PARSIPPANY — One by one, township department heads presented overviews of their operations at a public budget hearing on Tuesday and why they saw no place to cut their portion of an $88.4 million proposed budget that would raise overall property taxes by 2.6%.
“This budget basically, is maintenance,” said Police Chief Richard Pantina. whose department would hire five new officers under the plan. “Upkeep and maintenance − there’s no fluff.”
Councilman Justin Musella pushed for the special meeting during the township council’s budget introduction on April 18. On Tuesday, he asked most of the questions aimed at Police Chief Richard Pantina, Department of Public Works and Forestry Director Jim Walsh, IT Director Dave Miller, Township Engineer Justin Lizza and Tax Assessor Dan Cassese.
Asked what he could cut, Walsh said, “right now, nothing.” His departments are still short-staffed since a hiring freeze during COVID depleted their ranks, he said.
“The IT budget is as close to the bone as we can possibly get without compromising the security of our data,” Miller said. “Our software position continues to be dictated by external pressure from constant phishing, hacking, malware, and other attempted breaches. Without cyber coverage, we could not handle financially what it would cost to recover from a breach.”
The town has scheduled a second public hearing on the budget for Tuesday, May 9, from 5 to 7 p.m. The budget still faces a final vote by the five-person council, which is expected to vote on May 16.
The proposed 2023 fiscal year budget calls for an increase in the township portion of the property tax levy of 3.76%. Local homeowners will see a municipal tax increase of 2.57%, or an estimated $100 more per year per property, based on Parsippany’s average home valuation of $313,000.
The proposal represents a 1.7% increase over last year’s $86.9 million budget. which included a 14.3% rise in the township tax levy (leading to an overall increase of 3.3% for homeowners). Mayor James Barberio blamed that hike on the COVID pandemic and poor fiscal management by the previous administration.
This year’s increase, Barberio said, was the product of “historic” inflation and a need to replenish the surplus to preserve the township’s bond rating.
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“You need to have a strong budget,” Cassese said. “If the bond rating goes down, once it goes down, it’s going to take 10 years to get it back. Once you go lower, you’re going to pay 10 years of [additional] interest going forward.”
Cassese added “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” citing a reduction of Parsippany’s glut of office space from about 12 million to 11 million square feet due to redevelopment projects already underway. More than 1,100 housing units are currently under construction now after several empty office buildings were demolished in 2022.
In terms of tax revenues, “commercial properties are volatile,” Cassese said. “They can go up real fast or down real fast. Residential properties are good because they are stable.”
Cassese added that ratables have increased for eight straight years, even during the COVID pandemic. He estimated $260 million in new ratables will be added to the tax base in the next few years.
“We have to get these buildings down, or repurpose them,” Cassese said.
Standing-room only crowd for budget hearing
The budget meeting drew a standing-room-only audience at Town Hall, including several township employees attending to show support for their departments.
A few public commentators wore T-shirts with the phrase “Block Barberio’s bloated budget,” including Raymond Gallup. Gallup questioned the necessity for $400,000 in employee raises, a summer concert series and a planned streetscape project in the North Beverwyck Road business district.
“As a 40-year resident and a senior citizen living on a fixed income, I am very concerned,” Gallup said. “Now we are struggling with rising property taxes and fear we will be forced to leave the town because we can no longer afford to live here.”
Hank Heller said he was concerned that only two council members, Loretta Gragnani and Frank Neglia, comprised the council committee to vet the draft budget.
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“We all got copies of the budget,” Councilman Paul Carifi Jr. replied.
Barberio said any additions were still just proposals in a draft budget. That includes $90,000 for the town’s “underfunded” volunteer ambulances and $81,000 to reopen the Mount Tabor Branch of the Parsippany Library, he said.
“The council can still cut [line items from the budget] if they would like to,” Barberio said, adding more funds were included to support senior services and yard waste pickups.
“I don’t want to raise taxes at all, but I’m also not going to cut services,” Carifi added.
Several commenters thanked Musella for insisting on the budget hearings, which initially drew resistance from Barberio and some council members, but were eventually approved with a unanimous vote.
Cassese cautioned about the value of line-by-line cuts and said the budget proposal was lean. A $730,000 cut would only produce a $31 cut for the average taxpayer, he said.
“There is a very specific reason to ask line-by-line, especially when there are increases, because no matter how small, no matter how large,” Musella said. “It might not be a lot of money, but in the aggregate, across all the other budgets, it does add up.”
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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