A small group of Verona residents, some reeling from property tax hikes of 50 percent or more, have loosely banded together to force spending cutbacks in town government. The four residents–Al De Old, Elizabeth Knoop, Susan Montanile and Alex Roman, joined forces after the town council meeting in June left them dissatisfied by the answers they got about the property tax increase and town spending, particularly the 5.9% budget increase.
Since then, the group has been researching the issues and notifying residents of upcoming meetings. Before Monday’s town council meeting, which had people spilling out the doors, down the stairs and into the lower lobby of town hall, Montanile and Knoop, neighbors on Sunset Avenue, distributed over a hundred flyers urging residents to attend. “I feel like Faye Dunaway in the movie Network,” says Montanile, a single mother whose taxes went up over 50% and who is trying to sell her house. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Al De Old, a retired industrial arts teacher on Howard Street, got the ball rolling. Before the June meeting, he researched town budget and tax matters and met with Dorothy Trimmer, Verona’s de facto CFO, and Township Manager Joseph Martin. His bottom line is the group’s mission in a nutshell: “I feel that the town should reduce spending,” he says. Specifically, bonded spending, such as the upgrades to the bleachers and press box at Centennial field, and the new lighting for the gym at the Community Center. “In my personal view, bonded spending is like credit card spending, and it’s not the time,” he says. “We should postpone this spending to a time when we are not raising taxes to the extent that we are.”
De Old also wants to resurrect the citizen’s budget review committee, which worked alongside the council in the years before Verona had a paid town manager. “It think it’s a wonderful idea, because by June the budget is pretty much set and the year is half over,” he says.
The group may not be able to change much on this year’s budget, which Trimmer and Martin began to hammer out last June. It was first presented to the town council in January, discussed at many council meetings and should have been adopted in the spring. But the gubernatorial election and financial crisis in Trenton threw that off track and cost Verona $300,000 in state aid while dumping $900,000 in pension and benefits costs deferred by the Whitman administration on our budget.
It didn’t help that Verona had its first property revaluation in 23 years and many residents misread the appraisal letter, which stated that the town’s tax rate would go down, not the homeowner’s taxes. The third-quarter property tax bill compounded the misery: It is used to adjust the gap between the town and state budgets for the first and second quarters, which was larger than usual this year. And when homeowners multiplied it by four (not the right thing to do), it seemed to show an enormous tax increase. As it now stands, Verona’s property tax increase is below the much-ballyhooed 2% cap just enacted by state legislators, a cap that other towns in our area are struggling to meet.
The fledgling group is still getting up to speed on the complicated calculus of the town budget, its role in property taxes and the revaluation, and working hard to get residents out for the next council meeting, August 16. But they are united, and passionate, in their belief that the town must reduce spending in whatever ways it can, as soon as it can. “I’ve tightened my belt, and I know most people have had to,” says Knoop. “But it doesn’t seem that the council has adjusted based on what the economy is doing. A lot of people are struggling, yet taxes went up on 60 percent of Verona’s homes. Hearing some of the stories at the town council meeting, I was close to tears.”