Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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Township Passes “Barebones” Budget

Ellen Gilbert

In keeping with life’s certainty about death and taxes, the only sure thing that came out of the Princeton Township Committee’s Monday evening meeting was the unanimous approval of the 2009 municipal operating budget, and its three percent tax increase for Township residents. The question of whether or not to use synthetic turf on neighborhood fields, the potential designation of the Clover-Deerpath neighborhood as a historic district, and the passage of a proposed amendment to the law regarding misbehaving dogs were all left unresolved.

The $36,879,152.43 budget, which was introduced on April 20, means that the tax increase for the average Township home assessed at $434,108 will be $139.35.

In their overview of the budget, Township Administrator Jim Pascale and Chief Financial Officer Kathryn Monzo reiterated many of the highlights presented at the April 20 meeting, when budget was introduced. They noted that the proportional allocations of the budget do not, for the most part, change from year to year, with the school district receiving 47 percent, the lion’s share of the money. Other municipal services include capital investment (19 percent); public safety (16 percent); sewer (10 percent); public works/utilities/buildings (9 percent); administration/finance/court (7 percent); grants (6 percent), parks and recreation (4 percent), and land use (4 percent).

As she did in her presentation last month, Ms. Monzo noted that the budget increase is the smallest in seven years, and the lowest percentage rate increase in nine years. This is, she observed, “most suitable for these difficult economic times.” This “barebones” budget represents departments maintaining operating expenses at last year’s level, or reducing them by five percent.

According to Ms. Monzo, the budget comes in at $426,949 under the state four percent levy cap limit, but still provides adequate reserve funds to ensure the Township’s ability to pay future obligations, and to maintain the Township’s AAA bond rating. “Major changes” that figured into the preparation of this year’s budget included a $77,000 loss of state aid; a $130,000 reduction in investment interest; additional bonding reflecting a $200,000 increase in debt service; and the Township’s decision not to waive the state-mandated pension obligation. With the modest income accrued through various departmental fees, a nominal amount of state aid, and the need to maintain reserves for debt service, the Township depends largely on municipal taxes for revenue.

The Township’s website provides an outline of the budget, and booklets offering more detailed explanations will be available on a borrowing-only basis at the Township Clerk’s office and at the public library. It is also expected that, as they did last year, the Citizens’ Finance Committee will produce an explanatory flier for mailing to Township residents.

The Growling Issue

Passage of a proposed amendment imposing a $200 first-time fine on dogs that bite people or other animals (as opposed to the existing $75 fine for all offenses) became complicated when several audience members described the wording of the existing law as unduly hostile to dogs. Several people noted, for example, that “growling” does not necessarily reflect a dog’s intent to do harm.

Although Animal Control officer Mark Johnson pointed out that the “menacing” language in the law had to do with protecting farm animals, the Committee agreed to delete some of the offending words in a new version of the amendment, which was reintroduced as an ordinance at the meeting. A public hearing on the new amendment will take place at the Committee’s June 8 meeting. It was also agreed that the task force that examined the question of raising fees should be reconvened to work with the Health Department in further rewording the existing law. Committeeman Lance Liverman will be the liaison in this discussion.

Ecologist Jane C. Harrison, representing a neighborhood group opposed to the installation of artificial turf in Barbara Smoyer Park, spoke during the public comments section of the meeting about “the degree of uncertainty and concern around the issue of artificial turf,” and the fact that, despite a compilation of positive opinions compiled by Recreation Department head Jack Roberts, “the jury is still out” regarding its use. Mr. Roberts was reported to be willing to work with the group, which expressed its interest in enlisting the Committee as a participant in this effort.

Deputy Mayor Chad Goerner suggested that the Committee’s role was “a matter of process,” and that the question should be brought before the appropriate departments first. “We have been to the Recreation Department and to the Environmental Commission,” wrote neighborhood group leader Siobhan Darrow in an email to Town Topics on Tuesday morning. “The Mayor himself told me to come to open comment time at this meeting. I am not sure how to get this on the agenda. Anyway, our hope is to get the Township to use this as an opportunity to really move forward with the whole ‘sustainable Princeton’ concept. The idea of tearing up grass in our beautiful, pastoral Smoyer Park and replacing it with recycled tires painted green to look like grass is abhorrent to us. Our group gave the Recreation Department a petition with over 150 names collected in a couple of hours all opposed to the artificial turf.” 

Comments at the meeting’s “work session” on the prospect of rezoning the Clover-Deerpath neighborhood to preserve its historic qualities echoed those expressed in the many meetings held on this issue over the last three years. While many residents of the 34-home district are eager to establish guidelines that will preserve its character, others worried that such restrictions would limit their ability to sell their homes in the future.

Planning Director Lee Solow remarked that the outcome of this discussion, which will continue at future meetings, will set a precedent for other neighborhoods interested in becoming conservation districts.

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