For the second straight year, Washington Township residents heard Mayor Joann Gattinelli tout the same news during her annual budget address.
“I am pleased to announce that the 2020 budget I have presented to council will have a reduction in taxes,” Gattinelli announced as the budget was introduced during last Wednesday’s Washington Township Council meeting.
The budget includes a reduction in the municipal tax rate for the second straight year. Residents with an average assessed home of $231,928 will see a reduction of $15.67 in their municipal taxes this year. The township kept municipal taxes flat in Gattinelli’s first two years in office in 2017 and 2018, and has now reduced the tax rate for the last two years.
According to the resolution council passed, the budget totals $42,983,176, a small increase from last year’s $42.2 million general budget.
In an email sent to The Sun the day after the meeting, Gattinelli said the township wanted to keep the amount of municipal taxes residents pay this year similar to 2019. The township recently underwent a revaluation, leading home values to increase for many residents. The average home in the township increased in value by more than $20,000 this year, from $210,425 to $231,928.
“A priority of our 2020 budget is to lower the municipal tax rate accordingly, so that, despite having a higher valuation, most homeowners will not experience any significant rise in property taxes,” Gattinelli said in the email. “To achieve this, we have reduced our capital spending, attempted to limit internal departmental spending, and plan to use a slightly larger portion of our surplus than in years past, while still leaving our surplus at a more than fiscally healthy level.”
In discussing the township’s increase in ratables during her address, Gattinelli touted the Shop Washington Township program launched in 2017. The program rewards residents with credits on their property tax bill when they shop at local businesses participating in the program.
Gattinelli said not only does the program reward residents for shopping local, it is also a way to keep businesses thriving in the township. According to a list on the Washington Township website, more than 30 businesses are currently participating in the program.
The 2020 budget includes a number of capital improvements, including the continuation of the township’s road program. That program includes repairs to local roads as well as the addition and fortification of culverts to address drainage issues. The township is also planning for various improvements to Washington Lake Park.
One item Gattinelli highlighted was the continuation of the township’s fleet management program. A bond ordinance introduced at last week’s meeting to pay for the township’s 2020 capital improvements included funds for new police vehicles.
“(The fleet management program) has allowed us to replace older and outdated vehicles within the police department and the public works department in a cost effective and fiscally responsible manner,” Gattinelli said. “As newer cars are brought in, older cars are either repurposed or sold off in order to recapture revenue.”
Gattinelli also highlighted continuation of the township’s shared services agreement with township public schools to employ school resource officers throughout the district. The township has budgeted for the addition of one more school resource officer for the 2020-21 school year, bringing the total number of officers in the district to six.
“School safety remains one of my top priorities,” Gattinelli said at the meeting.
In past years, Washington Township held meetings with residents leading up to the introduction of the budget to gain feedback. In-person meetings were prohibited this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gattinelli said township officials still remained in contact with the community.
“This year, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had to modify most of our public and in-person meetings, in keeping with social distancing directives passed down by Gov. (Phil) Murphy at the state level,” Gattinelli said. “However, we were still able to interact with our residents via telephone and email, as well as our Washington Township ONE app. Since their inception a couple of years back, these meetings have become a valuable tool by helping us get direct feedback from residents and taxpayers.”
The 2020 municipal budget will be up for adoption at the council meeting scheduled for Wednesday, May 27.
During his report at the end of the April meeting, council President Joe Perry informed the community about a way residents can make payments to the township or drop off materials while the municipal building is closed due to the pandemic.
“Mayor Gattinelli has made available in the parking lot of the municipal building a drop box where residents may drop any payments or zoning and construction plans that need to be submitted while the building is closed to the public,” Perry said. “This drop box will be checked daily by municipal employees.”
Gattinelli said all township departments continue to operate during the pandemic and expressed her happiness with Business Administrator Jason Gonter and Township Chief Financial Officer Colette Bachich for their preparations before the coronavirus began its spread.
“At the end of 2019, the decision was made to move a portion of unused funds into a storm recovery trust,” Gattinelli explained in an email. “This allows the town to have extra resources for major unexpected events such as blizzards and hurricanes.
“Last month, a local finance notice came down from the state, allowing towns with one of these trusts to utilize the funds to help them combat the COVID-19 outbreak by equipping our first responders with the supplies and protection they need.”
Gattinelli added that the office of emergency management continues to have weekly meetings with federal, state and county officials and relays the information to the township’s department heads and elected officials.
“We try to maintain an open line of communication with all parts of our municipality, as well as with residents via social media,” Gattinelli said. “It is important for residents to know that their government is working for them during these uncertain times.”
The next Washington Township Council meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m.