Potential tax increase dominates council meeting

Residents pressure council on proposed 2020 budget

Gloucester Township Council hosted its regularly scheduled council meeting May 27, and the online session allowed residents to address council via email and a call-in feature.

While council passed seven resolutions during the session, nearly all public comments and questions revolved around the introduction of the 2020 budget, which occurred during council’s last regular meeting on May 11.

According to figures in the proposed budget, the plan calls for a tax rate increase from 3.966 to 4.050. That will increase levies for township residents with the average assessed property value of $188,000 by approximately $156 for the following year.

After last year’s budget avoided a hike in the tax rate, the amount to be raised by taxation next year, if the budget is approved following a public hearing, would rise from $47,829,270.04 to $52,838,421.58.

Before public comment, Gloucester Township council President Orlando Mercado read more than 10 messages received through GT E-Gov Access, a service that allows residents to message council with questions and concerns that can then be read during the meeting.

Typically, council does not receive messages from residents through the service for  meetings, but increased concern regarding the proposed budget caused an influx of them. They ranged from questions regarding the budget to residents’ frustration or disappointment with the proposed tax increase, especially given the financial situations families are enduring from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Given that many of our residents are out of work with no money coming in, what justifies an increase in salary and wages (through the budget)?” asked one resident.

According to Mercado and Business Administrator Tom Cardis, increases in salary and  wages are bound by a previously agreed upon Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“The township is bound by the Collective Bargaining Agreements, which it must comply with,” Mercado said. “The figures are negotiated and they are reflected in the budget from contract obligations settled prior to the current state of employment prior to the pandemic.”

Several residents addressed the fact that many township residents are currently unemployed due to COVID-19, facing financial hardships when it comes to food, utilities and mortgages.

During public comment, several residents inquired about the possibility of sitting in on a subcommittee meeting held by several council members, where the budget will be further evaluated before its public hearing in June. If that were allowed, Mercado said  residents would simply be watching the meeting take place and not be able to participate. But Solicitor David Carlamere later said during the May 27 session that it would be unusual for council to allow residents at the subcommittee meeting.

“The only comment I would make is a word of caution to the subcommittee members against opening up the meeting to members of the public,” he said. You defeat the purpose of a subcommittee to meet with flexibility and time, and you are a fact-finding committee appointed by the governing body.”

Carlamere said council can allow members of the public to send information or ideas regarding certain topics, most specifically potential budget items. But allowing residents to attend the subcommittee meeting would create potential problems.

Resident Sam Sweet asked council if all its members were “comfortable” with a more than 10 percent increase in taxes, to which various council members replied no, despite the budget proposed increase.

“I’m not comfortable with any tax increase … but that was the introduced budget and it has not yet been adopted and there is the opportunity to review,” Mercado said.

“I, as well, am not comfortable with any tax increase and I’ve been reviewing the budget everyday and I’ll have some questions and comments for the business administrator as well as the subcommittee setup,” said councilman Scott Owens.

“I don’t think anyone is in favor or happy about the prospect of a tax increase,” said councilwoman Andrea Stubbs. “We all pay the same taxes as everyone in the community; I don’t want to pay any more taxes, I don’t think anyone wants to pay, but sometimes you have to take a look at things … we’re making an earnest effort to see what we can do.”

Councilman Michael Mignone also stated he is not comfortable with a tax increase.

Resident Paul Krug referenced the fact that the township has raised municipal taxes by approximately 40 percent over the course of the past ten years, saying that council members saying they’re not comfortable with tax increase “may be disingenuous.”

Mercado pointed out that the township has not increased taxes in five of the past ten years.

However, Krug said regardless, a 40 percent increase over the past decade is still notable, despite how many year’s taxes have not increased from the prior year.

The public hearing for the proposed 2020 budget is currently scheduled for Monday, June 8 starting at 7:30 p.m. at the municipal building. As the COVID-19 global pandemic may still prohibit the meeting from allowing a physical audience for public participation, special instructions will be attached to the online agenda to allow residents to view the meeting online, as well as take part in public comment.