Since , residents have at seeing their rates go up at
Tuesday night's council meeting provided some another opportunity and the council members encouraged their participation and told them to get other people involved as well.
Vicki Blaess was the first resident to speak and said she was concerned by how much her taxes have gone up in recent years. "I understand the assessments and you did raise the rate because you're trying to get the money from somewhere," she said.
When she said she believed like other governmental agencies there was a spending problem rather than a revenue problem, Deputy Mayor William Gotto responded by saying that was not the case in Howell. "We have a revenue problem in Howell, a severe revenue problem."
Gotto said that was why the council heard a presentation earlier in the meeting about . He said it was also why they were taking a second look at a capital ordinance that had originally been approved but was voted down later on Tuesday.
Mayor Robert Walsh said a lot of work had already been done in the township to keep spending down and help with the tax rates for residents. "We've done everything that we can," he said. "We've cut 20 percent of our employees in the last six years and our employees have taken no pay raises."
Walsh said they have tried many different avenues to help in difficult economic times. "At the same time we have had medical costs go through the roof that we have no control over, pension costs increases and less state money," he said. "Do I think there's waste in government? The answer is absolutely, but it doesn't allow you to walk in tomorrow and get rid of your 25 employees that are doing the least. That's not the way it works. You must play with the hand that is dealt to the best of your ability."
When Blaess addressed the council she also said she believed there was a lack of foresight by the members in addressing similar issues in the future. "We're all feeling the crunch. I understand that," she said. "I just wanted to put a face to the numbers. I don't want you to confuse the lack of attendance with lack of interest."
Councilman Robert Nicastro said that from the outside he understood how she could see it as a lack of foresight, but said that was not the case for the people sitting at the dais. "We've all been there," he said. "One of the incentives to sit here as taxpayers, and I'm a taxpayer and my taxes went up $1200, is to do everything I can, everything we can in our powers because we are also taxpayers (to keep the rates as low as possible,) he said.
In the end though Nicastro said the problem rests not at , but rather the State House in Trenton. "Until the legislation changes where taxes, property taxes fund your school, fund municipalities, fund your county, fund everything, we're going to pay higher taxes in New Jersey," he said.
That is why Nicastro said the council has been to address pending legislation that could help alleviate the burden on taxpayers. "Until we get behind the initiatives that have to happen, this is what we're facing," he said. "You can talk about the schools, you can talk about the taxing entities. The bottom line is there's a cost to the services. We have to be responsible to make sure the service is affordable."
Nicastro said, and has said in the past that he has been glad to see the community get involved over the tax issue. "It's good to be frustrated, but take that frustration and you've gotta call the numbers we post," he said.
Mayor Walsh agreed, "Change has to come from down in Trenton," he said. "There's a lot of heat starting to come."
Another resident who spoke at Tuesday's meeting was Howard West who has been one of the most vocal speakers at recent meetings. "We all understand the plight that we're in in terms of what this council has control over from a budgetary perspective, along with with the school board has control over and what the county has control over," he said.
At the same time West said the budgets at the local and county level are not set at the state or federal levels. "There are aspects of our costs that we as taxpayers and as residents of this town have some accountability over, some responsibility and some control over," he said. "As the township committee you represent the people. We understand that you only have control over 17 percent, but as the township committee you represent the concerns of all the residents of the town."
Deputy Mayor Gotto said the township already is very strict with their spending. "There isn't an expense that comes past our administration for us to approve that if there's a better way to do it, a better way to save money, or if we consolidate that service it gets looked at at ever nickel we spend on the municipal budget every single day," he said.
While admitting there was little if anything the council could do to fix the tax problem this year, West also asked what was being done for the future.
He suggested the council look into possibly forming a committee of township volunteers to look at spending and where more cuts could be made. "Are there opportunities from a budget perspective at the board of education and are there opportunities at the township level to say hey look, these are the opportunities we have or these are the areas that we've looked at that would have the least negative impact on either students or our services that we provide to the community," he said.
Putting that information out to the public, he said, would help get the community involved and help them to know where their tax dollars were going.
Mayor Walsh, who said he got his start in community involvement a decade ago as a member of the board of education's finance committee said the two groups work together on a regular basis to look at cost savings. "There's a lot of things that are done in a joint venture with the township and the school board," he said. That can include anything from road plowing to emergency situations to garbage collection according to Walsh.
Township Manager Helene Schlegel said the annual budget process is open to the public starting in November when she holds meetings witih department heads to see what their needs will be for the upcoming year. There is then another public process when the budget is up for adoption.
The is scheduled to meet tonight at 8 p.m. at Middle School North. The next meeting of the Mayor and Council is scheduled for Sept. 4 at the . The date for the second council meeting in September has not been established as the original date coincides with Rosh Hashanah.