By FRED T. ROSSI
Specially Written for The Leader/Times
SCOTCH PLAINS – The township council will introduce its 2021 budget this month, and it is expected that the municipal portion of the total property tax levy this year will rise by about 1.95 percent, or $37 for the average household, after being frozen last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chief Financial Officer Theodore Georgiou told the township council at last Saturday’s budget meeting that the situation at present was much improved from where it stood when the budget process got underway in earnest last October. Calling it “one of the most challenging budgets to put together,” he said that initially, the 2021 budget was set to rise about $1.1 million from last year’s $26-million level thanks to a $245,000 increase in state-mandated pension payments, $160,000 in higher recycling costs, $177,000 in bond payments, an additional $392,000 in contractual salaries and a reduction of $120,000 from interest on township deposits due to near-zero interest rates.
In order to mitigate the steep increase in expenditures and a higher tax hike, Mr. Georgiou said purchases of police vehicles were moved from the operating budget to the capital budget, saving $110,000, while various savings in the township’s health insurance plan will save another $285,000. In addition, some grant money will be used to offset the increase in recycling costs. In total, the 2021 budget will see an increase of about $300,000 from last year.
The township’s share of local property tax bills is the smallest of the three major entities, accounting for about 14 percent, while the board of education takes about two-thirds and the county takes much of the remainder with open-space trust funds accounting for a small piece of tax revenue as well.
The bulk of the council’s two-and-a-half-hour meeting was devoted to meeting with department heads about their funding requests for 2021. Department operating budgets were mostly flat from last year, and capital requests were relatively minimal. Robert LaCosta, construction and zoning officer, said that 2020 was a “very good year in spite of Covid,” as construction code fees were healthy. Township manager Al Mirabella pointed out that with many residents home-bound last year, renovations to the interior and exterior of their homes was probably a key factor in the healthy fees paid to the township.
The fire department requested a new command vehicle to replace one that is 21 years old and also asked for funding to purchase more turnout gear for firefighters. Fire Chief John Lestarchick also told the council that an expanded parking lot at Southside Fire Station is planned, a project that will benefit both his department as well as those parking to attend games at the adjacent soccer field.
Police Chief Ted Conley asked for funds to install an amber blinking light at the corner of Rahway Avenue and Raritan Road, an intersection he described as “dangerous.” He added that it is possible that, in the long run, an actual traffic light will need to be installed there.
Public Works Director Frank DiNizo requested funds for a few pieces of heavy equipment, including a new dump truck with a snowplow. Mayor Joshua Losardo asked Mr. DiNizo to start planning ahead for what needs to be done to make improvements to the public works headquarters on Plainfield Avenue and said it may come down to a question of replacing the facility or continuing to make what he called “band-aid repairs.”
Library Director Michelle Willis said she is “very hopeful” that a new library will be part of the downtown redevelopment efforts that are starting to gain steam, and Redevelopment Coordinator Thomas Strowe said a grant submission for funding will be submitted to the state soon to finance half the cost of a new library.
On the topic of downtown redevelopment, Mr. Strowe said he expects the plans for the first phase to be unveiled to the redevelopment committee at its Wednesday, March 10 meeting. If there are no delays, then the plan will be sent to the council for introduction on Tuesday, March 16.
“We’re right on the cusp,” of major steps in the redevelopment process, he said.
DJ Salvante, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, requested two new lawnmowers for Scotch Hills Country Club, which he said had revenue in 2020 that “blew away” estimates from a year ago as people took to golf courses and tennis courts as a way of engaging in socially-distanced recreational activities.
Recreation Commission Chair Mike Walsh said the partnership between the commission and the township is “as strong as it’s ever been.” He also pointed out that, with the township expected to see a surge in population in the coming years, it will be necessary to find more space and more facilities, and he told the council that it was likely that bigger capital requirements will be requested in future years.
The council will introduce the operating and capital budgets at its Tuesday, March 16 meeting, and Mr. Mirabella said he expects to hold a public hearing a vote on Tuesday, April 20. All council members — except Councilwoman Suman Dahiya-Shah, who was not in attendance — seemed favorably disposed toward the spending and tax proposals. Mayor Losardo called it a “responsible budget that achieves the objectives of all of us.”
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