Morristown property owners will feel pinch from town budget

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty shows tax record during introduction of 2019 budget. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty shows tax record during introduction of 2019 budget. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown taxpayers will be digging a little deeper into their pockets this year.

Property owners can expect a 1.9 penny increase in their tax rate if the council approves the $52.5 million municipal budget introduced by Mayor Tim Dougherty on Tuesday.

“This year’s budget reflects tough decisions made to maintain the level of service our residents, visitors and business owners expect, while managing tensions created by increasing costs, needed infrastructure and improvements,” said Dougherty, whose streak of seven straight years of zero increases was snapped last year.

A resident with an assessed value of $356,319, the town average, will see a $69 increase in his or her annual municipal taxes, to $3,653.

For that same property owner, Morris School District taxes will increase by $105 (to $5,218), while Morris County taxes will increase by $27 (to $1,303). The public library tax actually will decline by $7 (to $157) thanks to an equalization formula with Morris Township.

Taken together, the owner of that “average” Morristown house will pay $194 more in property taxes in 2019, for a total of $10,331.

Mayor Tim Dougherty and Administrator Jillian Barrick explain the 2019 budget. Video playlist by Kevin Coughlin for MorristownGreen.com. Click top left icon to toggle through clips:

Final council consideration is scheduled for May 28, 2019. The budget was introduced Tuesday by a 4-0 vote. Council President Toshiba Foster and members Alison Deeb and David Silva were absent. Councilman Robert Iannaccone asked the administration to provide three- and five-year projections.

The $41.5 million operating budget includes $23.3 million (figures are rounded) to be raised by taxes, which is $380,000 below the state’s 2 percent cap.

PENSIONS AND HEALTH CARE

Pensions were a factor in this year’s increase, said town Administrator Jillian Barrick. The state has mandated a larger contribution by municipalities; Morristown’s police and fire pension costs are $326,288 higher than in 2018. Pension costs for other municipal employees also went up by nearly $92,000.

Revenue from building permits and the municipal court also are down slightly.

Meanwhile, the town negotiated multi-year police and firefighter contracts, retroactive to 2018, with annual increases of approximately 1.75 percent. Talks are ongoing with three other unions, Barrick said.

Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick and Mayor Tim Dougherty field budget questions, April 23, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Administrator Jillian Barrick and Mayor Tim Dougherty field budget questions, April 23, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Town hall employs 190 people full-time, and 15 part-timers. The town created a $140,000 public safety directorship last year, and it has continued the paid administrative leave of its $158,000 police chief, who has not worked since the town removed him for undisclosed reasons in December.

Two police officers were hired in January; one court employee retired and an an assistant to Barrick, former Council President Rebecca Feldman, left for another job and her position won’t be filled, the administrator said.

The budget taps $2.9 million from a $13.7 million surplus that includes money from a landmark 2015 tax settlement with Atlantic Health, the corporate parent of Morristown Medical Center.

One of the budget’s bright spots, Barrick said, is a $190,000 decrease in the town’s health insurance costs. She attributed that to the town’s switch to self-insurance last year.

The town also has cut its municipal debt nearly in half over the last decade, while the municipal sewer plant, which is self-sustaining, should be debt-free by 2024, said the administrator, noting the town’s AA credit rating by Standard & Poor’s.

Some $2.8 million is budgeted for capital projects including improvements to sidewalks, buildings, dams, parks and playgrounds.

Mayor Tim Dougherty with chart asserting tax rates trended downward over last decade; April 23, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mayor Tim Dougherty with chart asserting tax rates trended downward over last decade; April 23, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

No budget hike is complete without some sugar coating, and Dougherty spent several minutes extolling the town’s preservation of the former Loyola tract, creation of Kleitman Park, improvements to the Cauldwell playground and Burnham Park pool, and purchase of a new Colonial Coach bus for seniors.

Dougherty also promised progress from joint efforts with the state Department of Transportation (traffic signal synchronization) and the new Democratic leadership on Morris Township (sidewalks on James Street).

Streetscape upgrades to Speedwell Avenue and Washington Street should be completed this year, he added.

The Mayor, now in his third term, concluded by producing charts indicating the municipal tax rate, and the total tax levy (the amount to be raised by taxes), are lower now than when he took office in 2010.

EMOTIONAL TESTIMONIAL

His 35-minute presentation was punctuated by an emotional testimonial for Dorothy Holman, a former commissioner of the Morristown Housing Authority and mother of Council President Toshiba Foster. Holman is gravely ill.

“I wouldn’t be here without her,” said Dougherty, crediting Holman, who is African American, with teaching him about diversity in his first unsuccessful campaign for council.

“I think I came in seventh,” Dougherty said. Wearing a tie he said was a Christmas gift from Holman, he choked up as he spoke. “Dorothy took the time to walk me door to door, in areas where no one ever heard of me, or knew me and didn’t like me.

“I got my first understanding of how important it is to understand the diversity of our community. And how important it is, if you’re going to serve this community, to recognize the diversity and be active in the diversity. And that’s something she taught me.”

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