Proposed Moorestown budget has no tax increase

Amid COVID-19, council decides to forego hike in municipal levy.

Moorestown council has decided to forego a tax increase this year and is instead using the township’s surplus funds to offset costs.

As proposed at Monday night’s council meeting, the plan is to utilize approximately $3.2 million in surplus to balance the budget.

In early March, council was eyeing a potential tax increase, but in light of  COVID-19, members decided against putting an added financial strain on residents.

The proposed tax rate of $0.41 per $100 of assessed value is the same as last year. That means the average assessed home of $455,020 will once again pay $1,883.78 in total local purpose taxes. The total 2020 tax levy comes in at around $16.9 million, with $15.2 million going toward the municipal portion and  $1.7 million toward the library. That represents a $109,991 increase compared with last year. 

The township will see approximately $26.5 million in appropriations this year, which marks a $278,000 increase from 2019. Several factors contributed to the increase, including: a $160,000 increase in the township’s sanitation contract; a debt service increase of $207,000; a pension contribution obligation increase of $108,000, largely for police;  and a required library appropriation of $71,000. 

In terms of budget decreases, salaries and wages were reduced to $49,597 by deferring replacement of all vacant positions, group Insurance premiums decreased by $140,500; the township’s Capital Improvement Fund contribution was decreased by $145,000 to help offset other increases, and all other discretionary accounts were reduced to help offset the impact of COVID-19. 

At council’s last meeting in late July, Chief Financial Officer Thomas Merchel recommended council support a 1.1-cent local purpose tax increase over last year. That would have meant the average assessed home valued at approximately $455,000 would see an approximately $50 tax increase. Instead, council members asked Merchel to take another look at the budget and present one that utilizes the township’s surplus funds rather than increasing taxes. The $3.2 million in surplus represents an increase of $610,000 more in surplus spending than last year. 

At the meeting, councilwoman Victoria Napolitano stressed that while she was in favor of the township utilizing surplus this year, she would have preferred that council had done so last year as well, rather than increasing taxes in 2019. She said in 2019, council described using surplus as “irresponsible.”

“What makes that mechanism responsible this year?” Napolitano asked. 

Mayor Nicole Gillespie responded that last year’s economic conditions  were vastly different than the ones council is grappling with this year. She said last year, council discussed using the surplus as an emergency fund. The mayor added that everyone on council can agree this year that raising taxes during a time when businesses are struggling and Americans are facing historic unemployment rates is irresponsible.

Councilwoman Liisa Petriello echoed Gillespie’s sentiments. She said last year’s conversations were about the fundamental use of a surplus and when to utilize it. 

“This year is an emergency situation,” Petriello added. “We’re all sitting here with masks. There’s a pandemic out there. That’s why we’re looking to use surplus.”

The next meeting of Moorestown Township Council will take place on Monday, Aug. 24. The budget will be up for second reading and a public hearing at council’s Sept. 14 meeting.