Tensions High as Hopewell Township Approves Municipal Budget

Tensions High as Hopewell Township Approves Municipal Budget

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Hopewell Township passed its $22M municipal budget this week with four committee members in favor and one opposed. For the average assessed Township home of $464,800, the homeowner will see a municipal tax bill of $1,718.37 (assessed home value/per $100 assessed home value X $0.36) and total tax bill of $12,800. For the Township, the increase translates into $290K additional money for the municipality to be applied toward several capital projects and affordable housing litigation costs. If the budgeted capital projects are actually purchased this year, the surplus fund, currently $11.9M, will remain approximately 30% above its past 20 year average.

Prior to the adoption vote, a heated discussion ensued between committee members. Though all members had been given the list of capital projects (see Figures 1 and 2) three months ago, according to committee member Vanessa Sandom, a visibly upset committee member John Hart said that it was the first time he was seeing them.

Figure 1: Capital Expenses (courtesy Elaine Cruickshank-Borge)
Figure 2: Capital Expenses (courtesy Elaine Cruickshank-Borge)

On March 27th, when the budget was introduced, committee member Hart urged the committee to exercise caution when spending money toward the itemized capital improvements as the Township will most likely spend over the budgeted amount of affordable housing litigation costs. The committee agreed, deciding that all capital improvements, though budgeted, would be reviewed and the money could be spent on the costs of litigation, rather than the capital items. At the recent April 24 meeting, Hart denied seeing the list, appeared angry about the tax increase, and agitated and confused about the surplus usage due to a revised payment schedule with Hopewell Valley Regional School District, despite Township Chief Financial Officer Elaine Cruickshank-Borges’ explanation attempts. Hart repeatedly voiced opposition to any tax increase and searched the list of capital items that could be removed to achieve a 0% increase.

After more than an hour of such discourse, Deputy Mayor Julie Blake said, “I do not want to do the budget this way. It’s not respectful to the work that was done by the Finance committee, it’s not respectful of the work Ms. Borges did. I am unwilling to make any changes now under the gun. I understand your concern and I do value your concern of the taxpayer and what they are paying, but you will not have my vote to make any amendments right now. We don’t have to buy certain (capital) items going forward. Making a decision about getting rid of chip seal or roads (capital projects) seems, I would say, irresponsible at best.”

Before calling the vote, Mayor Kevin Kuchinski said, “You, the residents of Hopewell Township, charged us with getting spending under control, fighting for lower taxes, and reducing township debt. I’m proud that the budget has delivered on all three.”

Figure 3: Mercer County Municipality Comparison of Budgets

The budget reduces the overall Township debt of $68.4M by over $6.1M, saving taxpayers $1.7M in interest costs. Currently, debt payments cost as much as what is spent on the Public Works department and Police staffing combined. For context, Figure 3 shows how other Mercer County municipalities compare in regards to debt. Click to see Cruickshank-Borges’ slide presentation.

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