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Morristown council introduces mayor’s $56.4M budget: Your taxes may vary
Morristown council introduces mayor’s $56.4M budget: Your taxes may vary
Morristown council introduces mayor’s $56.4M budget: Your taxes may vary

Published on: 05/15/2024

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Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty delivers budget speech, May 14, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

If you are a Morristown homeowner, your taxes are going up.

Probably.

Maybe.

Mayor Tim Dougherty on Tuesday presented the council with a $56.4 million budget which, despite an effective tax rate increase of 1.7 cents, he said will decrease municipal taxes for the “average” homeowner by $412.

But that same homeowner’s overall annual taxes should increase by $189, which the mayor attributed to rising school-, Morris County-, and library taxes.

The council introduced this spending plan by a 6-0 vote (Councilwoman Toshiba Foster was absent), and is likely to adopt it on May 28, 2024.

The busy two-hour session also included a presentation about changes to the Spring Street redevelopment plan, approval of “extended-stay” lodgings, the introduction of pickleball fees, and public comments raising architectural and environmental concerns.

THE BUDGET

Interpreting the tax impact of this year’s budget is complicated by a town-wide property revaluation — Morristown’s first since 2004, the mayor said. It has increased the average home’s appraised value by 77 percent from last year. This makes comparisons tricky.

“It’s apples and oranges, because every assessment is unique,” Administrator Jillian Barrick said after her budget presentation. She estimated about 60 percent of homeowners will see an increase in their municipal taxes. The rest may see a decrease, she said.

The picture is clouded further by rosy estimates sent prematurely to residents last fall–setting up some serious sticker shock now–and by the Morris School District, which says its $150 million regional budget should decrease school taxes for the average Morristown homeowner. For its part, Morris County officials say their $365.3 million budget adopted last month does not increase the county tax rate.

Getting back to that “average” home: It has been revalued at $635,443. (Last year: $358,292.)

According to Barrick, this hypothetical homeowner will pay $10,598 in taxes for fiscal 2024. That’s $189 more than last year.

It breaks down this way:

  • Municipal:  $3,510, or $412 less than what the average homeowner paid last year.
  • Morris School District: $5,512, an increase of $350.**
  • Morris County tax: $1,417, up by $244.
  • Morristown & Township Library: $159, a $7 increase.

(** Morris School District officials said last month school taxes would go down by $229 for a Morristown homeowner assessed at $635,443. Morristown Green has reached out to the District to explain the discrepancy, and will update this story accordingly.)

More numbers:

One cent of the municipal tax rate equals $478,403. The effective tax rate increase is $0.017, or 1.7 cents.

The budget has increased in six of the last seven years; the town tapped a surplus in 2020 to avoid a pandemic tax spike.

Morristown’s proposed 2024 budget increase falls below the state’s 2 percent cap by about $900,000. The operating budget amounts to $49 million (all figures are rounded), with another $7.4 million for the sewer utility. About $2.7 million is earmarked for capital projects, with the lion’s share for road and drainage projects.

Big-ticket items are police and fire at $11 million (22 percent), insurance at $9 million (18 percent), public works a $7 million (14 percent), “general government” at $5.8 million (12 percent) and pensions at $5.4 million (11 percent).

On the plus side, the town gained $1.1 million in revenue from construction permits, investment interest, municipal court fines, state aid and hotel taxes.

But it estimates $1.7 million in added costs, which include increases in the reserve for uncollected taxes, insurance (liability, workers compensation, medical and dental), interest on notes, and pensions.

Healthcare, a $7.3 million appropriation, is up by 6 percent — $414,000.

No layoffs are proposed for Morristown’s 193 full-time employees and 36 part-timers.  They earn almost $19 million, just under 40 percent of the town’s total appropriations. Salaries are rising by 3.41 percent — more than $625,000.

The town’s debt is $26 million; its S&P credit rating is AA+. The sewer plant remains debt-free.

Based on the revaluation, the town’s net assessed value has doubled, to almost $4.8 billion. For the first time, commercial properties and apartments have a (slightly) higher combined value than homes.

Also per the reval, the portions of Morristown’s property taxes that go towards schools and the county crept up a little bit (to 52 and 13 percent, respectively), while the municipal slice decreased by almost five percentage points (to 33 percent).

The town’s proposed fund balance–money set aside for emergencies–is $8.1 million. That’s down from $12.4 million at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Morristown is nearing the end of a tax settlement that has generated hefty payments from Atlantic Health (Morristown Medical Center).

Vacancies on North Park Place, Dec. 17, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As the county seat, Morristown hosts county offices, churches and nonprofits, which might yield $5 million in yearly revenue if they were taxable, said Dougherty, a Democrat now in his fourth term. Inflation has pushed up insurance costs, he added.

“But I do want to assure our residents and stakeholders that we are still heading in the right direction,” the mayor said. The town is “hopping,” with foot- and pedestrian traffic approaching pre-pandemic levels, and booming development, he said.

