By Larry Barszewski
Manalapan’s rising property values have town commissioners looking at many things they might like to do next year, given the extra tax dollars that would be available even if they don’t raise the property tax rate.
In fact, Manalapan commissioners say they want to lower the tax rate. Higher property assessments mean they can do that and still collect increased property taxes for their budget priorities.
The money could be used to pay for some water treatment plant improvements that have been delayed, or to start getting all residents off septic tanks and onto a sewer system, or possibly to give employees a one-time bonus on top of a 5% pay raise that’s already in Town Manager Linda Stumpf’s preliminary budget.
During a budget workshop on June 27, commissioners even talked about starting the process of eliminating power poles and placing utilities underground, but only because it might make sense to do it at the same time that sewer pipes are installed.
“It makes common sense that if you can do it, do it all at one time,” Mayor Keith Waters said of the suggestion by Commissioner John Deese. “If we want to look at that, that’s probably not a bad idea because sooner or later, you know, all these poles are going to have to come down at some point. It might as well be, with what we’re doing, sooner, in my opinion.”
If the town were to leave its tax rate unchanged of $3.17 for every $1,000 of assessed value, it would collect $1.2 million more in property taxes this year than it did last year because of the rising property values. Stumpf recommended lowering the tax rate while still allowing the town to collect more taxes from residents.
Under Stumpf’s proposal, the town would set a tax rate of $2.83 for every $1,000 of assessed value, which amounts to a 12.2% tax revenue increase. Commissioners said they’d prefer to see what might be accomplished with a tax rate of $3 for every $1,000 of assessed value, which would produce a 19% tax revenue increase. That would give commissioners $315,000 more to work with than in Stumpf’s preliminary $6 million operating and capital projects budget, and still be 5.3% under the current tax rate.
“I want to send a signal very clearly, that the millage rate is going to go down,” Waters said, referring to the tax rate.
Commissioners will set the town’s tentative tax rate at a 9:15 a.m. July 26 meeting before the regular 10 a.m. commission meeting. Residents will get notices of their proposed assessments in August, followed by public hearings in September before commissioners adopt a new budget and tax rate for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The town taxes are only a portion of a resident’s total tax bill.
Highlights of the commission discussion around Stumpf’s preliminary budget include:
Succession plans: Stumpf, who plans to retire in two years, has also been handling the town finance director’s duties, something not typical of a town manager. The budget includes $39,000 to hire a CPA firm to take on those duties, which will make it easier for the town to fill her position.
In the Police Department, Chief Carmen Mattox wants to reinstate a lieutenant’s position by converting an existing position. While Mattox has no specific plans to retire, Waters said it would be good to have “somebody else who understands and knows the force” ready to take over.
Employee raises: Stumpf included 5% raises for employees after commissioners said earlier this year they would like to go above the typical 3% raises and keep the town competitive with other similarly sized local governments. When Deese talked about possibly going even higher, Waters warned that the town has to be careful about changes that can’t be reversed and could burden the town if property values plummet in the future. Deese said the commission might instead consider a “one-time bonus” that doesn’t get built into employee base salaries.
Security guard woes: Commissioners are looking at replacing the firm handling security at the guardhouse, a situation that Stumpf said “has become untenable” based on continuing complaints from residents. The firm recently added a Barcalounger in the guardhouse, she said. “The complaints I’m getting is that there’s no visible gate guard. When we drive by, they’re actually inside with the door shut, on their cellphone,” Chief Mattox said.
Moving building plans online: Town Clerk Erika Petersen said she is nearing the end of a project to scan all filed Building Department plans and place them online. About 9,000 documents remain and should be scanned during the next year, while all new filings are submitted online-ready.
Capital projects budget: Stumpf suggested almost doubling this year’s capital projects budget even before commissioners started talking about other things they might want to include. The amount Stumpf proposed for the projects increased from $292,615 in the current budget to $572,894. The main items are $166,684 to renovate the Police Department squad room at Town Hall and $134,715 for three new vehicles — two for the Police Department and the other for Stumpf.
Commissioners have a lot to consider about getting homes off septic and onto sewers.
“We’re going to have to do this sooner or later. We’ve guessed it’s like a 10-year window, but it’s a guess,” Waters said. “If we do the sewers now, we know that we can get some help” paying for the work from other governments, he said.
While Deese and the mayor said it seems to make sense to bury utility and sewer lines at the same time, public support has been mixed.
“I talked with dozens and dozens of people about undergrounding and natural gas, and not one of them was interested in moving to natural gas. They were all perfectly fine with propane and with the tanks,” Waters said.
“Undergrounding with the utilities was sort of up in the air, because half the people said it was a great idea aesthetically, but it really doesn’t have any bearing [logistically] because we’re attached above-ground going over to the mainland.”
Waters acknowledged that much of the natural gas opposition stemmed from the personal cost property owners would have been facing to connect.
If the town could pay for the additional construction needed through taxes, residents probably would have much greater buy-in, he said.