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Letter to the Editor: Municipal Tax Referendum is 'Best Option to Preserve Services With the Least Cost'

The writer is James Kownacki, mayor of Lawrence Township.

Many questions have come up about the referendum to increase the tax rate beyond the 2 percent limit mandated by state law. Despite efforts to mitigate the impact of declining revenues, implementation of many personnel and program cuts and other efficiencies made over the past four years Lawrence Township finds itself in a difficult fiscal situation.

This year's efforts are being done proactively so as to avoid a more severe budget problem beyond 2012. If we do not face this problem now, the Township will deplete its Surplus. In the past the Township has utilized this Surplus to fund emergency expenses - such as those that occurred during Hurricane Irene and to fund tax appeal refunds, which must include the County and School tax portions previously collected.

It is also important to note over the past few years the Township has also used the Surplus to offset the need to raise property taxes, unfortunately due to the factors outlined above we are no longer able to do so at the same level. The referendum would allow the Township to preserve a portion of the Surplus for future years and maintain basic services.

The fiscal challenge is the result of a number of factors that unfortunately have culminated this year, including:

• Loss of state aid. The state has a statutory obligation to provide municipalities with state aid. As the state does not have direct authority over property taxes this aid represents ··property tax relief' offered by Trenton. Included in this is the monies the state collects each year from the utilities that represent the tax receipts they owe to each municipality where these utilities operate. These funds, energy tax receipts, are supposed to be dispersed to the municipalities by the state. Lawrence and municipalities all over the state have not received the full amount of those funds since 2002. This has resulted in the loss $7.4 million since 2009.

• Depressed economy. As the economy continued to depress housing prices, more Lawrence residents and businesses appealed their real estate tax assessments to better reflect their property value in this economy. In total these adjustments resulted in a $1.4 million loss against anticipated revenue.

• Property tax appeals. Aside from the loss in revenue, the municipality also has to refund the full amount of School and County taxes of each appeal. Only the County tax rate is adjusted in the subsequent year to account for the refunds, but the outlay of cash by the town is not returned. In 2011 this resulted in $1,645,000 of additional costs or $6,673,000 over the last three years

Each of these factors contributed to the fiscal challenge we face this year. As required by law, the Township Manager has presented Council with a proposal to address this situation. That proposal would utilize the referendum option created by the same law that created the 2 percent cap. The Township is able to stay within the 2 percent cap and address this challenge by utilizing nearly the entire Surplus this year. The referendum would allow the Township to preserve a portion of the Surplus for future years and maintain basic services.

Before moving forward with such a drastic step, Council asked the Manager to present alternative cuts to close the budget hole, those included:

Option 1: Creating a Waste User Fee to charge a fee for residential garbage collection outside of the property tax.

Option 2: Force residents to contract with their own waste removal service.

Option 3: Eliminate Recreation programs, reduce the number of Police Officers, privatize ambulance services and additional personnel layoffs.

In the end, Council supported a referendum as the best option to preserve services with the least cost. Placing this on the ballot does not stop Council from continuing to seek cuts and to find ways to reduce costs but the fact is simply that there is no way to plug the hole made without either making drastic cuts that will impact every residents' quality of life or by generating more revenue to replace what has been lost.

The out of pocket cost to residents would be reduced through referendum by continuing to provide trash collection through the general budget which spreads the cost over the entire property base, including commercial ratables, rather than move to a Waste User Fee that would only collect fees from residents. For the average homeowner raising these funds through the property tax will save over $200 a year over the residential user fee option.

It is important that in looking at the options homeowners carefully assess how this decision will impact their household. For nearly 95 percent of houses in Lawrence the proposed property tax increase will result in a smaller increase than the alternative user fee. I hope you will reach out to a Township Council member to share your thoughts, ideas and concerns as we continue to debate this budget.

