For residents who were a was a chance for them to ask members of the council what caused some of their bills to spike as much as 30 percent or more.
Deputy Mayor William Gotto was unable to attend that meeting because of an illness but said it was important for him to talk with residents about their concerns. On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday night Gotto held office hours at .
He said he hoped it would help the people he met with to understand what happened to lead to such drastic increases. "You've got to be able to tell the story of what happened and show that there have been things we're doing that made a difference," he said. "Right now nobody wants to hear it and nobody wants to believe it but it's the truth."
The Deputy Mayor said that while entities like the council the board of education and the fire districts have been working to keep their budgets lean the results of a county ordered reassessment and close to $1.4 million in successful tax appeals made the situation much more difficult.
"We're nibbling from the outside," he said. "We're taking these little bits but when you get hit with something like this reassessment for these 2000 people it's not enough to offset what they see as being a big injustice."
Gotto said had it not been for the county mandated reassessment the municipal part of the tax rate would have only increased on average between $20 and $30 for most residents. "Nobody cares about $20 to $30 but they care about the $1200 that's the total bill," he said. "My job is not only to get the $30 as low as possible but it's also to reduce the $1200 and that's not easy to do. That's what we're working on."
Ten days prior to the tax bills going out Gotto said he and the other members of the council received an email from the tax assessor informing them that the residents who would be hit hardest were those who had filed an earlier tax appeal and people in the Equestra community.
That email he said, did not prepare him for the reality he saw in the bills themselves. "I never expected there to be such a big delta there," he said. "I knew there was going to be a lot of people whose taxes were going to go down by small amounts. But I never Knew that the people we were told about, I never knew their taxes were going to go up that much."
Having himself filed a tax appeal Gotto said his taxes also went up $2200 in the latest cycle so he said he understands what the residents are going through. "That doesn't make me better than anybody, it makes me a better listener," he said. "When they want to complain to me they're complaining to someone who is also in the same boat as them."
Even with that knowledge Gotto said he knows that will not soften the blow for the higher taxes residents will be paying this year. "I need to do the best job that I can to convince them that the activities that we're doing and the things that we're going to do in the future are going to make a difference," he said. "The problem is because the municipal share is so low, as good as I am I'm still not going to be able to impact their lives the way they want and that's a tough sell."
With the bulk of the money going to the board of education and the rest split between other entities Gotto said it is important for everyone to work together toward a common goal of helping the public. "If you take this and our actions and the county actions and the fire district actions and we finally get on the same page and say listen, enough is enough maybe that is what will make a difference," he said.
On the municipal level Gotto said that means taking a hard look across the board and see what cuts can be made to help save money. "It's very scary but when you have 17 thousand homeowners and when two thousand of them get hit the way they did for things I can't control, I've got to get control and that's what people are looking for me to do."
Prior to the tax bills coming out Gotto said the township's municipal budget came in under the two percent cap mandated by Governor Chris Christie which would have been enough had it not been for the reassessment. Other cost cutting measures over the past few years included reducing staff by 20 percent, cutting expenses and working with reduced revenue were all things Gotto said the council had been proud of.
"We did that," he said. "We didn't fix anything," he said as far as the resasessment and the taxes went. "We need to say that and then we need to move off of that and we need to explain that even though we did all that and we were below the two percent, here's why your taxes went up 20 and 30 percent. It was the reassessment, it wasn't what we did."
The meetings at Town Hall also showed the township in transition from its current location to the new Municipal Complex on Route 9. Gotto said it was important for residents to know that the purchase of the new building also did not affect the increases in their tax bills. "The money that was spent from that didn't influence your taxes one dime," he said. "We were using money that was there that we were already paying interest on."
Gotto said he is still holding to the promises he made to taxpayers when he voted to . "I voted to buy that building and put five years worth of up front maintenance into that building at no additional cost to the taxpayer," he said. "As long as that promise is true and being done I know that was the right decision."
One consistent theme from the council meeting and a Board of Education meeting the following day was encouraging residents to get involved not only at the local level but also reaching into Trenton. Gotto said simple steps like attending council and board meetings can go a long way. "Nobody every wants to do that. Now I'm sensing that it's starting to happen."
In addition, he said it is important for residents to know about legislation in Trenton that can help people as well. He said if people know about them it could go a long way in getting them passed.
The township sent out an email to residents informing them of some of the bills pending including one sponsored by Sen. Anthony Bucco "which would require county governments, school districts, fire districts and other taxing districts to share in the burden of paying for property tax refunds," the email said.
The way the law stands now only the county shares the burden with the township. At a past meeting the council passed a resolution endorsing the bill and the email encouraged residents to do the same.
One example of a newfound sense of community involvement is the creation of the website taxpayerwaste.com. Founded by Jim Barden, Gotto said he was impressed by the effort so quickly after the meeting. "Here's a guy who said enough is enough," he said. "He actually told me he thought that we were doing a good job, but he knows like I do that it's not enough."
He said he has tried to eliminate as much waste as possible and will continue to do so in the future. "To say that there's not anything left out there is probably not true," he said. "If him or any group or any entity is out there that can help me do a better job why would that ever be a bad thing?"
Barden said he got involved as a way of educating himself in the process of how things work and it built from there into the website. "I'm finding out that it's a pretty complex web that has been weaved and trying to see if I'm going to start getting involved after years and years of living here where am I going to spend my time," he said.
In his short time of being involved Barden said he has seen the importance of talking to people who make the decisions in person. That includes seeing Gov. Chris Christie during a town hall event in Manasquan and asking questions during the public comment portion of the council and . "What I notice is I don't just want to be a complainer," he said. "I didn't want to just sit here a month from now and be complacent."
As one of a handful of people to meet with Gotto on Thursday night Barden said he was encouraged by the meeting. He was told by Gotto that since the tax bills have gone out he and the other members of the council have gotten a lot of phone calls and gotten a lot of feedback from residents with their concerns. "The council is very well aware that they have to step up their efforts to really show that they understand that and they want to bring taxes and spending under control," Barden said of the conversation.
Looking at the website Gotto said defining what is "wasteful," presents its own sets of challenges. "Just because we have a truck and the board of ed has a truck and both trucks are being used that's not waste," he said. "If we have a truck that is used 20 percent of the time and theirs is used 40 percent of the time then we're both wasting."
Looking that deeply is something that has not yet been done but something Gotto said he hopes will be done soon. "We've looked at shared services and shared agreements and joint purchasing but in all honesty we've never gone to that level," he said. "Now we are."
The next meeting of the Council is scheduled for Aug. 14. The Board of Education is scheduled to hold its August meeting the following day.