PRELIMINARY: AVERAGE RED BANK TAX UP $94

The spending plan includes debt service on the estimated $1 million cost of a replacing 25-year-old Ladder 91, above.  (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

Still a work in progress, the 2012 Red Bank budget calls for a $94 tax increase on property assessed at the borough-average $401,393, officials said Wednesday night.

The figure  reflects a 4.5-percent increase in the municipal rate, to 53.2 cents per $100 of assessed value, from 50.9 in 2011, said Chief Financial Officer Colleen Lapp.

Driving the increase is an unexpected $464,000 spike in insurance costs, “the majority of it health insurance;” tax-appeal refunds, which in the first two months of the year have already rung up to $135,000; and a contractual $118,000 increase in pay for police, said Lapp.

Councilman Mike DuPont, who heads the governing body’s finance committee, which is responsible for crafting the budget, said he’s cautiously optimistic the $20.77 million spending plan, up from $20.15 million, can be trimmed before it is due to be approved on April 25.

The fattest target for trimming, he said, is health insurance, which accounted for more than half of the overall 4.5-percent increase. “We received an increase of almost 22 percent without justification,” DuPont said.

In recent years, borough employees have absorbed higher deductibles, utilization claims have been down, and the borough has gotten refunds from the plan, he said, which makes this year’s increase “disturbing,” he said.

DuPont said he is scheduled to attend a meeting this week with administrators of a joint municipal health insurance fund in which Red Bank is a member.

“I’m saying this is not fair, and we’re not going to pay it,” he said.

The budget benefitted from a couple of turnarounds, as pension costs declined $76,000, and $170,000 that had been set aside for snow removal at the end of last year turned out not to be needed. A year ago, the town was socked with a $540,000 bill for snow removal following the paralyzing blizzard of December 26 and 27, 2010. “We got a late Christmas present this year,” DuPont said.

Debt service costs for the year are “virtually flat” with last year’s level, despite the final approval, also on Wednesday night, of a $1.1 million bond to cover the cost of replacing the volunteer fire department’s sole aerial-ladder truck.

Ladder 91, housed at the Navesink Hook & Ladder station on Mechanic Street, experienced a parts failure during testing last fall, and replacement parts are no longer available. The vehicle, built in 1987, is also now out of compliance with federal safety standards, officials said.

The preliminary budget increase complies with state caps on both spending and levies, Lapp said.

A public presentation on the elements of the spending plan will be held before the April 25 adoption hearing, but not date has yet been set, DuPont said.