their tax dollars,” Barrick said.

Explosive development, redevelopment payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (“PILOTS”) and the hospital settlement have added $98.5 million in assessed value to the town since 2010, Dougherty said.

He asserted that will save taxpayers $1,150 per $100,000 of assessed valuation over the next decade. That works out to $4,079 for someone with a home valued at $354,791.

When the first tenants move into the Metropolitan Lofts at 11 DeHart St. this week, the Mayor said, it will signal completion of the massive redevelopment of the Epstein’s department store, a project dating to the early 2000s that has transformed the downtown.

Video: Morristown rarity: A tax increase

Modera 55, the next phase of the Speedwell Avenue redevelopment project, will open to tenants this summer, he said, and creation of an adjacent municipal park is anticipated to begin this year.

Construction of a Cambria boutique hotel and luxury apartments on Market Street also should start this year, he said.

Improvements are planned for Cauldwell-, Gramby- and Burnham parks, along with engineering work for structural upgrades to the Burnham pool.

Last year Morristown secured nearly $3 million in grants, some of which is earmarked for this year’s acquisition of 11 acres of open space adjoining the Loyola Retreat Center.

Also this year, a pedestrian plaza is planned for the Patriot’s Path trail head on Martin Luther King Avenue, and Washington Avenue streetscape enhancements will continue, Dougherty said.

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