FAIR HAVEN: NO TAX HIKE FOR SIXTH YEAR

“It’s not just about saving money,” says council President Jon Peters, below. “It’s keeping the town in good shape.”   (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

On the agenda at Fair Haven’s borough council meeting Monday night: a budget that doesn’t raise taxes for the sixth consecutive year.

Borough Administrator Theresa Casagrande says her research shows only three of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities can claim such a record in recent history.

Jon Peters, the council president and head of the governing body’s finance committee, says the six-year string is the result of hawk-like attention to costs.

The $8.14 million spending plan, with $5.32 million to be raised from local property owners, comes with a tax rate of 45.7 cents per $100 of assessed value, down a hair from the 2012 rate of 45.8 cents.

For the owner of a home assessed at the current borough average of $550,678, that’s a total tab of $2,516.60, or about $6 less than than last year.

Still, increases in taxes at all other layers of government – local school, regional high school, Monmouth County, the county library and county Open Space budget – will boost the average bill by a total $372.51, to $13,348.43.

The borough budget is “a shining example of all that is right in local government financial management,” Casagrande said recently.

And it’s “not a one-year phenomenon,” said Peters. “We’ve crafted this over the past six or eight years. And every year it’s harder.”

Peter said the key is having “no fluff” in the budget, and then “carefully changing the way you provide services.” Example: Fair Haven’s 2011 departure from the trash-collection business. The borough negotiates a contract with a vendor, and pays the bill – $183,000 a year, plus the dumping fees at the county landfill – which taxpayers cover.

“That relieved me of the cost of replacing the trucks, maybe $800,000 in capital,” plus the costs of maintenance and repair, he said. Town officials report that residents are happy with the service.

In addition, Fair Haven and Rumson last year embarked on a local services swap, under which Rumson dumps its residential brush in Fair Haven for eventual transfer to Tinton Falls instead of making about 500 trips a year itself. Fair Haven gets park maintenance and road-cleaning from Rumson, and Rumson gets engineering work from Fair Haven’s in-house engineering office.

“You want to look around and see what you do well, what services you can provide to others,” Peters said. “We’re not trying to make money on this. You’re trying to share costs, and you want a good, long-term relationship.”

Luck plays into it, of course. While Sea Bright, Rumson and Little Silver were walloped by Hurricane Sandy, Fair Haven which fronts on the Navesink River at higher elevations than Rumson, was largely spared structural damage, with only five homes impacted. And Fair Haven is nearly free of the kinds of social services burdens that Red Bank officials bemoan as an unfair drain on its taxpayers.

Still, Fair Haven contends with some “vintage” infrastructure, said Peters. And with only six percent of the town’s overall valuation coming from commercial properties, and relatively little state aid filling in gaps in the budget, nearly the entire load falls on residents, Peters notes.

“I feel very much that I’m very much a steward of the town for the next generation,” says Peters, a finance professor at the College of Staten Island who moved into town in 1999 and is the council’s most senior member, with 10 years under his belt. “I feel very fortunate that I was given a town in good shape.”

Keeping a lid on the budget doesn’t get as much recognition as he’d like, but every year he steps up to the plate “trying to get a base hit,” Peters said.

“You want people to be confident that government can do a good job,” he said. “It’s not just about saving money, it’s keeping the town in good shape.”

Here’s the full agenda: FH council 051313