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:
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For School Budget and School Board Background, See:
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