Auditor Leon Costello

Auditor Leon Costello and Middle Township Chief Financial Officer Susan Anastasio-Quinones discuss this year’s budget with Township Committee. Middle joined other municipalities in Cape May County in avoiding an increase in the tax rate, while several others kept increases relatively low.

Rising property values and increased development have helped Cape May County towns, giving them a little more spending power with the same tax rate, according to auditor Leon Costello.

Municipal property-tax rates are based on two variables: How much the governing body plans to raise in property taxes and the assessed value of the taxable property, known as ratables.

“Ratables have increased in every town,” Costello said, adding that appeals of property-tax assessments have fallen at the same time, which he sees as an indication that the assessments are close to true market value.

He said wage increases to employees have stabilized at about 2 percent, which he sees as helping municipalities plan for this year and future budgets. Pension costs have increased across the board, he said, putting some pressure on spending, while most towns are also seeing a greater return on investments and other income in addition to the anticipated tax revenue.

An Ocean City resident employed by the accounting firm of Ford, Scott and Associates, Costello is the auditor for most municipalities in Cape May County. As the guiding hand for many governing bodies, he’s had a grueling few weeks as cities, boroughs and townships finalize their spending plans for the year.

Rising values have not allowed every municipality to avoid an increase in the tax rate, but, according to Costello, in many towns an increase in the total assessed value has meant more money for local budgets without changing the local-purpose tax rate.

For instance, in Ocean City, where City Council unanimously approved the budget April 11, the total ratable base increased by more than $133.5 million, for a total assessed value of $11.8 billion. That meant without changing the tax rate from last year, 45.9 cents per $100 of assessed value, the city will have more tax revenue this year.

The approved budget for Ocean City totals $78.88 million, one of the largest spending plans for any municipality in the county.

Avalon also reported an increase in ratables this year, helping support its budget of $27.9 million. Officials there say the tax rate is 19.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. As with other rates included in this story, the Avalon tax rate does not include school or county taxes.

In Stone Harbor, the approved budget came in at $16.36 million. Officials there say the rate will increase by half a penny, to 25 cents per $100 of assessed value. Budget documents show an increase in ratables of more than $43 million.

Sea Isle City is one of the few towns to see a tax-rate decrease this year. In his $24.6 million budget for 2019, Mayor Leonard Desiderio proposed a tax rate of 38 cents per $100 of assessed value, down slightly from 2018.

Upper Township recently finalized a $13.72 million budget this year, which includes a municipal tax rate of 19.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. Much of the township budget — more than $6 million — is covered by state energy tax receipts paid for the township hosting the B.L. England electric generating station. For years, the township had no local-purpose tax, with municipal operations entirely funded through energy-tax receipts. The current tax rate is up 1.25 cents compared to the year before, 19.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Members of the Township Committee were pleased with the budget, after looking at a much larger increase at the start of the year.

It was a similar story in North Wildwood, where City Council approved a $29.57 million budget March 19, including an increase of 2.7 cents on the tax rate. The approved rate came in at 73.7 cents per $100 of assessed value.

“That still keeps it as the lowest average property-tax bill of any shore community in the state of New Jersey,” said Mayor Patrick Rosenello.

Lower Township Council has approved a $28.19 million budget, which increased the tax rate by nine-tenths of a cent, which township officials described as a hike of $20 a year for the average homeowner. There, too, the township saw an increase in the total assessed value by more than $7 million, according to a budget summary presented to Township Council in February. The total township tax rate is 58.36 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In Woodbine, officials have again avoided a tax-rate increase, which makes it 29 years in a row, said Mayor William Pikolycky. On April 4, Borough Council introduced a $2.5 million budget with a tax rate of 23.4 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Middle Township Committee on Monday unanimously approved a $22.17 million budget that does not include an increase to the local tax rate, set at 48.3 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In Wildwood Crest, the $24.9 million budget included a rate increase of a half-cent compared with the rate of 67.1 cents per $100 of assessed value in 2018.

Spending in Cape May County towns varies widely. Cape May has approved a $19.35 million budget for 2019, one that anticipates more than $1 million in revenue from room taxes, while in nearby West Cape May, the budget as approved in March is $2.7 million, still higher than the $1.88 million budget in Cape May Point.

Some municipalities have not completed the budget process. Wildwood’s public hearing and final vote on its $30.9 million budget is planned for 3:30 p.m. May 8 at City Hall, 4400 New Jersey Ave. Spending is down slightly compared to last year, according to a budget summary provided by the city, and there are fewer city employees this year. The budget calls for more than $20 million to be raised through property taxes.

On Tuesday, Dennis Township residents have a chance to have their say on the proposed $4.8 million budget, one township Finance Director Jessica Bishop said will not increase the tax rate compared with last year’s 23 cents per $100 of assessment. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at Township Hall, 571 Petersburg Road.

West Wildwood does not yet have budget information for 2019 posted to its website, and there was no response to a request for comment from Borough Hall. Last year, taxpayers slammed the $2.69 million budget, primarily over a plan to pay a court settlement and legal fees of $1.7 million to police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz and her attorney.

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