Council passes budget; 0 increase
Spending measure discussed
HAMMONTON—Town council voted to pass the 2021 budget during their regular monthly meeting on June 28 in town hall, signifying a zero tax increase for residents.
At the meeting, Robert Scharle, Hammonton’s Chief Financial Officer congratulated council on a zero-tax increase for the current fund, and explained the necessity for a resolution to amend the budget to account for funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
“Preliminarily, we were supposed to receive money of any revenue loss. When the final regulations came out about two weeks ago, they weren’t going to give you revenue loss for anything in water and sewer revenue losses; just in the general fund. That’s why you’ll see the amendment there,” Scharle said.
Scharle said that, originally, the town had anticipated utilizing some of the American Rescue Plan funds for loss in utility revenue.
“Due to the requirements, we weren’t allowed to send out delinquency notices last year for any water recipients. What happens is, we had a $200,000 loss in revenue in the water utility. We were able to make that up, because debt fell off and things like that. We weren’t self-liquidating last year, so we have to pick that up this year. Plus, we had to pick up down payment money this year in the utility, but we’re still no rent increase. Right now, we’re allowed to send out delinquencies, but we’re not allowed to collect interest, and we’re not allowed to put it in a tax sale until at least December 31, and it does hurt all the water utilities in the state of New Jersey right now,” Scharle said.
Scharle noted that the town has experienced a “zero tax increase two out of the last three years; even last year was less than a penny.”
“You continue to be fiscally responsible. The 2021 budget is $194,000 less than the 2020 budget. That’s a good thing,” Scharle said.
Scharle said that the town also had to account for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increase.
“We had some expenses that we had to do—pensions keep going up and things like that. With the 3.5 percent COLA, we’re still $164,000 under the 3.5 percent. In our tax cap, we’re still $322,000 under the tax cap for the town,” Scharle said.
Later in the discussion of the budget, Councilman Steven Furgione asked Scharle for the “final, final numbers” from the American Rescue Plan. Scharle said that the total allocation is $3.327 million.
“In this budget, we’ve used $231,000 in the current fund for revenue loss of last year. We still have $3.096 million available to 2024. We’ll do the calculation again next year for revenue loss, because you can keep carrying it forward. However, most of the majority of the funding should be for water and sewer infrastructure. I already talked to our auditor, Leon Costello. He’s been very involved with the state, with respect to the ARP. We already did an ordinance earlier this year, and we’re going to look at that maybe being able to fund that instead of going out for debt, being able to fund that through the ARP, and then we still have another $1.6 million available for any future projects going forward for water and sewer infrastructure—which is a good thing. Free money’s good,” Scharle said.
Scharle said that the revenue loss “carries over for three years.”
“This is for year one. So what we’ll do is, we’ll do the calculation again next year, and it’ll depend on what our revenues come in at this year; mostly, it was court and construction. We’ll look at it again next year, but that doesn’t preclude us for using it for any water and sewer infrastructure,” Scharle said.
During the discussion, Furgione credited Scharle and the town’s business administrator, Frank Zuber, with helping to keep down utility costs in 2020.
“I guess it was last August or last September, we really put the brakes hard on spending the utility fund. We didn’t know the extent, at the time, of how long we were going to go without collecting rents. I can’t tell you how appreciative I am for those two for putting the brakes on. We held back about $190,000 in expenses, and that made all the difference. We’ll get our rents, but it made all the difference in 2020,” Furgione said.
Also during discussion, Councilman Joseph Giralo asked for more explanation of the budget’s projected capital projects.
“Especially, I’m looking at the upgrades to Channel 9 and a studio for $50,000,” Giralo said.
Scharle said that the figure is “there just as an estimate, as any budget.”
“Nothing happens with that until there’s an ordinance, so there’s no debt authorized with that. It’s just a projection,” Scharle said.
Zuber concurred, and said that “they’re only my estimates.”
“When we do the budget, we have the projected capital, so that’s what we did, in case those do come up. Like Rob said, we can always vote against the ordinance if we decide to do those,” Zuber said.
Giralo said that he understood, noting that there is a studio at Hammonton High School.
“We spent a lot of money there. If we can do some joint shared services with our Board of Education, let’s look to do it down the road; that’s all I’m saying. Upgrades to the system? I think that the town appreciates the upgrades. Those are good upgrades to what we do, but if you’re going to build a studio, we’ve got one. Mayor and I served at the Board of Education; if we could do some joint services, just take a look. That’s all I’m saying,” Giralo said.
Mayor Stephen DiDonato explained some of the upgrades that have already been made.
“You could see just by looking at the picture tonight. It was jumping; you didn’t have any volume on for a while. We had some equipment that was 20 years old—or older. We’ve made some changes. That is just an estimate; that’s not ‘we’re absolutely going to spend it,’ but we are making some upgrades to Channel 9,” DiDonato said.
DiDonato said that Channel 9 is now being called Access Hammonton.
“We’re making some changes to Access Hammonton in an effort to get more people to tune in, God forbid, in case we have a storm or something where we need to get information out, that it’s a viable source. It’s a very important tool for the community. Then, we’re trying to show some of the parades, some of the parades, stream the parades on Channel 9 ... This way, some of the folks that are not able to get out and about could still be part of the community and know what’s going on in their town,” DiDonato said.
