LINDEN, NJ – Through teamwork and vision, the city of Linden will have a 2015 budget that not only reflects the lowest tax rate since 2006, but also includes infrastructure improvement.
The $100.3 million spending plan, of which $58.5 million must be raised by taxes, focuses on improvements to public safety and public services. This will cost the average homeowner with a house assessed at $134,200 approximately $69 more than last year. As a point of reference, the increase for the average homeowner was $104.80.
However, the city portion of a taxpayer’s final bill is just one part of a three-part tax bill that also includes county and school taxes. Once all three portions have been tabulated, residents will have a clear picture of their total tax increase for 2015.
The city is using $5 million in surplus funds to offset taxes, which the majority of municipalities do to reduce the bottom line tax increase. This leaves $3.5 million in city coffers, which is more than last year when the there was only $750,000 in surplus.
Taxpayers will still have to pay $10 a month garbage tax, which was instituted two years ago when it became apparent the city was having problems staying under the 2-percent state-mandated cap without layoffs.
The garbage tax, though, does generate $1.7 million, according to city Chief Financial Officer Alexis Zack, who said last year this revenue helps considerably when putting together the annual spending plan.
Helping with revenue income was $19.9 million in state aid, but in years past the city received as much as $24 million. The city also took a hit this year because the $1.3 million in anticipated red-light camera revenue was cut off when the state decided not to move forward with renewing the contract.
The fact city employees are in the second year of contributing towards their health benefits has certainly been a help to the city’s bottom line as well. This year employees will kick in $1.1 million, with that amount increasing over the next few years as part of a phase-in plan.
No one was happier about the 2015 budget being put to bed in record time than Third Ward Councilman and finance committee chairman Peter Brown, who was more than proud that this spending plan reflected the lowest increase in nearly a decade.
In an interview with LocalSource late last week, Brown said he was very pleased with how the 2015 budget process went, but more importantly that the spending plan was approved unanimously by city council. However, he refused to take all the credit for the fact that this is the first year in many the budget was signed, sealed and on its way to Trenton this early.
“You have to give credit where credit is due. This was a team effort,” said the finance committee chairman modestly, explaining the city is “turning things around.”
In previous years the city was still struggling in June to reduce the budget and in one case, it was August before the spending plan was sent on its way to Trenton for approval.
Brown was especially happy finance committee members and council are now working with a five-year plan and vision that will enable the city to not just get through a budget year, but pave the way for next year and years to come.
“In the past I kept saying you need a plan in order to realize the improvements we want to make and three years ago we began doing just that,” said the councilman, noting that his five-year game plan is not “a one-shot deal.”
Brown explained that when former Mayor Rich Gerbounka handed over the reins to Derek Armstead on Jan. 1, it was a smooth transition allowing the finance committee to draft a budget that included everything the city needed to keep services going and make improvements.
The finance committee chairman said he knew a few years back that something had to be done to “stop the bleeding.” By the second year into planning efforts, Brown said the city managed to get the annual spending plan under cap, which had not happened in years.
In the past, the city struggled to get under cap by whatever means they could, including the loss of much needed public safety employees.
In early 2013 it looked like the city would have to layoff 22 police and 32 firemen in order to forestall financial disaster. The problem was simple: the city spending plan was $5.2 million over the cap, which is the state mandated amount municipal budgets must stay within.
Brown explained that while the city does use surplus to offset the budget, the days when you could pump huge surplus dollars into the budget are long gone.
Brown said he insisted financial storms such as losing needed public safety employee could be avoided by having a five-year plan and while the path was not easy, this councilman was elated that everyone pulled together for the benefit of its citizens and taxpayers. As a result, this year the city will be hiring 12 more police officers.
“It’s a matter of rebuilding the force,” Brown explained, pointing out that the number of officers on the force had declined to a very low number and it was time “to reload” and bring in officers to fill in the ranks at the lower level.
This will increase the city budget line for police salaries to $14.2 million or $186,300 over 2014.
Public Works also will see new hires because this department lost staff in recent years due to retirements and is also in need of a rebuilding effort.
The city council zeroed in on a 2015 Capital Budget that Brown said is diversified and geared toward meeting the needs of citizens. Overall, the 2015 capital spending plan provides for improvements to roads, sewers, the landfill, buildings and purchasing new vehicles and equipment for various departments.
Specifically, $3.3 million has been earmarked for road and sidewalk improvements, storm sewers and sanitary sewers. Brown explained that the city will be repaving 20 roads this year and will continue with this particular improvement every year.
The city is expecting grants from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the Union County Community Development Revenue Sharing Committee, which is the new grant program the freeholder board introduced this year for municipalities to participate in for local improvements of all kinds.
The city also allocated $3.4 million for police, fire, public works, engineering, finance and public property department replacement vehicles.
Brown was especially happy to report the city would be making $632,500 in improvements to the Linden Multi-Purpose Center and the J.T Gregorio Recreation Center, including new exercise equipment. The city also asked for and will be receiving a grant in the amount of $57,000 towards this effort from the county revenue sharing committee.
There also will be efforts to expand the Special Improvement District to Routes 1 and 9 so beautification and pedestrian safety projects can be undertaken.
“Even though we lost the red light cameras, by expanding the SID into this area we not only can make improvements but also will qualify for grant money from the state,” Brown said, adding that an additional $1.2 million will be set aside for pedestrian safety projects along Wood Avenue, which should get underway this summer.
Like all towns and homeowners, Linden has its share of bills, but when a bill is opened, sometimes the amount can be quite staggering.
For example, postage alone runs the city $107,000 a year; electricity costs $636,200, down from last year when that number came to $675,800; street lighting $900,000; telephone $320,800; water $84,800; gas $227,600, down from $243,000; and fuel oil $17,500, down from 2014 when the tab came to $67,500.
“Little by little we are chipping away at expenses and building a budget that will still provide excellent services for residents but also stay within our spending limits,” Brown said.