Taxpayers share burden, reap benefits


 Members of the Marlboro Department of Public Works make repairs to Robertsville Road on April 22. Local towns emphasize different uses of tax money, including enhanced road programs and senior-service spending, to fit the needs of the individual communities. Members of the Marlboro Department of Public Works make repairs to Robertsville Road on April 22. Local towns emphasize different uses of tax money, including enhanced road programs and senior-service spending, to fit the needs of the individual communities. A ll taxpayers in central New Jersey fund essential services such as police and fire protection, but the emphasis in individual towns varies from senior services to road improvements to urban developments.

Monroe and Jackson, which both have significant senior populations, emphasize senior services, while South Brunswick has tailored its parks based on demographics, and Long Branch has dedicated an entire office to community development.

Approximately 7 percent of Monroe’s annual spending is allocated to emergency medical services (EMS) to meet the needs of the township’s 10 active adult communities and nearly 20,000 senior residents, according to Business Administrator Wayne Hamilton.

 Area towns use taxpayer funds to provide varying types of services, with officials often basing decisions on local demographics. Area towns use taxpayer funds to provide varying types of services, with officials often basing decisions on local demographics. “Probably the biggest thing that perhaps differentiates us from most is the size of our EMS department. … Because of our demographics, we run over 9,500 EMS calls a year,” Hamilton said. “It is pretty significant when you compare it to other municipalities.”

In addition to the approximately $3.5 million that it spends annually on EMS, Monroe allocates $529,000 for transportation, much of which is associated with daily shuttle runs from the senior communities to shopping centers and other locations, he said. The township recoups more than $2 million from insurance companies to defray some of the EMS costs.

The Jackson Township Division of Senior Services operated with a $227,000 budget in 2013, with $207,000 going to salaries and wages. Approximately 1,000 of the township’s 10,000 seniors are registered with the division, which runs activities ranging from Zumba and yoga to bingo and other games, according to Program Administrator Sheri Silversmith. “We are seeing a different group of people coming out for the program. We are seeing more of the [age] 50 category coming out than before,” she said. “We are trying to meet the changing needs by adding these programs.”

Many of the senior programs and events are funded by a usage fee that goes into a trust fund account, according to Silversmith. Some programs, including yoga and Zumba, are also sponsored by local businesses.

While suburban municipalities such as Monroe and Jackson have focused on providing adequate senior programs, the city of Long Branch has devoted its Office of Community and Economic Development to improving its urban landscape. The office oversees the city’s federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) allotment, which has funded police salaries, housing assistance, infrastructure improvements and sewer repairs.

“The unique thing, off the top of my head, is we are one of the few towns below 50,000 people that still has a CDBG, which we get money every year from,” Long Branch Finance Director Ron Mehlhorn Sr. said. “Everybody else has got to go through the county and put in applications, and we have our own.

“We get somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000 [yearly], and it is more in line for lower socioeconomic areas,” he added. “I don’t think any other town in Monmouth County has that.”

Mehlhorn said the CDBG funding has been ongoing for at least 37 years and has amounted to more than $20 million in grants.

Long Branch also operates 15 public beaches, which in 2013 took in revenue of $1.7 million — the second-highest amount in city history, despite poor weather and beaches shrunken by superstorm Sandy.

Mehlhorn said a growing push to offer free beach access would have consequences for city taxpayers.

“It wouldn’t be free — someone is paying for it. It would be the taxpayer,” he said. “We have a lot of police down there in the summertime. There is just so much associated with it.”

Revenue from the beaches offsets the cost of public works and the salaries of ticket takers and lifeguards, Mehlhorn said.

Many towns in the last five years have been forced to cut back on extra services, thanks to both a state-imposed 2 percent cap on tax levy increases and the loss of ratables due to a struggling economy and housing market.

In Howell, an annual road, sidewalk and curbing program dates back to the mid-1990s.

“That’s one of our core services that we do on a regular basis. We have kept it up even with the downturn in the economy,” said Jeffrey Filiatreault, the township’s chief financial officer. “A lot of towns did cut back and get chintzy, but the catch-up is just so hard if you don’t budget this money each year.

“We have 300 miles of road to maintain. If you don’t do it every year, then you are just delaying it,” he said.

Filiatreault said the Township Council allocates between $2.5 million and $3.5 million annually for roadwork, and last winter’s poor weather has put more pressure on the program.

“There has been a lot of stress on the roads, and I’m sure we are going to find some that need attention that we hadn’t planned for,” he said.

South Brunswick catered to a growing population of cricket enthusiasts by constructing two cricket pitches in the township’s Tall Timber Park in 2012. Previously, cricket games were played on the municipality’s baseball fields.

“We partnered with the county through the open space program, and the municipality built two cricket pitches,” said Ron Smaltz, public information officer for South Brunswick.

Tall Timber is one of 26 parks in South Brunswick. They feature amenities including basketball and tennis courts, walking trails, turf baseball and soccer fields, and a dog park.

Recreation Director Tom Morris said his department has an annual budget of approximately $80,000, but park maintenance is covered by the public works budget.

Sayreville Chief Financial Officer Wayne Kronowski said the downturn in the economy and superstorm Sandy both resulted in a greater need to cut costs while still providing adequate services.

“It is so difficult today to just provide the basic services under the cap,” he said, adding that officials are now “more conscious of cost containment and trying to find more economical ways of providing various services.”

Finding new ways to generate revenue is more important than ever, he said.

In recent years, municipalities including Long Branch and Red Bank have added parking meters to increase revenues and offset the loss of tax ratables. While Sayreville has increased permit and user fees, the additional revenue does not provide significant tax relief, Kronowski said.

“We always stay on top of our user fees and permit fees to try to cover the cost of the service that the permit is coming out of,” he said. “We increase them from time to time, but it doesn’t make a real impact on the budget revenue.

“Some people look at additional fees as an additional tax, so it gets to be difficult,” he added. “We try to recoup our costs wherever we can.”

Municipalities, and in turn their taxpayers, often grapple with increasing costs for municipal salaries, health benefits and utilities.

Jonathan Capp, business administrator in Marlboro, said the township assumed the independent water utility in 2009 in an effort to curtail the agency’s increasing costs. Capp said the water utility now operates as a division of the Public Works Department, saving taxpayers approximately $700,000 per year.

“There is a separate water utility, which is providing roughly 60 percent of the residents with drinking water,” he said. “We buy some water, we pump some of our own water from the ground, and we supply water through user fees.”

Savings have been derived by employing fewer workers and through payroll, insurance and auditing, Capp said.