Township Manager Answers Tax Referendum Questions

Lawrence Township Manager Richard Krawczun last week appeared at a forum to discuss the upcoming municipal tax increase referendum. Another public meeting about the referendum will be held on March 29 at the Slackwood firehouse.

By Alexa Woronowicz

With the people of Lawrence Township in an uproar over the impending municipal tax increase referendum, Township Manager Richard Krawczun had a difficult task ahead of him. During a forum held March 12 at the township library, hosted by the township chapter of the League of Women Voters, Krawczun attempted to explain the events leading up  to the township’s current financial woes and the options that the township – and taxpayers – have going forward.

Using a detailed PowerPoint presentation, Krawczun told the audience of about 60 people about the various benefits and disadvantages of voting for/against the referendum to be held April 17. In order to balance the 2012 municipal budget, the referendum would increase the municipal tax rate 9 cents over what is allowed by the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap. If the referendum is rejected, the budget would be balanced by removing the cost of residential trash collection from the municipal spending plan and shifting that expense to homeowners by way of a new – and mandatory – trash user fee.

(Audio of the Question and Answer segment of the March 12 forum can be listened to from the media box at the right.)

Krawczun is scheduled to repeat his budget presentation and answer questions about the tax referendum again next week during another public forum that will be hosted by the Colonial Heights Civic Association at 7 p.m. on March 29 at the Slackwood Fire Co. firehouse at 21 Slack Ave.

“If the referendum is approved, taxes will go up by 9 cents more than the [cap] permits. If the referendum is disapproved there will be a need for a user fee charged for residential property trash collection. The advantage of the referendum is it is tax deductable [whereas the trash user fee is not],” Krawczun said at the March 12 forum in response to a question about the consequences of the referendum.

If trash costs remain within the municipal budget, those costs are shared – through the collection of municipal taxes – by both homeowners and commercial property owners, even though commercial properties do not benefit from the trash collection services. In the case of a trash user fee, only those who receive the service – homeowners – would pay.  

The 9 cents – which would be in addition to a 5-cent increase already built into the 2012 municipal budget – would raise the municipal tax rate to $0.98 per $100 of assessed property value and add $144.75 to the 2012 municipal tax bill for the owner of a home assessed for tax purposes at the current township average of $160,828. By comparison, it has been estimated that the trash user fee would cost homeowners about $336 per year.

“In effect, you’re not giving voters an alternative on April 17. You’re saying, you’re either paying a tax that’s greater than what the state mandates or you’re paying a user fee – but you’re paying regardless,” one audience member said.

Krawczun pointed out the various steps Lawrence Township has taken in recent years to cut costs, including reducing staff, sharing public works and health department services with neighboring municipalities, increasing recreation user fees, privatizing some services and refinancing debt. In order to “accomplish the same thing as the 9-cent tax increase” a total of 36 municipal employees, including police officers and emergency medical staff, would need to be laid off and such cuts would have a devastating effect on township services, he explained.

“Raising taxes is offensive. We understand that the cost of your taxes is high enough. But we don’t do this from afar and impose this,” he said, assuring audience members that he and township council members carefully considered all the options and, as township taxpayers themselves, will feel the effect of any tax hike or user fee.

As part of his presentation, Krawczun talked about how the township’s tax base has declined by over $167 million in the last five years due to successful tax appeals by commercial and residential property owners, including a loss of $38.3 million during 2011.

“If we were to apply the 2011 tax rate against just the loss of ratables, there would be another $1.4 million in income…That’s the impact of the drop of ratables,” Krawczun said.

He also spoke about how the township could use money from its surplus fund to balance the 2012 budget and avoid the need for the additional 9-cent tax hike that is the subject of the April 17 referendum. But to do so, 97 percent of the surplus fund – or $4,870,000 – would need to be used as revenue for this year. Leaving so little money left in the surplus fund would create even worse budget woes in 2013, he explained.

“If we delay action until next year, the problem will be much worse,” Krawczun said.

Krawczun discussed the and elaborated on the efforts the township has made to curb costs, such as reducing municipal staff 10 percent over the past five years and not offering raises to employees in 2010. He commended public works department employees for their willingness to work across positions, as well as the township’s volunteer fire companies for their dedicated service.       