- James Kownacki, Mayor, Lawrence Township

Chief Wahoo April 10, 2012 at 06:26 PM
Please remember you can NOT lose your houses for not paying your garbage bill, but you WILL lose your houses for not paying your ever increasing property taxes..... VOTE NO and VOTE NO TO LOSING YOUR HOUSES !!!!!!!
Shel April 10, 2012 at 06:32 PM
And tell whoever I saw driving a Lawrence Township vehicle ON A SUNDAY to drive his own vehicle! As far as I know the township is closed on Sunday's, right? So there should not be a need to drive a township vehicle, which we pay for on weekends, PERIOD. If you need milk and can't get to the store, call a cab and pay for it yourself.
Chief Wahoo April 10, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Option 3 sure looks like a great place to start......and as for tax appeals, sorry you cant keep charging homeowners for overinflated bubble prices that were NEVER real in the first place.......back to 1997 tax levels is where ALL New Jerseys towns should go back to !! VOTE NO........by voting yes, you are allowing them to charge you 7 years of (2%cap increases).......7 years !!!!.......you will not see this total on your bill until 2019 , unless you say yes to this .........and this will never go down and is not just one year increase, its year after year after year VOTE NO !!!!........if for no other reason, to send a message.......NO MORE !!!
cathy g April 10, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Three options? And, yet we only get to vote on one? We are debating? No, we are being told.
Kep April 10, 2012 at 06:45 PM
If you're upset at these options (as I am), vote FOR the referendum (thereby saving everyone from higher outlays via unshared garbage user fees) and then vote this Town Council out of office. Strapping ourselves with higher garbage fees that are not tax deductible and result in a larger effective bill is only going to cost us all more. Make your statement at the next local election, not here. We'd only shoot ourselves in the foot by voting down the referendum.
Kep April 10, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Agreed!
Touché Touché April 10, 2012 at 07:08 PM
I know this is a bit off topic but if the officers lived in the town they would be more inclined to take better care of the residents, issue tickets and bring in revenue. When officers move out of town there becomes a disconnect. No matter how you slice it the same level of interest in the community is not kept by the officers who move out. I am sure there is a counter argument but I have always felt this way. If officers can move out of Lawrence there is no way a supervisor or Lieutenant should live out of the boundaries of Lawrence. Surely not the Captain, Deputy Chief or Chief. Give extra points on the test to residents or some other incentive to sustain our town safety and revenue by our own residents. let's start putting Lawrence back together one piece at a time.
Chief Wahoo April 10, 2012 at 07:15 PM
For the average homeowner raising these funds through the property tax will save over $200 a year over the residential user fee option. please stop with the spin, you do NOT SAVE when your taxes or fees are increased, thus you have no right to claim you SAVE !!!!!!!!!!!!
Joe Friday April 10, 2012 at 10:26 PM
I am in way endorsing the referendum or the tax increase people, BUT voting yes is the lesser of two evils plain and simple. The next step is voting the Democrats out of office in the next election as they are clearly out of touch with reality. If the town council told the manager to cut spending and make real cuts and not ram the garbage user fee up our you know whats then I would not be as angry and I am sure alot of you wouldn't be as well. But the fact is that this town council kisses the arse of the manager instead of challenging him. Last time I checked the council holds the last say in this town and not the manager, stop coddling to him as if he is the king! Wake up to reality people. As for police officers, the Township of Lawrence is a civil service police department, as is Ewing, Hamilton, and Trenton. There is a residency requirement to get hired. Once an officer is hired he/she can move anywhere in the state. Lawrence actually has a decent amount of its officers living in the township. The City of Trenton, Hamilton and Ewing function the same way. Any change would have to come at the state level and we all know this is never going to happen. At least police officers are required to live in this state, teachers on the otherhand are not. Next time you go to a school in town, look at the amount of Pennsylvania plated vehicles, you will be shocked to see how many teachers and school employees work in Lawrence and live in PA.
Landon Donovan April 10, 2012 at 10:51 PM
How can the township hold residents hostage by insisting they will collect garbage fee separate from property tax? What about next year will they come back and raise the taxes again? It's hard to believe based on the growth in Lawrence there could be any shortfall of funds. If the township manager had a real job he would be fired!! Wake up people VOTE NO!! No to tax increase in 2012. Tell Lawrence to find another solution.
Naomi Mat April 11, 2012 at 12:24 AM
I want to see what this "average" house looks like. I keep hearing about this $160 thousand home like it's some elusive protected species. My family is not rich, we live a quiet life in a modest home. It will actually be cheaper for us to take the residential user fee than the proposed 14 percent property tax increase.
Max R April 11, 2012 at 02:58 AM
How about a 5.2% increase in ONE YEAR? That's the AVERAGE increase in the "Wages and Salary" line items in the 2012 Municipal Budget. Yes, while our council is asking to increase taxes, the Wages we are paying our Municipal Employees are increasing by over $690,000 over 2011. And we are only increasing headcount by ONE PART TIME PLUMBER. (Good thing we didn't hire a full time plumber, huh?) Vote "No" and make these folks do their job! Represent the residents, NOT the government employees.
