Westfield residents will receive their first sewer bill this spring after Mayor Andy Skibitsky and Town Council members, minus an absent David Haas, approved the ordinance at Tuesday night's Town Council meeting, which included a Powerpoint presentation of the 2012 municipal budget.
Before turning over the floor to Council Finance Committee Chairman Sam Della Fera, who explained how the ordinance would affect property owners, Skibitsky recognized the finance committee's hard work on the "difficult 2012 budget."
"We really don't have a spending problem in Westfield, but we do have a revenue problem," Skibitsky said, "and we never expected that this recession would have lasted as long as it has and would've impacted our revenues as much as it has."
Della Fera said it was a difficult decision to institute the sewer fee but one that would allow the town to continue operating without a reduction in services. Because the ordinance is in its first year, owners will be charged a flat fee. In subsequent years the charge may fall more in line with each property owner's usage, the councilman explained.
The fee for a single or multi-family home will be $170 for the year. Owners of townhomes or condominiums will be billed $135 per unit for 2012. Industrial and commercial building owners will need to pay $315 and owners of apartment buildings will be charged a fee of $100 per apartment.
While the fee is expected to generate more than $1.3 million, it accounts for less than half of the $3,548,584 bill the Town receives from the Rahway Valley Sewer Authority (RVSA).
Della Fera attributed declining revenue to "general economic malaise, lower property tax collection, and just lower receipts from other non-property tax sources."
"We went to the sewer fee to make up some of that revenue and as the mayor pointed out it was a difficult decision but it would've been more difficult and frankly, unacceptable, to cut the expense side of the equation drastically as we would've had to had we not been able to increase revenue via the sewer fee," he said.
The councilman also pointed out that neighboring towns such as Cranford, Clark and Scotch Plains all have sewer fees.
During the public comment portion of the meeting that followed the presentation, Westfield residents Jeff Bash and Maureen Kehoe both said the flat sewer fee put an inequitable burden on the town's senior citizens. Bash also stated that it was unfair for someone with a $300,000 home to be billed at the same rate as a resident with a $3 million home. Kehoe added that she feels the property tax burden is changing the population of Westfield as three residents told her within the past week that they are considering moving out of town.
Town Administrator Jim Gildea addressed concerns by noting that seniors with a veteran exemption would not have to pay the sewer fee. He added that seniors with an income limitation, which account for approximately 100 households in town, would see their fee reduced by $25.
Gildea led the 30-minute Powerpoint presentation of the $36.95-million 2012 municipal budget, which comes in just below the two percent tax levy cap. Gildea stated that even with the addition of the sewer fee, total anticipated revenues are down. However, 2012 marks the third year in a row that the budget has been reduced. Also, it is the third consecutive year that employee salaries and wages have declined, mainly due to attrition, retirements and renegotiations of contracts. Unlike in other towns, no employees have been laid off, Gildea said.
For 2012, salaries and wages are down one percent from last year at $15.7 million, in line with where they were in 2005.
Gildea said, as per the tax accesser, the average home was accessed at $182,300. The owner of a home accessed at that value can expect an increase of $79 in the the municipal portion his or her tax bill.
Nearing the end of the presentation, Gildea said the budget process "is never over" and when the budget is finalized for 2012, the town will begin looking at ways to generate revenue and cut expenses for 2013.
The mayor said the 47-page budget document will be available on the Town's website, as well as an FAQ (frequently asked questions) regarding the sewer bill.