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Council Gets an Earful in Wake of Referendum's Defeat

Less than 24 hours after voters shot down a 9-cent municipal tax increase, angry residents appeared before Lawrence Township Council Wednesday to demand that a trash user fee not be created as an alternative to the tax hike to balance the 2012 budget.

A parade of angry residents appeared before Lawrence Township Council Wednesday evening (April 18) to voice their displeasure with how the municipal tax increase referendum was presented to voters and to urge council not to institute the trash user fee that township officials previously put forth .

The referendum, which sought permission to raise the municipal tax rate 9 cents above the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap, was , with more than 3,700 total votes cast.

Residents during Wednesday’s meeting told council members they felt council was arrogant and had tried to “blackmail” voters into approving the referendum by threatening to impose a trash user fee should the 9-cent tax hike be turned down.

Many were particularly angered by a in advance of the referendum, even though Mayor Jim Kownacki explained the letter was simply the township’s way of trying to be transparent and provide residents with a cost comparison between the 9-cent tax increase and the trash user fee.

“I hear all of your concerns… For the past couple months we worked very hard to get to where we were at. And I personally feel, and still feel, [the referendum] was the best offer out there for you. I was trying to keep the services that you have,” Kownacki said. “The way it was presented with the letter….we put the letter out to explain to you…”

Nearly a dozen residents spoke during the meeting’s public participation period, all demanding that a trash user fee not been created and that other cuts instead be made to the municipal budget. Many advocated laying off municipal employees.

“We don’t want higher taxes. We want cuts. We want fiscal responsibility. The time is now. Enough is enough,” Pine Knoll Drive resident Amy Davis said. “Use this as an opportunity to react wisely to what the residents have told you.”

Three residents with financial experience offered to look at the budget with township officials to make suggestions where cuts might be made. It was an offer that council accepted, directing Township Manager Richard Krawczun to meet with the men in the next few days to analyze the 2012 spending plan and report back at the next council meeting on May 1.

The $43.35 million budget already includes a 5-cent increase that is under the 2 percent cap. Those 5 cents will raise the municipal tax rate from $0.84 per $100 of assessed property value to $0.89, meaning the owner of a home assessed (for tax purposes) at the township average of $160,828 will pay about $1,431 in municipal taxes for 2012, or about $80 more than in 2011.

The additional 9 cents, had it been approved by voters, would have raised the rate to $0.98, increasing the municipal tax bill for the average home owner this year by another $144.75.

But with that extra 9-cent hike shot down by voters on Tuesday, Krawczun and the council now must work during the next few weeks find a way to cut $2.275 million from the budget.

One option previously discussed – – would require the township to eliminate all recreation programs and fire 36 municipal workers, including essential personnel like eight police officers and all ambulance staff.

Because the township is now four months into the fiscal year and, by law, it would take additional time to implement any layoffs, the number of cuts and layoffs would actually have to be even greater than originally outlined in order to realize the needed savings, Krawczun told council Wednesday.

“In New Jersey municipalities do cash-basis budgeting, and we really don’t start our process until after the conclusion of the [old] fiscal year and we are into the [new] fiscal year. So any time that you need to make an adjustment, it requires an additional amount, because you’re not getting the benefit of the full 12 months of that change,” Krawczun explained.

The other option that Krawczun and council members have considered – and which, prior to Tuesday, was something which they said was likely should the 9-cent referendum be rejected – is the trash user fee.

Under such a scenario, the township would cut the cost of residential trash collection and disposal from the municipal budget, and instead institute a new mandatory trash user fee for that would be assessed against all residential property owners in town. Such a fee has been estimated at costing about $336 per year.

An ordinance amendment that would have created such a trash user fee was on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting but was tabled by council through a motion made by Councilman Michael Powers following the angry comments from the public.

“Mayor I want to table this. We have a room full of residents here who have taken time out of their busy schedules to come here and express their frustration and their anger with this governing body, with this township manager, with this administration. And, like it or not, there’s a perceived arrogance that we have as a governing body. And for us to move forward would just compound that perceived arrogance of this council,” Powers said.