Councilman Sam Rodio agreed.
“I know when my mom was still here, she always asked: is this going to be on TV? I don’t know, Mom. But now, it’s there,” Rodio said.
Giralo then made a motion to approve Resolution No. 076-2021 – Amend 2021 Budget, which Councilman William Olivo seconded. That resolution, as Scharle noted, is designed to account for the funds from the American Rescue Plan that are not applicable to water and sewer utility revenue shortfalls.
According to the ordinance, the anticipated operating surplus changed from $100,000 to $107,000. Rents increased from $5,678,431.27 to $6,040,860.27, for an increase of $362,429. That exact figure, $362,429—the amount anticipated from the American Rescue Plan—was then removed from the budget, keeping the total water utility revenues at $6,285,033.27.
The resolution passed unanimously, with Councilman Thomas Gribbin absent from the meeting.
DiDonato then opened a public hearing of Ordinance No. 006-2021.
“Approval to establish a CAP bank,” DiDonato said.
The ordinance is listed on the agenda as “Public Hearing of Ordinance #006-2021-Approval to Establish a CAP Bank.” The title for the ordinance, according to the agenda, is “County of Atlantic Calendar Year 2021 Ordinance to Exceed the Municipal Budget Appropriation Limits and to Establish a CAP Bank (N.J.S.A. 40A: 4-45.14).”
According to the language of the ordinance, the Local Government Cap Law provides that, “in the preparation of its annual budget, a municipality shall limit any increase in said budget up to 1 percent unless authorized by ordinance to increase it to 3.5 percent over the previous year’s final appropriations, subject to certain exceptions.”
“N.J.S.A. 40A: 4-45.15a provides that a municipality may, when authorized by ordinance, appropriate the difference between the amount of its actual final appropriation and the 3.5 percent percentage rate as an exception to its final appropriations in either of the next two succeeding years,” the ordinance states.
The ordinance states that town council finds it “advisable and necessary to increase its CY 2021 budget by up to 3.5 percent over the previous year’s final appropriations, in the interest of promoting the health, safety and welfare of the citizens.
“The town council hereby determines that a 2.5 percent increase in the budget for said year, amounting to $260,333.59 in excess of the increase in final appropriations otherwise permitted by the Local Government Cap Law, is advisable and necessary,” the ordinance states.
The language of the ordinance states that the final appropriation for the town of Hammonton shall, “in accordance with this ordinance and N.J.S.A. 40A: 4-45.14, be increased by 3.5 percent, amounting to $364,467.03, and that the CY 2021 municipal budget for the town of Hammonton be approved and adopted in accordance with this ordinance.”
“Any that any amount authorized hereinabove that is not appropriated as part of the final budget shall be retained as an exception to final appropriation in either of the next two succeeding years,” the ordinance states.
Council voted unanimously to adopt and publish the ordinance.
A public hearing on the budget was then held, after which came the introduction of Resolution No. 077-2021—Adoption of the 2021 Budget.
According to the resolution, the amount to be raised by taxation for municipal purposes will be $9,764,850.90. The total budget amount is $14,538,009.02.
The resolution passed unanimously.
In other council business, a public hearing was held for Ordinance No. 007-2021, amending Chapter 216-19 of the code of the town of Hammonton, regarding rental fees.
According to the ordinance, the amendments are as follows:
• 216-19 A Annual Registration Fees: For one to seven non-owner-occupied units at one location, $150 per unit; For eight to 25 non-owner-occupied units at that same location, $125 per unit; For 26 or more non-owner-occupied units at that same location, $100 per unit.
• 216-19 B A re-inspection fee as follows: First re-inspection, no charge; second re-inspection, $50 per unit; third re-inspection, $50 per unit; and fourth or subsequent re-inspection, $50 per unit.
“This fee structure is in line with other municipalities in the county? That’s where these numbers came from?” Furgione inquired.
Zuber affirmed that was so.
Giralo inquired as to how much additional revenue the town would experience as a result of the new fee structure.
“I don’t know the number off the top of my head, but I can get that for you,” Zuber said.
Giralo expressed doubts.
“I’m not really in favor of raising fees, after what landlords have been through—unless we’re going to be offering a new type of service for the inspection,” Giralo said.
DiDonato said that the goal was to be able to “offer a full-time inspector to improve our housing stock and the conditions that some of the renters are now being exposed to, some of the overcrowding; we’re trying to eliminate that.”
“There’s a lot of landlords doing the right thing; there’s a lot of wonderful landlords out there; but, there are a few that are maybe crossing some lines. They’re renting rooms, they’re doing some things with overcrowding that really shouldn’t be done, and they’re actually holding down those that are less fortunate and not giving them an opportunity to improve themselves in society, in my humble opinion. That’s the goal: to try to improve the housing stock, help some of these people have a better chance to be not only renters—if that’s what they want to do, rent forever, great—but if they someday want to save some money to become a homeowner, to have that opportunity for them and their families,” DiDonato said.
Giralo again asked for information on the additional tax revenue the fees would bring the town.
“Frank, I’d appreciate the numbers,” Giralo said.
Zuber assured Giralo that the information would be forthcoming.
The ordinance passed, with Giralo voting against. The next meeting of town council is scheduled for July 26 at 7 p.m.