Some in the audience were impressed by Krawczun’s presentation.

“I commend you for putting this together,” one audience member said. “For me, it was an eye-opener.”

Resident Diane Marshall agreed about the importance of staying informed. “The referendum is going to be very complicated to read. People are already very upset about the tax increase, and then if you can’t understand the referendum, how are you going to vote?”

One woman who said she was born and raised in Lawrence admitted that she had a “change of opinion” after attending the forum. “We can’t itemize the trash collection fee on our taxes. So that’s a major selling point (for the referendum), being able to have it as part of the tax rates. I was glad I came.”

Another audience member addressed Krawczun, saying, “If I was a CEO and I showed the numbers to my board of directors that you showed, I’d be fired like that. Now having said that, I came in here very disappointed, but I’m very impressed with the way that you’re keeping expenses down.”

“You’re exactly right. If I was in private business, we would be making some major changes. The difference is in the private sector you’re told what you can’t do. In the public sector, we’re told what we have to do. And that means I get to a point where I can only reduce till I get to the floor. Once I get to the floor my hands get tied,” Krawczun said, explaining how state law requires the township to maintain certain staff positions and provide specific services that cannot be cut.

State law also means that the township cannot collect property taxes from some of the largest institutions in town such as The Lawrenceville School and Rider University.

Krawczun ended the night with a pledge that he would continue to do everything he could to keep taxes down in the future, even when the economy improves.

“My promise to you is that I will give you my 100 percent professional effort to make sure that I follow my fiduciary responsibility in giving every resident of this town the best service at the least amount of taxes,” he said. “You have my utmost promise that I will leave no stone unturned and I will hold our employees’ feet to the fire so that you get the best service at the best cost.”

See also:

  • March 14: “”
  • March 8: “”
  • Feb. 23: “”
  • Feb. 9: “”
  • Jan. 18: “”
Lana March 21, 2012 at 05:09 PM
This did not happen overnight. Twp manager and Council should have addressed this earlier. We're not the only town affected by receiving less state aid and having declining ratables. However, we're the only township in Mercer County that's going to the voters because the budget is above the allowable 2% cap. Defeat the referendum or next year's budget will be built on a 14 cent higher base rather than a 5 cent higher base. There are positions in the budget that towns of this size don't need. When someone suggest a particular cut at Mr. Krawzcun's March 12 presentation, he commented along the lines of "...but that's what makes Lawrence Lawrence." Perhaps Lawrence can't afford to be Lawrence any more. I'd rather pay a trash user fee. In our home and if our income doesn't keep up with our expenses and we keep dipping into savings, we know we're going to be in big trouble if we don't cut our expenses/spending. The manager and council should have seen this pattern and planned better.
Bull Winkle March 21, 2012 at 05:20 PM
LAWRENCE IS THE ONLY TOWN IN MERCER COUNTY TO GO TO A REFERENDUM TO EXCEED THE 2% CAP. As a matter of fact Ewing just hired Waste Management to handle their garbage. Beside Trenton Ewing has got to be the hardestest hit in the county by the loss in state aid and reduced tax payments / rateables. Ewing has a bigger PW department, bigger PD, more paid fireman and more township employees with higher salaries. Does anyone else see this problem? The difference? Krawczun and council's inability to plan and manage the township. Let's clean house at election time, this will not be forgotten.
Bull Winkle March 21, 2012 at 05:22 PM
My point is that Ewing is not proposing a referendum to exceed 2%. I am sure Krawczun will have some spicy response if questioned about this.
Joe Friday March 21, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Ewing raised taxes with a waiver from the state to the tune of 20% or so and were allowed to do so as a distressed municipality a couple of years ago. This year, they are LOWERING their tax rate as their financial crisis is over with. I would love to see a forensic accountant go over the books here in Lawrence and see what the township is spending money on that we do not know about and how much of a surplus that we ACTUALLY have. From what I have read on here and heard through the grapevine, our township is spending a significant chunk of change on legal fees defending the Police Department administration.
Axe March 21, 2012 at 10:16 PM
From my grapevine it sounds like more than a chunk of change Joe. Im sure a few pennies on the tax rate is what I was told. Will be interesting angle for the Patch to OPRA the labor attoney bill for past year or so.


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