“I think what we need to tell these residents is we’ve heard your voices,” Powers continued. “The most important thing we do as elected officials is work on the budget. One of the things that I’ve talked about in the past is having a finance committee. We have a lot of smart residents, we have CFOs, we have Fortune 20 folks in the audience here… Let’s tap into their brainpower and hear what they have in terms of finding solutions. We’re the elected officials, but it’s not an us-versus-them situation. I don’t proclaim to have all the answers… In terms of dealing with this issue, we’re less than 24 hours since this budget’s been rejected. We need to take a timeout, take a breath, noodle on this thing, and tap into the brainpower that exists in our town.”

Councilman Greg Puliti then made a motion that the council accept the offers of help in going over the budget that were made earlier in the evening by Ira Marks, a CPA and certified financial planner who lives on Pembroke Court; Max Ramos, a sales executive who lives on Woodlane Road; and Marvin Van Hise, an attorney who lives on Federal City Road who spent 40 years working for state and municipal governments and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

“Mr. Krawczun has presented to us a list of cuts. We need to bring that back out for us to re-exam,” Puliti said.

Also during the meeting, Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis suggested that the township should try to find out from its residents exactly what services they want kept intact and what services they would be willing to lose.

“Throughout the town hall meetings, I think that there were huge differences of opinion as to what services were expected by residents and what services could be cut,” she said. “I think it would be worth exploring a way to poll our residents about what services they expect from this township, and doing so without having to expend any money, be it an online poll or mailing that already exists.”

Listed below are excerpts from the comments made by residents to council during Wednesday’s meeting:

Allen Cohen, Pin Oak Drive:

“To charge for trash collection would not only be dumb but could be seen as being antagonistic and hostile to the taxpayers.”

“Would I like to see people laid off? No. But as an alternative, I think you should go to the unions and say ‘What concessions do you want to make?’ Furloughs, unpaid days off, cuts in benefits…to see if the unions want to get together and save the jobs of their fellow colleagues. That should be an avenue you should pursue. If the unions say, ‘No, lay our colleagues off,’ then you may have to go that route….”

“Whether we like it or not, we just have to face the music and make the cuts.”

Andrea Pennington, Gedney Road:

“I’m so upset that the resounding negative effect of the voting on the referendum carried over into the school budget vote. Obviously, more people voted against the referendum than the school budget, but I think some people voted against the school budget just in their anger at the [referendum]. It’s astounding that we’re one of two townships in all of New Jersey that thought we needed to go over the cap. I don’t understand why all the other towns in New Jersey were able to live within their budget and stay under the cap…. It’s unbelievable that we were one of two townships that did that. It created a very negative atmosphere and a very negative reaction from residents…”

“Now the school board has to bring their budget here, to the group that couldn’t stay under the cap, when the school budget was under the cap. Maybe you guys should go have [school district business administrator] Tom Eldridge do your [budget]. As a parent, the schools are the most important thing in the township; there’s nothing more important than the schools…”

“I hope we are not going to see a decimation of our schools that have been growing in a positive direction over the past few years, more positive than I’ve ever seen it in my time in this town.”

“There’s absolutely no reason on Earth why this budget can’t be under cap. [The cap] is to protect the citizens of New Jersey. We already pay the highest taxes in the entire county. If you guys can’t do that, I don’t understand why you’re here.”

Joe Ignas, Rossa Avenue:

“I’ve been a township resident 56 years now. I’m married. I have five kids. My wife didn’t work the first 15 years we were married. I worked at five places that went out of business. So I don’t want to hear ‘learn how to tighten your belt.’ Believe me, I tightened it many a time. You should see the holes in have in there… I think you should tighten your belt, lay a few people off if you have to. Believe me, I’ve collected a lot of unemployment checks…. Today, you have all kinds of baseball fields, electric scoreboards, aluminum stands. Do you really need it? Nah, I don’t think so. I think it’s about time the senior citizens got a break in this township too.”

Joyce Copleman, Titus Avenue:

“I’m here tonight because I was really astounded at the turnout and the results of the election last night. When [the referendum] went down 2-to-1 it just really reinforced to me how frustrated I am and most of the residents are. I think in the village area of Lawrence there was an 89 percent turnout for voters, which is phenomenal on a school board election. So I guess I’m here to ask you to really go back to the drawing board and figure out how you can stay under the cap.”

