Mayor’s column

As 2012 draws to a close and my term on town council reaches an end, I’d like to share a final township update with you that will summarize our journey over the past 4 years and let you know where we are as we approach 2013, with a bright future ahead of us.

When my colleagues, Greg Gallo, Michael Testa and I took office, the economy was changing rapidly and we encountered a budget deficit approaching $4 million. Understanding that there were going to be significant challenges attributable to the changing economy and previous operating decisions, we embarked on a quest to understand the issues at a root level, so we could make fact-based decisions that would best serve our residents. The initial challenge was to resolve the budget deficit without impacting needed services. We moved our local dispatch to the County, where the fire and EMS had been for many years as a first step. We worked with our union partners to renegotiate contracts, installed added discipline around purchasing and reined in unnecessary expenses. We attacked the budget line item by line item and, together with our township manager and director of finance, were able to stabilize our budget that first year without any layoffs. The following year, 2010, we were able to keep the township tax rate at a zero percent increase despite a significant loss of state aid. The foundation for our financial stability was in place.

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Today, despite that loss in state aid and increased pension and healthcare costs, our township spending ($22.5 million) is lower than it was in 2008 ($23.1 million) and we have $4 million of new, non-tax revenue in the bank, having implemented the sale of liquor licenses in accordance with the referendum authorizing that sale. We will soon have another $1 million from the sale of a fifth license. That will leave us one additional license for sale when town council decides to consider another buyer. It is also interesting to note that Moorestown is (per state statute in which one license is authorized per every 3,000 residents) approximately 250 people short of the ability to offer a seventh license.

Construction is proceeding well at the Moorestown Mall and they anticipate opening new businesses sometime in the late spring of 2013. Having reviewed the potential for alternative uses of that mall property, it is safe to say that the passage of that referendum was very important for our taxpayers. Any viable alternative use of that property would have taken years to implement. Instead, we face a revitalized mall, with new stores and restaurants that will be a boon to our township for years to come. Scott Carew and council will soon consider a strategic plan for that revenue, to assure that it is used, over time, to the maximum advantage of our taxpayers.

Another issue we worked to address, recognizing the importance of bolstering the revenue side of the budget, was the business-friendliness of our town. In conjunction with our Economic Development Advisory committee, we assessed our water connection fees and adjusted them to better accommodate aspiring businesses. We stressed the importance of being responsive with our boards, committees and administrative staff and the feedback I have received from current and aspiring business owners is excellent in terms of improvement in those areas. Today, with the new Virtua Health and Wellness Center, the new skilled nursing facility coming to Main Street and Marter Avenue, the expansion of Reichl Mission Solutions Engineering, and the pending increased occupancy at the mall, we anticipate over 1,000 new jobs coming to our town over the next two years. Additionally, there is new age restricted housing from Toll Brothers under construction, The Evergreens is contemplating phase three for next year and a new custom home community is under construction off Bridgeboro Road. There is nowhere that I am aware of in the Delaware Valley that has such a story to tell!

Soon after we took office, the school budget failed. Accordingly, as per state law, it came to council for its recommendation as to how much should be cut and where those cuts might be made. Fortunately, we had already entered into a renewed dialogue with the Board of Education to begin creating a closer working relationship, given their large share of the local tax dollar, and the relative need to explore joint solutions to various issues. We worked hard over the next few weeks and reached a mutually acceptable solution. From that beginning dialogue, sprang a very effective relationship in which we talk frequently and are regularly discussing shared services and other potential collaborative ideas.

As I have written before, our township debt is low, both relative to other similar townships and relative to former years and our credit rating upgrade in 2011 provided further validation of our financial path. Accordingly, our Township Director of Finance has stated, repeatedly, that we can afford the major projects Council has recently voted to bond, such as the town hall/library project, the recreation center renovation and the athletic field upgrades, with no appreciable additional impact to our taxpayers. The reason for this is that unlike other government entities, municipalities pay back their debt and in our case, the township has paid down significant prior capital to the point where new capital can be absorbed into our current spending plan fairly easily. This is especially true in our water/sewer utiliy where in 2013 nearly $1 million of prior debt service payments are no longer necessary. This will allow us to reinvest in some major new projects without impacting rates. We are confident that these projects will provide great benefit to our township for many years to come. These are the investments a great community like Moorestown deserves.

With the declining economy, the average assessed value of a home in Moorestown has decreased by a little over 2 percent over the past five years. While that is a smaller decline than has occurred in most towns, it has resulted in myriad tax appeals that have affected revenues paid to our taxing entities. As you know, we are currently undergoing a reassessment of our real estate values, driven by that decline. By resetting values to more appropriate levels, the revaluation will limit future appeals and we anticipate the savings to the township to approximate $400,000 t0 $500,000 per year.

Another of our initiatives, together with township administration, was to look at the business practices in place to conduct our everyday township activities to see how they could be enhanced. Scott Carew has engaged with us in this endeavor since he joined our Township last year, and is in the process of instituting some new procedures and processes that we are confident will help drive additional efficiency and effectiveness. I am confident this added discipline would be helpful in years to come.

Despite the negative publicity that accompanied our discussions over open space and the use of the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund (OSRF&HPTF), we sought to use it to best advantage, given its authorized uses. One of the things we came to realize was just how much something can take on a life of its own when the facts aren’t part of the discussion. When we joined Council, the OSRFHP&TF tax rate was 3 percent, or about $1.4 million a year, and with the budget challenges we faced we immediately had an analysis done to determine if this level of taxation was necessary. It was determined that it was not and we reduced the levy to 1 percent thereby cutting taxes by over $3.6 million over four years. One of the goals of the fund is to acquire land to preserve against large residential housing developments like we saw in the late ’90s. With the weak economy, there has been limited activity in this arena over the past four years but we have acquired the Hess Farm and added an additional 18+ acres off of Tom Brown and Centerton Roads. Additionally, there are some exciting new parcels currently under consideration that will be acted upon by Council in the future.

Consistent with the legal uses of the fund, it continues to pay for some open space and recreation park maintenance, is paying the debt service on what will be the new Percheron Park land and has provided funding for some recreational activities.

Although there are certainly complexities and a considerable time commitment that accompanies serving on town council, I have enjoyed the experience immensely. As Mayor, some of my most memorable times have been spending time in our elementary and Upper Elementary Schools (UES) reading to or speaking with students, having the chance to perform marriage ceremonies for numerous couples who are beginning that incredibly happy next chapter of their lives, and speaking with a variety of groups around our township to share knowledge and answer questions. I firmly believe my colleagues, Michael Testa, Greg Gallo, and I served this Township with enthusiasm, integrity, and a genuine commitment to make the Township a better and more affordable place for our residents and taxpayers, and we did so without regard to political consequences. What began with significant budget challenges and a sense of unease has turned into financial stability and a town repositioned as a leader in education, township services and financial management. Moorestown is a center of healthcare, technology and retail shopping. In fact, healthcare is now our second largest employer!

In conclusion, I express my sincere gratitude to all who made this journey possible and who have supported us (and our council colleagues, Dan Roccato, Seth Broder, Stacey Jordan and Chris Chiacchio) over past four years. Also, I would like to add a special thank you to our Township officials, our township staff, our policeman, our firefighters and our emergency services personnel whose dedication and service to our township is ever-present. It has been our pleasure to serve our great town in this capacity and I’ll look forward, as always, to seeing you on Main Street!

Have a wonderful and joyous holiday season!

Mayor John Button

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