Sanofi building under construction at M Station in Morristown, Dec. 16, 2023. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Dougherty cited last year’s opening of Valley National Bank’s headquarters and the Max on Morris apartments, construction of Sanofi’s flagship offices at M Station, and the anticipated addition of 85 apartments behind the train station.

The “missing piece,” he continued, is North Park Place, fronting the historic Morristown Green. The town has threatened condemnation of vacant storefronts there.

Murray and Celia Feldman met in Tokyo right after WWII. They are among veterans honored on banners in Morris Township. Veterans Day 2023, Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Dougherty touted the re-accreditation of the police bureau, and a new fire truck, and spoke of a new police unit that will focus on community engagement to foster trust. Officers will reach out to the homeless and mentally ill, and enhance sidewalk safety via public education campaigns, he said.

For Veterans Day, Morristown will roll out a “Hometown Heroes” program, similar to Morris Township’s, with South Street banners honoring local veterans, Dougherty said.

IN OTHER BUSINESS: PICKLEBALL, ANYONE?

The council unanimously introduced an ordinance amending a 2008 Spring Street redevelopment plan to allow for M Lofts, a five-story, 150-unit apartment building near the M Station office complex, from the same developers.

Architect Dean Marchetto’s rendering of proposed ‘M Lofts’ apartments on Spring Street, looking away from Morris Street. Image courtesy of the architect.

Also unanimously, the governing body approved a zoning change to allow extended-stay rooms within large apartment buildings, near M Station and near the Green.

The council also approved a contract paying up to $75,000 to Nassau Capital Advisors LLC for financial advisory services related to redevelopment projects — specifically, for the “Bijou” apartments proposed for the train station lot. That developer seeks a PILOT (“Payments in Lieu of Taxes”) deal, Barrick said.

Contracts also were awarded for streetscape improvements on Washington Street, and for lighting upgrades near the train station trestle, trail improvements at Kleitman Woods and Budd Street Park, and for minor changes to new audio-visual systems coming to the council chambers.

The need for those systems, now totaling about $154,000, was underscored by technical difficulties with Tuesday’s livestream that delayed the meeting’s start.

Additionally, the council authorized installation of more noise-screening fences at the Lidgerwood Park pickleball court.

Residents also would be charged a $25 annual fee ($175 for non-residents) to use town pickleball courts, under a measure introduced on Tuesday. These permits would include guest passes, Barrick said.

And the Sushi Lounge got a preliminary approval for outdoor dining at Pioneer Park, at Headquarters Plaza.

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX?

People had plenty to say at the public portion.

Vacant electrical supply building on Spring Street. Photo courtesy of Deborah Ryysylainen

Residents who have launched an online petition drive urged town officials to incorporate a vacant brick building, once an electrical supply business, into the M Lofts design at Spring Street.

“We’re missing an opportunity to be imaginative here,” said Deb Ryysylainen, asserting that Morristown’s charm is being supplanted by boxy apartment- and office buildings.

Town Planner Phil Abramson fields council questions after his presentation about the Spring Street redevelopment project, May 14, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Town Planner Phil Abramson countered that the site’s steep topography requires a big footprint to accommodate parking beneath the proposed 150-unit apartment building, leaving no room for “re-adaptive use” of the electrical supply structure.

The project will provide 30 units toward the town’s affordable housing obligation, he said. Plans also call for a small park fronting the Whippany River, another park across the street commemorating the site of one of New Jersey’s first publicly funded Black schoolhouses, and rehabilitation of a tenement at the corner of Spring and Morris streets.

Bill Byrne asks Morristown mayor and council to lobby Trenton for better pay for staffs of special needs housing, May 14, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“All the positives here outweigh that one sacrifice we need to make,” Abramson said, referring to the electrical supply building.

Bill Byrne, an advocate for the disabled and a resident of special needs housing, asked the mayor and council to lobby Trenton for better pay for special needs staff.

Robert Parker, noting the town directed him to mow his lawn, asked town officials to endorse No Mow May. The movement says a month-long moratorium on mowing provides crucial habitat for bees and other species.

Mayor Tim Dougherty presents Arbor Day proclamation to Kristin Ace of the Shade Tree Commission, May 14, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Mayoral proclamations included one to Shade Tree Chairperson Kristin Ace for Arbor Day, and another proclaiming Joe Viola Day.

Morristown Parking Authority attendant Joey Viola  organized a March billiards tournament that raised  thousands of dollars for juvenile diabetes research, in memory of his late teammate, Lenny Pergentile.

“I never thought a day would be named after me. Obviously, I thought a plaque would make sense,” quipped Viola. He promised an even bigger fundraiser next year.

Joey Viola holds proclamation from Mayor Tim Dougherty, who honored him for organizing a billiards tournament to benefit diabetes research. Members of Viola’s pool team applaud him, May 14, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

News Source : https://morristowngreen.com/2024/05/15/morristown-council-introduces-mayors-56-4m-budget-your-taxes-may-vary/

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