A Toms River council member and several residents voiced their displeasure – sometimes loudly – at the whole of the governing body for what amounted to a reduction in the amount by which municipal taxes will increase in town this year.
Despite cutting the tax hike from 4.2 cents to 3.8 cents, Councilman Dan Rodrick excoriated his fellow council members and took aim at Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill for raising taxes at all during the current time of economic uncertainty. Hill and others said the township has made cutbacks and plans to further cut expenses, but also has an obligation to provide services and repair infrastructure, even during a time of economic uncertainty.
“There is a gigantic increase on the taxpayers this year,” said Rodrick, referencing dual tax hikes from both the municipal government and the regional school board, which is voting on its own spending plan Wednesday night. “Depending upon what the county does, people are looking at a very large tax increase and the administration has done nothing to control spending this year. There’s $3.7 million worth of new vehicles, $1 million at the ice rink, and now we’re going to spend a half-million dollars worth of legal work to a private company.”
Rodrick was referring to a restructuring of the township’s legal department in which in-house attorneys will be replaced by a private firm. Though this has not yet occurred, it is rumored that the politically-influential firm of Dasti, Murphy, McGuckin, Ulaky, Koutsouris & Connors is in line for the contract. Hill has said his calculations indicate the switch will translate into $300,000 in savings, while Rodrick has said the move is based in politics.
“Nobody’s happy about any tax increase,” said Councilman Matthew Lotano. “We went about three years without any increase and now we’re looking at something different. Nobody wants to do it.”
Hill, for his part, said the township has reduced spending on so-called “confidential employees,” those directly appointed by the mayor, by 16 percent. The township has also instituted a hiring freeze, eliminated discretionary overtime and had one major retirement in the police department, all of which combined saved $1 million. The budget also accounts for Hill’s projected savings of $300,000 in legal bills.
Councilwoman Laurie Huryk defended the $1 million in work due for the township’s ice rink, saying it now more important than ever to keep the facility running.
“Our ice skating rink was in desperate need of repairs to the wall,” said Huryk. “It absolutely needed to be repaired or we would have had to close it. At a time when schools are cutting back all of their recreation programs, we can’t take that away from the children of the town.”
Alexander P. Davidson, the township’s chief financial officer, said the ice rink repairs will be funded through the capital budget, not the operating budget, and will be largely tax-neutral since some bonding comes off the books each year while other projects are added.
But the meeting grew contentious on several occasions, with Rodrick battling all of his colleagues on the Zoom meeting call. At one point, another council member called for Rodrick’s microphone to be turned off or for him to be kicked off the call.
Rodrick was the only council member to vote against the budget.
“I don’t support it, and especially at a time like this it’s very insensitive,” he said. “You’re robbing the taxpayers. We were flat for a few years and now we’re clawing it all back and spending like there’s no tomorrow.”
Scott Thompson, a Messenger Street resident who commented virtually on the meeting, said the impact of tax increases could have a major impact.
“I have lived in Toms River for 40 years,” he said. “Any increase will force me to move – I can’t afford any tax increase. I want to live here – born and raised, always TR – but we cannot do it anymore.”
“How do you think our taxpayers can afford such an increase?” asked resident Dennis Galante. “What will you do next year when our revenue stream dries up?”
Council President Maria Maruca said a major impact on this year’s budget came in the form of a FEMA disaster loan taken post-Superstorm Sandy that was supposed to have been forgiven. The federal government, however, is now trying to force the township to pay the $5 million back.
“I don’t think there is anyone on this council who likes to raise taxes or wants to raise taxes, but one of the things in there is the [Community Disaster] loan from FEMA,” said Maruca. “If we could get FEMA to forigve that loan, it would not be in place for this budget, but it would be something we could put those monies toward in the next budget.”
Rodrick also went after officials for what he saw as a failure to “shop” for new health insurance plans for employees. Employee health insurance plans, over the past several years, have ballooned to above $40,000 per employee in some cases, and have consistently impacted the township’s operating budget.
Township Administrator Don Guardian pledged to “shop around” this year, as well as lead an in-depth audit of spending to see where savings could be found.
The final budget will be adopted May 12. The increase will be 3.8 cents, equaling a total of 67.7 cents per $100 of assessed value for the municipal portion of a resident’s tax bill. School, county and fire district taxes are not included in that figure. Based on previous estimates, the tax impact for a resident with a home priced at $275,000, the township’s average, will be just under $100.
School tax increases will be considered at a meeting Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. The district has proposed a budget that includes a $176 property tax increase for the resident of an average home. That meeting can be viewed online at this link.