Carol Harle, Review Avenue:

“You should truly take the message that the people gave you last evening. The citizens of Lawrence Township need and want property tax relief. The citizens of Lawrence last evening gave you a message that they cannot afford even one more unsustainable tax hike, which includes the $336 a year [trash user fee]. Citizens said they did not like being bullied by you into voting for the referendum and said the letter you sent out, in their opinion, was arrogant and threatening. Some people said they were going to vote yes but changed their mind after they got the letter and said they were going to vote no even though they could not afford the garbage tax. Citizens want garbage in the budget. Taking garbage out of the budget is not the best option for the taxpayers.”

Amy Davis, Pine Knoll Drive:

“I’ve lived in Lawrenceville for 15 years and I do not want [or] support a garbage fee.”

“Lawrenceville was the best buy in Mercer County but over the last 15 years we have watched our property taxes more than double. We now have two small children at Ben Franklin [Elementary School]. I think we have a wonderful school district that is deeply under-valued. [I’m] just so upset that you did not hear what the residents were telling you at the township meetings. You did not take the opportunity to hear what we were saying. Instead, you made threats. You sent out a letter using taxpayer money to again emphasize the threat. And we banded together, passionately, to stand up for ourselves. This is not right and will not be tolerated. We love this town…. We want to stay in Lawrenceville. We want to put our kids through college. We don’t want McMansions. We’re happy with our standard four-bedroom Colonials, small yards and nice neighborhoods. We just don’t want to be taxed to death.”

 

For Municipal Tax Referendum Background, See:

  • April 18: ""
  • April 16: “”
  • April 16: “”
  • April 13: “”
  • April 12: “”
  • April 11: “”
  • April 10: ""
  • April 2: ""
  • March 28: “”
  • March 26: “”
  • March 26: “
  • March 20: “”
  • March 14: “”
  • March 8: “”
  • Feb. 23: “”
  • Feb. 9: “”
  • Jan. 18: “”

For School Budget and School Board Background, See:

