Despite a drop in property values, borough taxpayers will not see an increase in their municipal contribution in 2015.
By Matt Skoufalos
Audubon Mayor John J. Ward said that creating a flat municipal budget has been a personal goal for the six years he’s been in office.
In 2015, he was able to achieve just that.
The $9.593-million 2015 Audubon budget is up marginally from its $9.556-million 2014 budget, but municipal taxes will be flat.
“It’s been a goal of mine to get that budget down, to be able to say we’re not raising taxes at all,” Ward said.
“It’s been six years of shared spending and reduced government at every corner.”
Taxes will be assessed at 0.857 cents per $100 of assessed value, or $1,757 for a property assessed at the borough average value of $205,000: identical to year-ago levels.
The total value of assessed properties in the borough fell from $731 million in 2014 to $724.6 million in 2015, a difference of $6.43 million or 1 percent. Yet revenues were up annually, and the assessment is still $250,000 below the 2-percent levy limit.
Ward credited borough Commissioner Jennifer Dawson with “making people think twice about spending” in committee and shepherding departments through the process.
“We had a rough year last year,” Dawson said. “This was a way that the commission could try to give back to the residents. It’s not much, but we tried.
“By doing this, none of our operations will be affected,” she said.
No capital spending
As in the 2015 budget proposed by neighboring Haddon Heights, the flat-budget tradeoff comes with Audubon expecting to put the kibosh on its capital spending for the year.
Ward said that wouldn’t be a problem for the borough, which bonded capital purchases during 2009-12 and again in 2014.
The 2015 budget does contain a $50,000 capital bonding earmark, but local infrastructure “is really good,” the mayor said.
“I think we’re not going to skip too many more years of doing capital,” Ward said, ticking off a list of peripheral items that will eventually require the attention of the borough, from vehicle upgrades to sewer and roadway improvements.
Some of those, such as roadwork on the heavily trafficked Graisbury Avenue, will be offset by Department of Transportation (DOT) grants.
“There’s no big projects scheduled,” Dawson added; “there’s no big wish list. We have some sewer infrastructure issues looming, but that’s everywhere.”
Surplus spending, smarter shared services
Like many other municipalities in Camden County, Audubon will also help keep its taxes flat by spending down some of its financial reserves. The 2015 budget includes $1.243 million in surplus spending, up 28 percent from the $900,000 spent in for the same purpose in the 2014 budget.
“For several years, we haven’t had the liberty to try something like that,” Dawson said. “By being very conservative for the last few years, this is the first time that we even had the liberty to try to use our surplus again. Before, if we had an emergency, we had nothing to go back on.”
Improved tax collection and more efficient management of labor when it comes to things like police overtime can help regrow the surplus, Ward said. He also pointed to additional shared-service arrangements (such as that for the borough clerk) and smarter ones (dissolving its shared tax collection position) will help save additional dollars.
The surplus revenues contributed to keeping taxes flat, Dawson said, but the bottom line was also aided by a handful of retirements among Audubon police and public works staff; new hires came onboard at a lower pay grade.
“We obviously didn’t hire high-end replacements,” she said.
Some of that salary savings was inhibited, however, by increasing costs for group insurance premiums, which climbed from $1.34 million in 2014 to $1.42 million in 2015 (up $84,000, or 6 percent). Dawson said that by using the state health plan, Audubon is saving “over what we could be paying,” but still lamented “our hands are tied” when it comes to increases.
“Our insurance goes up every year,” Ward said. “With our negotiated contracts, the increases are being stabilized.”
The 2015 budget also shows a 6-percent drop in debt service spending, from $905,250 in 2014 to $849,820 in 2015; Dawson said the decrease reflects an interest savings drawn from debt refinancing.