An ordinance that would create a new mandatory annual fee for residential property owners to have bulk trash items hauled away – whether or not they use the service – and three other ordinances intended to generate more money for the township were introduced by members of the Lawrence Township Council at their meeting Tuesday evening (Dec. 4).
The ordinances are the latest steps taken by the council and township administration in their ongoing struggle to reduce expenses and increase revenues in order to bring the 2013 municipal budget in compliance with the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap. The 2013 budget was most-recently pegged at being $502,000 over the tax cap, although Township Manager Richard Krawczun acknowledged after Tuesday’s meeting that that overage amount could increase as the budget process continues.
Members of the public will be allowed to offer comment on each of the four ordinances during the Dec. 18 council meeting, prior to council members voting whether or not to approve them.
Although no opportunity for public comment specific to the ordinances was allowed as each of the four was introduced Tuesday night, several township residents used the general public participation period at the start of the meeting to rail against the bulk trash pickup fee and urge caution about another of the ordinances which, if approved, will increase fees for participation in programs run by the township recreation department.
Copies of all four introduced ordinances can be found in the media box above, along with full audio from the meeting.
Zoning Fee Ordinance
If approved by council on Dec. 18, one of the four ordinances introduced Tuesday will create new fees for property owners to obtain zoning permits. The township currently does not charge for such permits, but several neighboring municipalities do.
Residential property owners, for example, will have to pay $25 to obtain a permit to install a fence and $50 to put in a pool, while commercial property owners will need to pay $100 for a permit to erect a new sign and $250 for a building expansion.
Discussion of charging fees for zoning permits was first discussed at the Sept. 4 council meeting, when Krawczun presented to council a memo in which Township Engineer James Parvesse estimated that as much as $20,000 in annual revenue could be generated through such fees.
Emergency Medical Fee Ordinance
Another of the introduced ordinances, if approved at the next council meeting, will increase existing fees and create new fees charged to individuals who are treated or transported by Lawrence Township Emergency Medical Service ambulance staff.
It will also require Lawrence Township residents to fully settle their bills. Currently, in a situation where a township resident uses the township ambulance service, the township accepts only whatever payment is offered by that resident’s insurance and does not seek to obtain the balance of the bill from the resident.
The basic fee for ambulance transport will increase from $675 to $785, with an added charge of $15 per mile (a $5 per mile increase). The fee for the use of oxygen will go to $70, an increase of $10, and a new fee of $25 will be charged for the use of a cervical collar when needed.
A new fee of $1,950 will be charged if a person is trapped in a wrecked vehicle and has to be extricated by rescuers using “mechanized tools,” while a new fee of $2,800 will be assessed in “technical rescue” situations such as a trench collapse or flood/swift water incident.
Earlier this year, there was talk of using competitive bidding to possibly privative ambulance service in the township. That option is on hold, at least for now, with more money expected to come in from the increased fees and billing changes, along with concessions made by the township’s unionized emergency medical technicians.
Krawczun on Tuesday announced that the EMTs had agreed to open their labor contract to pay more toward health insurance premiums and forgo their pay step increase in 2013.
Recreation Fee Ordinance
The third introduced ordinance, if approved, will increase participation fees charged by the township recreation department. Most of the fees will go up only $5 or $10, but some will see more-significant increases. The fee for competitive basketball, for example, will jump $20 to $110, while boy’s lacrosse will go from $65 to $100.
At the Nov. 8 council meeting, Recreation Superintendent Steve Groeger outlined three possible ways the department could become more “self-sustaining” and less reliant on tax dollars. An “across-the-board” 13-percent increase – per year, for each of the next five years – in recreation participation fees was one of those proposals.
During public participation at the start of Tuesday’s meeting Pine Knoll Drive resident Amy Davis said she supported raising recreation fees, calling the current fees “very modest in these dire budget times,” but she cautioned the council against annual increases that will make the fees too high for anyone to pay. She urged council and the administration to find other ways to raise funds for the recreation department such as a community carnival or 5K run.
“There doesn’t have to be only two options – increase fees or raise taxes. Get creative. Put forth some more effort. Look at other municipal recreation departments. See how they’re funded. Look for their ideas,” Davis said. “Also, if you’re going to increase recreation fees, you should also start charging seniors for their programs. I’ll be honest – ballroom dancing and canasta sound pretty good. But taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill when the town has a budget deficit.”
Later in the meeting, Krawczun explained that Groeger planned to meet with the township’s Recreation Advisory Committee tonight (Dec. 6) to discuss fundraising ideas – such as getting businesses to sponsor events or sports teams – to make future fee increases either unnecessary or more modest.
Bulk Trash Pickup Fee Ordinance
The final introduced ordinance, if approved by council on Dec. 18, will create a new fee for the collection of bulk items that are too large to fit into township-issued trash carts, including so-called “white goods” like washers, dryers and refrigerators. The ordinance will allow township council, by resolution, to set the annual fee as low as $0 and as high as $55; it was not said during the meeting what that fee would be for 2013.
