Howell council reduces tax levy, sets budget adoption for May 21

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HOWELL – The adoption of Howell’s 2019 municipal budget is now scheduled for the May 21 meeting of the Township Council.

A public hearing on the budget was held on May 7. Council members did not adopt the budget that evening. Instead, they introduced several amendments to the budget and set May 21 as the date for its adoption.

Deputy Mayor Evelyn O’Donnell, Councilman John Bonevich, Councilwoman Pamela Richmond and Councilman Thomas Russo listened to comments from residents and voted to amend the budget. Mayor Theresa Berger was absent.

When the municipal budget was introduced on April 2, the spending plan totaled $52.3 million and called for the collection of $28.94 million in taxes from Howell’s residential and commercial property owners. The budget proposed a municipal tax rate of 40.2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a home assessed at $343,544 would have paid about $1,381 in municipal taxes.

The budget that was presented to the public on May 7 still totaled $52.3 million, but proposed a tax levy of $28.39 million – a reduction of $544,449 from what had been introduced on April 2. The revised budget proposes a municipal tax rate of 39.4 cents. The owner of a home assessed at $343,544 would pay about $1,353 in municipal taxes if that budget is adopted.

Howell’s 2018 budget totaled $51.06 million and collected $26.8 million in taxes from property owners. The municipal tax rate was 38.8 cents and the owner of a home assessed at $343,544 paid about $1,332 in municipal taxes.

Municipal taxes are one item on a property owner’s total tax bill. Property owners in Howell also pay Howell K-8 School District taxes, Freehold Regional High School District taxes, a fire district tax and Monmouth County taxes.

The amount of taxes an individual pays is based on the assessed value of his home and/or property and the tax rate that is set by each taxing entity.

Other changes in the May 7 budget amendments include the use of an additional $200,000 from surplus funds (savings); additional anticipated miscellaneous revenue of $100,000; and additional anticipated grant revenue of $268,689. The amendments also reduced the reserve for uncollected taxes.

Howell will receive $7.9 million in state aid in 2019, which is the same amount the township received in 2018.

During the public hearing, resident Barbara Dixel said that “once again,” residents are being hit with taxes.

“We cannot afford them, we are seniors. In addition to this (municipal budget) atrocity, we pay 73 percent of our property taxes to schools. It is getting impossible to live (and) you are going to have to understand something, you are driving people out of Howell. We cannot live here,” Dixel said.

Resident Tina Smilek asked for clarification on the amendments to the budget. She noted that when the budget was introduced, officials were proposing a tax levy of $28.94 million, or an 8% increase from 2018, and that the revised tax levy is $28.39 million, or a 6% increase from 2018.

Smilek asked additional questions regarding a tax levy cap the council must deal with. Certain expenditures are outside the cap.

Chief Financial Officer Louis Palazzo said officials “tried to hold the line” on the operational budget.

“As far as the items we are able to maintain and control and have a say over … the township manager and I do a thorough review, and from the (2018) budget our discretionary spending has decreased approximately $335,000,” Palazzo said.

Smilek said the current council is running Howell in a less expensive manner than the previous council, which she said “ran up the bills.”

“We had interest-only bonds for 10 years that we are now told we have to bond permanently. We are paying for things now that we bought 10 years ago,” she said.

Smilek said she understands the intensity of the budget for the council members.

“I understand you are keeping operations down and you have a main problem with what has been spent in the past. I think the focus needs to be kept on how you are going to spend in the future and how we can pay these bills on time instead of carrying them for the next generation, and the next council and the next council. You guys are getting burdened with something that was given to you from 10 and 15 years ago,” Smilek said.

Richmond thanked the residents who spoke about the budget and the professionals who worked on the spending plan.

“I have only been doing this for five months and we have been working pretty hard. My fellow council members and I have been going back and forth, arguing, fighting, debating, recommending,” she said.

Richmond said she does not want residents to have the impression the council members take the budget lightly.

“I just want to let the public know, I do not want you to think that any of us up here is taking any of this lightly. It is our first budget (there are three new council members in 2019) and as Mrs. Smilek has mentioned, and Mrs. Dixel, there are some things from the past that are haunting us now, but I want to assure you, political parties aside, we have been in this building after hours.

“We have emailed, we have made phone calls, we have texted, we have gone through this budget line by line. That is not to say we are anywhere near being done here, we still have work to do,” Richmond said.

She thanked everyone for taking the budget process seriously and giving the municipal budget the time it deserves.