The Princeton Council voted on Monday night to introduce a $66.6 million budget that includes a 2.9 cent tax increase per $100 of assessed property value. Officials hope the federal government will provide enough pandemic relief funding to the town to close the budget gap so that the final budget the council approves would eliminate the tax increase.
Municipal revenue from parking meters, fines, permit applications, licenses, and other areas is down due to the pandemic, officials said, adding that they hope to see those areas rebound later this year as life returns to normal. Meanwhile, costs are up. The proposed budget is $2.3 million more than last year’s spending plan.
About $2 million of the town’s surplus is being used in the budget. Interim Administrator Bob Bruschi said the town is fortunate that the municipality’s finance committee made sound decisions over the years that put the community in a position where taxpayers are only facing a tax increase of 2.9-cents per $100 of assessed property value. Officials worked to develop a large surplus and made other decisions that should be recognized, he said. If the decisions had not been made over the past several years, Bruschi said the pandemic year would have been much more devastating financially. “There’ve been a lot of sound fiscal policies that the community has initiated and this year, as a direct result of this, we’re going to be in a position where all we need is $2.1 million dollars and not $9 million dollars,” Bruschi said. “It’s not a great place to be, but it’s a lot better place.”
Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros said the town’s discretionary spending in the budget is very limited and is only about $15 million per year. “It’s made our budget particularly vulnerable to decreases in non-tax revenue, so one of the outcomes of this is that we are looking for our community partners and every department to find cost savings,” Lambros said. “We’re looking for ways to save on an ongoing basis as well. We’re really grateful that there is an American Rescue Plan, because that will be the only way we can cover this $2.1 million deficit without raising taxes this year.”
Lambros said the maximum amount of money the municipality could receive for 2020-21 from the program is $3 million. “We won’t be able to count on it until we have more clarity on the requirements for what will be covered, and how it will be covered,” she said. “We are optimistic that we will qualify for at least part of it if not all $3 million, but in order to be conservative in our estimates, tonight’s budget introduction still reflects a tax increase.”
Lambros said the goal is still to see a zero tax increase.
Three members of the group Princeton Mutual Aid questioned why the town is spending so much on police and suggested instead that more money be spent in the human services department and that no cuts be made to that department. Officials said the proposed budget does not include any cuts to human services.
Lambros said the town is maintaining its current level of staffing of 53 police officers in the budget and is not adding new positions. New hires will replace police officers who are retiring. Originally the proposed budget funded six new officers. The revised budget is funding four new officers this year. The other two will be hired in early 2022, Interim Administrator Bob Bruschi said. Mayor Mark Freda said the police department is also consolidating some positions in the records department.
Councilman Dwaine Williamson and others also said that in addition to the municipal human services department, numerous agencies and Mercer County provide support services for lower-income families. Princeton, West Windsor, and Trenton are the only municipalities in the county that have their own human services departments. East Windsor has a welfare office that administers state public assistance programs. The other towns in the county depend on the county’s human services department. Lambros said about 30 percent of the taxes Princeton residents pay fund county programs that include the county’s human services department. “A lot of human services support comes from the county level,” Lambros said, adding that one county commissioner candidate suggested at a recent forum that the county open a satellite office for social services in Princeton.