Max R April 11, 2012 at 03:02 AM
Voting "Yes" legitimizes the extortion. It ALSO increases the tax base that the council will raise again next year. You must vote "NO" to show these folks that they need to do their job and not just punt the ball till next year.
Linda April 11, 2012 at 07:00 AM
They just don't care! It is beyond my comprehension how this could happen with this miserable economy. People are hurting with the cost of food escalating every week , gas going through the roof and every service in Lawrence demanding more money or else! This falls just short of extortion. My husband and I too live on a fixed income. Each month we have to take more and more out of the principle on our investments. I am tired of caring for everyone else while the Gov. workers reap big rewards. I am tired of taxes period. The year 2012 means higher sewer, higher school taxes, higher property taxes, higher healthcare payments (private pay HMO $877a mo. for just me), and so on and so on! My husband and I will be voting NO. William D. hit the nail on the head. I too am sick to death of Richard "fat cat" Krawczun and his nice chunked up salary. Unfortunately while we were planning and saving for our retirement we didn't count on the local, state, and federal governments coming down on our retirement funds like vultures. I pray that people stand up and vote NO for this tax increase!
Linda April 11, 2012 at 07:14 AM
What I would like to know is how can we get rid of Richard Krawczun? We have NOT been given a choice! I don't care how many facts or numbers they throw at us. Why you almost need an cpa to figure the numbers they throw out. They change every time the speaker changes. How dare they do this to us in this economy.! VOTE NO and they will know their scare tactics don't work. You can bet next year there will be another crisis! That is what these libs, (I am sorry if I offend anyone) are all about, taking our hard earned money and deciding what is best for us.
Patrick April 11, 2012 at 10:43 AM
Before you all vote no, best to see which side of this you'll pay more on. If your your house is assessesed under 200k or so you'll actually pay more voting for the trash tax. Or no. A yes vote would actually cost you less, and would still be in your tax bill. And that's the thing this vote is not democratic, just asking how you'd like the tax.. And it will effect the poorer more if No passes, as that is a flat tax of whatever it is for trash... No matter if you have a small lot in south Lawrence or acres in north... I personally think the legality of this is in question, but I'm not a lawyer.
grill master April 11, 2012 at 01:36 PM
You must be kidding...right? Seriously? So voting these bozos out of office will fix these problems next year??!! Who will fix them? The next group of incompetent politicians? Get real, pal!!
grill master April 11, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Don't buy into the hype that the trash fee will cost more. If you vote yes, our taxes will go up $.14 this year and what will they do next year? There are even more appeals coming in as we speak. Where will the money come from to pay those back? Cuts in expenses need to be made...plain and simple. Eliminating the rec. department is completely insane. There are many other cuts that they can make. Let's see cuts in the police department and cuts in salary. Cut the number of days that the municipal building is open...really doesn't need to open 5 days a week. If the manager and council care so much about Lawrence let's see Crockzun take a pay cut and while we are at it, remove the pay that council members get. If they really cared they would have no problem being on council for free.
Carol April 11, 2012 at 02:15 PM
Correction, Joe Friday. School district employees are required to live in New Jersey unless they lived outside New Jersey at the time the law went into effect. Those employees were grandfathered. Since the law's enactment, newly hired school district employees who live out of state have one year to move into New Jersey or lose their position. Employees who were grandfathered may not move out of New Jersey and continue to work within a school district.
Chief Wahoo April 11, 2012 at 02:55 PM
its so simple....if you really believe in America, then just ask yourself what would thomas jefferson do ?? He would VOTE NO !!
Lawrencevillegal April 11, 2012 at 04:10 PM
I am requesting that the township voters vote against this tax increase. My family lives in Mercer County. We are working to support our family financially by buying our own home, saving for retirement, saving for our children's education, etc. … and by supporting our community and country by paying taxes. We have had several financially challenging years recently. Accordingly, we have had to take steps in every item of our budget to manage cost. There is only one item in our budget where we need your help …. Taxes! By far, taxes are the #1 line item in our household budget. In my last pay check, tax withholding was 49%! With what’s left over, we have to pay some of the highest property taxes in America. On top of that, we pay 7% state sales tax for just about anything we purchase. In addition, we pay taxes in electric bills, water bills, sewer bills, phone bills, cable bills. There are toll fees and special taxes applied to gasoline when we drive. We pay taxes on much of what we drink and eat … then we often pay taxes again when we discharge those foods and drink by using the toilet. We pay taxes coming and going! Mr. Krawczun, the problem is not revenues but a history of exorbitant spending! I believe that we spend over $4M per year alone on interest payments for debt. Unfortunately, with regards to our household budget, it is beyond our authority to reduce our spending on taxes … that’s why we need your help. Thank you for your support.