  • April 18: ""
  • April 16: “”
  • April 13: “”
  • April 12: “”
  • April 2: “”
  • March 28: “”
  • Feb. 29: “”
  • Feb. 29: “”
  • Feb. 15: “”
  • Jan. 11: “”
Thomas April 20, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Tchianese wrote on Apr 20, 2012 7:55 AM: " Several police officers are willing to give up their accumulated sick and vacation time for a buy out. Hiring new officers at the base salary and buying out an officer who is at the top step would save several hundred thousand dollars . The council and new financial committee may want to look into this!! "
Chief Wahoo April 20, 2012 at 02:51 PM
if they take garbage out of the budget, what are the services taxpayers paying property taxes getting......salaries , benefits and pensions must be up to 80 % by now !!!!! Property Tax Revolt !
Patrick April 20, 2012 at 04:05 PM
that comment is just stupid...
Let's Dance April 20, 2012 at 04:23 PM
The jig is up in Lawrence Township! Thank you to everyone who voted No and attended the Council meeting. The public comments were right on and have successfully caused the Council to pause and reflect. That’s the best move they’ve made in a long time. Because of our protest, they have invited us in to suggest what cuts should be made and are stating for the first time that they will consider cuts as opposed to passing the garbage fee. That’s why we voted NO and didn’t just give up and lie down because we are informed enough to know we can make a difference if we fight for our beliefs.
Patrick April 20, 2012 at 04:52 PM
I'm glad they agreed to consider the trash fee, but now the problem is what to cut. I guess you could do the hot knife through butter cuts that may seem easy, but I worry without restoring that surplus (that is used for revenue for next year) where we will be next spring. What I would suggest is attacking this from the revenue side... Lawrence is a township of three very different classes. South Lawrence with its row houses is closer to Trenton then Main Street and very working class. Central Lawrence with its mix of older homes and post war split level homes is is classic middle class suburbia. and finally the town and to the north is high prices homes. So why is someone making 40k a year in a 150k home taxed at the same rate as someone in a multi million dollar home who makes close to 7 figures? Yes I am talking about progressive property taxes. The idea is very simple. You make more you pay more based on home value. So if you are retired, and live in a 500k home your tax is flat. if you live in the same home and pull in 350k a year you pay more. This would radically reduce the tax burden for the elderly, the un/under employed while truly reflecting the call for a shared sacrifice. The present system is broken... A couple could buy into an area at a price that was very reasonable, and when the market booms and they get reappraised out. There are so many studies that show this creates growth, and revenue. Schools and services are better, the township is better.
Patrick April 20, 2012 at 05:42 PM
I can't believe that any Long Island town pays less then LTS. Every Long Islander I work with talks about the 20k tax bill on a basic cape. And the rich don't leave when taxed fairly, its a myth. Google progressive property taxes. there are a ton of studies that suggest that progressive taxes spurs growth.... as for a Mercer police force and public works... I think we'd get 50 cents to the dollar paid on that... Trenton might suck up a ton of our money in that equation. Even Hamilton with its horrid zoning, and even worse roads and public works.
Andrea Pennington April 20, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Patrick- taxes are based on the assessed value of your home. People with bigger, newer, more expensive homes DO pay more taxes. Houses in south Lawrence are assessed lower, even if the houses are similar. The structure is sound, it is the spending that is out of control.
Conservative April 20, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Patrick: That's the problem. Soon no one will be making seven figures because the tax man takes $$ away from them and gives $$ to those that don't really want to work very hard. It seems that your idea of shared sacrafice is one sided. So who will you get to pay for your services when all the seven figure people in Lawrence leave? (I'll bet its Obama)
Amy Barkley April 20, 2012 at 07:13 PM
I think I accidentally deleted my earlier LI comment regarding having most of local services provided through the county. Anyhow, I am not sure where Patrick's co-workers live, but I double checked and in my home town of Massapequa, median home value is 550K and median property tax is 9K. We never suffered for lack of services, although I am sure some areas were a bigger drain on resources than others. But there can be substantial savings if we began to coordinate our local government services.
Stephen April 20, 2012 at 07:43 PM
While I think there are cuts that can be made to the budget, I think a tax increase is inevitable. I would support a tax-increase if it was only for this year, to make up the shortfall. I understand that our revenues are down because of lost property values and the economy, so I am willing to help make up the difference so we don't blow the entire "rainy day" fund. My problem with the proposal was that it was permanent, so there was going to be a new basis for the tax increase we will seen next year. Of course with all the extra money, the township would simply spend more. I think if you bring it to the voters again, but that the starting point for next year's property tax with be $0.89 and not $0.98, they will probably get approval.
Andrea Pennington April 20, 2012 at 08:53 PM
Stephen- I have never seen a tax increase "go away". How are the other 500 or so townships in NJ managing without a tax increase over the cap? Tighten your belts, council- just like all the residents are.
Fed-up April 20, 2012 at 09:53 PM
WRONG!!! I have a 1500sq ft RANCH with NO basement or garage and pay MORE taxes then my neighbors with split level homes!!! I have barely 1/3 of an acre and was told thats why I pay more. When I put up a 10x12 shed I was taxes $120 on that a year. Someone in the neighborhood put a second story on 4 yrs ago and they still have not had the town do the final inspection because they didnt want the taxes to go up and the town never came back!!! Same people that dont register themselves in the state either to avoid insurance and driver license fees. All you have to do is Google to get property taxes by homes and see this is the case. Try Zillow.com and find out for yourself!!! AND why hasnt the town told us to find our own trash pick up??? MAybe they signed a contract with Central Jersey and they cant break it with out paying a fine so they threaten us??? Dont know just sayin' I know Princetopn has private collection but you get to choose who you want to pay not the town. If I have to pay let me decide who to use!!