The owners of all properties that currently receive curbside trash pickup will be subject to the fee, which must be paid within 30 days of receiving the bill from the township. Failure to pay the bulk trash fee would be handled under the law in the same manner as a property owner not paying taxes – the owner would face late fees and interest and, eventually, have a lien placed against their property.
Charging all property owners an annual flat fee for bulk trash pickup or instituting a “sticker program” whereby only those who use such a service pay for it were two options discussed at the Sept. 18 township council meeting. During that meeting, Krawczun estimated that as much as $400,000 could be generated by charging a $55 annual fee “per residential location.”
“I vehemently object to council introducing a fee for bulk trash pickup despite whether a resident uses the service,” Davis said during public participation at Tuesday’s meeting. “In the past 10-plus years, I have never used this service, nor do I ever intend to. In my neighborhood, as is the case in many areas of Lawrence, we have two competing gentlemen who drive-by every week the night before trash pickup looking for items curbside to recycle. When my husband and I remodeled our kitchen this past year, we sold our [old] appliances online. We recycle our large trash items in a green-friendly manner.
“Like most in Lawrence, I don’t want nor do I need your bulk trash service. So why should I be forced to pay for it? So let’s call this new ordinance exactly what it is in plain English – it’s a backdoor tax increase disguised as a new fee, a fee for a service the majority of residents don’t need or want,” Davis continued. “In April residents of Lawrence Township voted down your request for a 17-percent property tax increase and you have been scrambling ever since to find a way around the referendum’s defeat and the state’s new 2 percent [tax levy] cap.
“It was bad enough when you showed us how disconnected you were from the majority of residents when you proposed the ridiculous tax increase and actually thought it would pass. But clearly you still don’t get it. The taxpayers told you loud and clear – two-to-one – we are sick of being taxed to death. Cut your spending. You have made some cuts and that was a step in the right direction. But now you are back to your old tricks – stick it to the taxpayer,” Davis added.
Davis has been a vocal critic of the way the township’s budget crisis has been handled and since July has been urging council to allow a second period of public comment to take place toward the end of meetings so residents can respond to information presented by Krawczun in his manager’s report to council. It’s a request that other residents have rallied around but upon which council has taken no formal action.
During Tuesday’s meeting, there was a brief but heated exchange between Davis and Councilman David Maffei, with Maffei questioning a statement made by Davis.
“Honorable mayor, I’d like to say something. We have to resolve this issue. It’s been said that we tried to raise the taxes 17 percent on the public last year. That is not true. Now I don’t want it said any more, unless you can prove 17 percent,” he said.
It was unclear during the meeting if Maffei was objecting to the phrasing used by Davis or if he did not recall the specifics of the tax referendum that was defeated by voters in April. Had the referendum been approved by voters, the municipal tax rate would have gone from $0.84 per $100 of assessed property value to $0.98 – an increase of 16.67 percent. Even with the referendum’s defeat, the municipal tax rate went up 5 cents to $0.89 per $100 of assessed property value.
Also speaking against the bulk trash fee during Tuesday’s meeting were Adele Court resident Barbara Nester and Woodlane Road resident Max Ramos.
“That to me is just wrong,” Nester said. “It’s wrong if you don’t use a service to be charged for it. And that adds up over a period of time and I’m afraid that would even open the door for other fees that might be assessed for things we don’t use… I just want to go on the record to say I just don’t think it’s fair to charge people for something they don’t use.”
Ramos, meanwhile, called the bulk trash pickup fee and the increased recreation fees “hidden” taxes.
But Ed Wiznitzer of Darrah Lane said he supports the fee provided it be implemented for only one year while the township gathers data about how many residents actually use the bulk disposal service and researches other possible solutions to the problem.
“I clearly understand the position of residents who say I should only pay for what I’m getting. In think that’s a very valid, and I think at many times, a strong argument,” Krawczun said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Simultaneously, I also think there are probably equally strong positions to take that there are services that we all receive or are available, that we pay for through taxation, but we don’t necessarily receive individually.”
Speaking about the proposal whereby residents would only pay a fee if and when they needed to dispose of a bulk item, he said, “the sticker program would require a higher level of enforcement. It was said here this evening by a resident that the costs driving our budget are benefits and salaries. And enforcement is benefits and salaries.”
Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis also commented on a potential flaw with the “sticker program” idea, explaining how the family of a recently-deceased resident of her neighborhood likely would have spent thousands of dollars cleaning out their loved one’s home had they had to pay “per piece.”
Councilman Michael Powers, meanwhile, noted that “we all pay school taxes as part of our property taxes but not all of us have children in the school system. From a policy perspective, it makes sense to have an educated citizenry. And trash is a policy issue…”