The Verona Township Council narrowly approved the 2012-13 township budget Monday night by a 3-2 vote after Township Manager Joe Martin announced an amendment to the original 2012 municipal budget that would reduce the proposed budget to the 2011 level at Monday night’s final budget meeting.
This amendment would reduce the proposed $15,363,348 to be raised by taxes to $14.8 million, representing a zero percent increase in the tax levy.
Under the amended budget the average home, assessed at $371,200 in Verona, would see taxes decrease by $9.39, according to Martin.
Councilmen Kevin Ryan and Michael Nochimson voted against the amendment, while Deputy Mayor Bob Manley, Councilman Jay Snaitkowski and Mayor Frank Sapienza voted to approve it.
Several residents in attendance expressed appreciation for the flat budget when public comments were allowed, while stressing further tightening remains to be made.
Others residents like Jan Jensen were still dismayed with the council’s effort.
“I think everyone up there should be ashamed for using FEMA [Federal Emergency Management] money to cover gaps in the budget,” Jansen reprimanded the council.
She went on to assert the mayor and council were not heeding the desires of the citizens they were elected to represent. She insisted all the town’s residents want a reduction in taxes, which she noted are among the highest in the nation. “One hundred percent of the township agrees. Nobody’s listening.”
Jansen railed on. “PILOT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] money should go toward tax relief instead of getting lost in the budget.” She then urged the council to “act responsibly.”
Councilman Jay Sniatkowski disagreed. “It’s not like we spend irresponsibly. Residents asked for a flat increase this year, and that’s what they got.”
He added, “Just to look at this one year in a vacuum is not the responsible thing to do. There’s repercussions for cuts.”
Deputy Mayor Bob Manley concurred. “A 0 percent increase means we are being frugal about this budget.”
Councilman Kevin Ryan, however, sided with Jensen, indicating more cuts could have been made.
“There has been a 31 percent rise in municipal taxes over the last five years,” he said, noting the county’s portion has gone up by 16 percent. “I can’t wrap my head around that 31 percent, so cutting it below flat could have been a goal.”
Ryan pointed to several items added into the current budget based on past expenses that may not be applicable in the future, using the $532,000 the town received in FEMA money for damages from the rare October snowstorm as an example.
Although another similar natural disaster is unlikely, that amount was added into this year’s budget. Ryan questioned whether the town would ever really need that money and pointed out even after paying for storms the previous year the township maintained a surplus.
“This style of budgeting doesn’t promote financial efficiency,” Ryan argued. He added the council would never be able to reduce the budget if they “keep adding in allocations.”
“You have to look at the budget, and say how can I economize.”
Sniatkowski took a different approach to budgeting. He asserted it’s important to look at past years’ expenses to plan for future expenditures.
“Prudent planning is to be as consistent as possible,” he said.
Resident Al DeOld was pleased with the progress the council had made, but still saw opportunities for improvement.
“It’s time for you to say, ‘No, we have to slow down this spending.’”
Resident Alex Roman agreed, noting his taxes have increased by 28 percent.
“My income hasn’t gone up by 28 percent, I can assure you.” He added, “I’d like us to look a little harder at the surplus.” Roman suggested applying some of the $2.5 million in surplus to the budget to help contain taxes.
Martin, however, maintained a surplus is one of the most important criteria that rating agencies look at when towns want to sell debt.
Resident Joe Petrucci acknowledged that while the budget is a step in the right direction, “it’s not going to change taxes.” He added, “Taxes are going to go up.”
This is because of the rising tax rate. The council sets the tax levy but not the tax rate, which is tied to property values. As values fall in town as they have done in each of the past three years according to the tax assessor, the tax rate increases to compensate for the loss in ratable revenue. This year, the average home in Verona is assessed at $371,000.
“If you want to shave the tax flat, you have to cut more from expenditures,” Petrucci said. “If you want to have a truly flat tax, you’ve got to get the rate down.”