Fed-up April 20, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Ha ha - a decrease!!! Rainy day fund???? Who has that anymore?? Certainly not a New Jersey Taxed resident thats for sure!!!
Patrick April 20, 2012 at 10:49 PM
That is just silly... You think that historic homes in Lawrenceville would be vacant? It is plainly absurd, there is a demand for such homes that goes beyond taxes. In fact, our taxes are a bargain for such homes compared to Princeton. and I doubt such a progressive tax would enable freeloaders, but it may allow people who grew up here, be able to retire here and afford it. And I'm not just saying this cause you took the name conservative, but you really need to get in touch with the reality of taxation. I am basically suggesting that there are still standard taxes, but there are also progressive taxes based on income. So every home owner would still have significant skin in the game, but those that can afford to live here and live well, pay their share... That used to be patriotic, something to aspire to... something to take civic pride in....
Patrick April 21, 2012 at 12:23 AM
taxes where double that before Gov. Cuomo tax caps, and when the Republicans where thrown out and Suozzi took over... in 2002 Nassau Co. was near bankrupt. look it up, that have halved in the last decade. and North shore taxes are still very very high. but that is LI and this is Central NJ.
Linda April 21, 2012 at 03:44 AM
Oh conservative this is just more of Obama's class warfare! It is truly pathetic. You are so correct their won't be anyone with money left and then who foots the bills? I am not rich nor will I ever be, but when did it become a sin to become successful in America?
Linda April 21, 2012 at 03:45 AM
*there won't be oops!
Linda April 21, 2012 at 03:50 AM
Does the temporary 7% sales tax ring any bells? Politicians have very short memories. In short, they lie!
Plant it April 21, 2012 at 10:53 AM
Big salaries are an expense to taxpayers. How many township employees make more than 90k? I am sure too many. How many of these people have "connections?". Canning the little ones at the bottom of the food chain won't save us money!
Plant it April 21, 2012 at 11:07 AM
No more ball fields. Stop paving roads like Bergen that don't really need to be paved. No more silly red light cameras. Stop hiring of friends and relatives. Stop plowing every little flake of snow. No more big equipment purchases unless its a direct replacement. Stop buying Prius' to make it look like your trying. Stop wasting money. Start paying attention and run it like a business.
Patrick April 21, 2012 at 11:37 AM
Linda, it is not class warfare. What is class warfare is expecting someone who earns less pay that same tax rate as someone who is wealthy. There are rebates for seniors and vets, but they are jokes in size. You like to talk about how hard you have worked and how everything has gone up making living here almost impossible. Not, sure how old you are, but once the pay checks stop coming and you retire, you are on a fixed income. These persons should pay less. and for that to happen you have to tax the ones that make more. Its called living in a society. As I said, there is no way the large expensive homes in Lawrence go vacant, in fact such a progressive tax would encourage the rich to move here, because once their w2 shows little income their tax rate will go down. It would mean that since a person like you who is now taking home less because of increased medical, etc, would pay less. And it means that those who earn more pay more. Its not class warfare, its called a community. You can demonize it all you like, but the rich wouldn't really feel the effect of this higher tax, and those that need the cut would truly enjoy a higher standard of living. And isn't that why we collect taxes, to make our community, our state our country a better place to live for all of us. When we pave roads its for all of use, when we hire police, its for all of us.... And I frankly growing tired of your boring political brow beating. its ugly unneeded and makes you seem petty.
lawrence resident April 21, 2012 at 12:48 PM
check out the percentage of your entire tax bill. more than half of it is school taxes. yet people who never even had kids in the public school system are paying. how many times has the school budget been passed and no one complained
Andrea Pennington April 21, 2012 at 01:07 PM
Check out the percentage of your home value clearly connected to the schools. Good schools boost home values. The school board asked for a 3 cent increase, under the cap by hundreds of thousands. Our council was one of two, in the WHOLE STATE, who couldn't stay under their cap. If you aren't supportive of good schools, go live somewhere where the taxes reflect that thinking.
Linda April 22, 2012 at 02:23 AM
Patrick I am sure you are tired of my pettyiness. I really don't care, not one iota. I am tired of hearing progressives talking about taking other peoples hard earned money to give to someone else. Progressive think they have a right to decide who gets what and that is not what this Country is about. You want more, you work harder. Taxes should be fair. If you earn more you are already paying more taxes. Please don't bore me with the capital gains taxes. Taxes were already paid on that money when it was earned. There is so much waste, fraud, and abuse in our tax system and I am frankly disgusted with these miscreants mishandlig the tax payers money. Stop building these silly dog trails. I don't have any more money for such nonsense. I am so happy the taxpayers voted no and said no more. I have to wonder if you are really a government worker sometimes. The first things the progressives threaten eveeryone with is police, firemen, teachers, and frankly that arguement has been worn out. Everyone can not be the same unless you want to step into communism and I will die before that will happen. I want the progressive to leave me and my money and my freedoms alone!

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