Lawrencevillegal April 11, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Mr. Krawczun, where is the detail of the $21M in discretionary spending? I think that we are being misled. The township management wants to discuss garbage pickup fees while the real wasteful spending is in the other $40M (discretionary and non-discretionary) of spending! The discussion should be about detail of the other $40M. Here are two alternate proposals, 1) Start with an across the board 10% cut of all discretionary spending? We can keep garbage pickup and employees but with a 10% pay cut ... and cut 10% of every other line item as well. 2) Stop the borrowing. The only reason we have a budget issue is because of our $4M+ per year interest payments on debt! The reason the manager is submitting an alternate proposal for garbage fees is to cause a fuss with the citizens of Lawrence Township as a diversionalry tactic to keep us from blaming the actual culprit - bloated government spending.
Chief Wahoo April 11, 2012 at 06:14 PM
1. a bullet to the heart 2. a bullet to the temple Those are the 2 choices given to you by an overpaid public official......why are the people allowing 1 person who has given you no other choices ( CUT, CUT, CUT could be a wonderful choice if given) ......are we to believe there is not ONE PERSON anywhere smarter than this person.....STOP BEING LEMMINGS AND FOLLOWING THE SAME PEOPLE WHO CAUSED THE PROBLEMS !!!!! VOTE NO
Let's Dance April 11, 2012 at 10:32 PM
I hope everyone here attends the meeting on Thursday at the police building. The council doesn't seem to understand that taxpayer's can't financially bear to be the scapegoat for all of Lawrenceville's financial troubles. We all understand why there has been a loss in revenue but we disagree on what the solution should be. We need more cuts in government spending and a plan to increase revenue. No one wants to see anyone lose their job but we simply cannot afford the staff that we have acquired. We do not need 65 police officers in Lawrenceville. I have often seen multiple police cars hanging out in empty parking lots chatting away to each other. We also cannot afford any more dog parks, expensive trails, or any other unnecessary spending. The taxpayers want and need to see compromise and fiscal responsibility. We are willing to receive fewer services if it will lower our taxes. In the future we could operate non-emergency services on a four day work week, reduce brush pick-up to a quarterly basis, charge for mulch, etc. Did we really need such a lavish new police building or fancy municipal building renovation??? Do we really need to spend taxpayer money on large color calendars with pictures of all the elected officials mailed out to every resident when all the information is on the town's website???? Enough is enough.
Sarah Simon April 11, 2012 at 11:40 PM
WE need to stand together and say NO
Stinki Garbaage April 15, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Vote NO Find out the truth at ThisGarbageStinks.com
Self-Preservation & Cronyism at Lawrence April 16, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Vote NO. The justification for the proposed tax is illogical. The proposed increase is made ridiculous by the unwillingness of the township to lower the police department budget in response to the reduced public safety needs we now enjoy as a result of automated traffic security (cameras) at Route 1/Franklin Corner and elsewhere in the township. While taxpayers have to survive in the real world of capitolism which enforces a direct connection between services and fees, Lawrence Government does the exact opposite by raising taxes when services are reduced. Lawrence government operates contrary to american principles of capitolism. It is based on self-preservation and cronyism. VOTE NO
Ed April 16, 2012 at 11:02 AM
Interesting to see the comments on this. My lovely wife, a registered (D), read the materials provided by the public officials and wondered why they can't just have a 10% across the board spending cut. In the real world, when companies are struggling for funds, that's what happens. Those of us with jobs in the private sector have seen these kinds of cuts plenty in the past several years, and yet our companies are still in business, and we're still working. Granted, not doing as well as we'd like, but we're doing what we have to do. It's time for the public sector to face that reality as well. VOTE NO
Stinki Garbaage April 17, 2012 at 10:47 AM
http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2012/04/two_boroughs_brace_for_upcomin.html Check out what Hopewell and Pennington pay in municipal taxes. We pay more than both of those municipalities combined! Pennington hasn't had a tax increase since 2008! Now THAT's proactive management
Stinki Garbaage April 19, 2012 at 10:28 AM
The fight is still not over. After a 2 to 1 vote and 100% unanimous anger from the residents last night, the council is STILL debating whether to move forward with the extortion. Mayor Kownacki said last night after all the residents gave them a piece of their mind that he hears us, but he still thinks the user fee is the best option. That's who's leading you. That's your mayor! Call Mayor Kownacki today and ask him what he's waiting for. Tell him to take the garbage nonsense off the table today! 844-7000 Ask for Mayor Kownacki. Tell him to take this off the table today. The vote was 2 to 1. Yesterday at council was 100% unanimous from the resdients. Don't take my garbage away. My Kownacki, what are you waiting for? ThisGarbageStinks.com - Tell your friends to flood the township until this nonsense is over. We're 75% of the way there. ThisGarbageStinks.com - until it's off the table. Keep fighting!

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