Metuchen cuts $94k in budget requests in pandemic-battered economy

July 15, 2020: Metuchen borough staff took an ax to the budget this year to control costs as revenues dried up in the pandemic downturn.

A budget was ready in March, but once covid-19 hit, it had to been done over, and over again. The result was cuts of $8,000 from Metuchen Media, $14,000 from the fire department, $25,000 from the police department, $10,000 from streets and roads and buildings and grounds, $16,000 from sewers and $11,200 from forestry.

Ultimately, the borough cut about $94,000 from the original budget to adjust to the battered economy.

In the end, Metuchen staff presented its 2020 fiscal year budget at the council meeting this week that calls for a property tax increase for residents of 4.5 to 4.6 tax points. For a property valued at $200,000 in the borough, the tax increase, including borough and school taxes, would be $284, according to Borough Administrator Melissa Perilstein, who made the budget presentation Monday.

(County, municipal and school budget costs determine the amount of property tax to be paid. A town’s general tax rate is calculated by dividing the total dollar amount it needs to raise to meet local budget expenses by the total assessed value of all its taxable property. An individual’s property taxes are then calculated by multiplying that general tax rate by the assessed value of his particular property. Because of New Jersey’s strong “home rule” concept of government, the State does not participate in the making of local budgets, nor does it receive any of the property taxes collected.

From Borough Finance Officer Rebecca Cuthbert: To calculate a tax point: Municipal total rate x total ratables /100 as compared to municipal total rate + .01 x total ratables /100. A tax point is the amount that a .01 increase in the tax rate equates in dollars.)

The budget is proposed at $22.25 million, a decrease of $492,784 from last year. Borough Council will hold a public hearing on the budget at the Aug. 24 meeting.

“This was  collective effort,” Perilstein said. “We went back to everyone and said, ‘please look at your budgets another time and let [us] know what you can do without. We’re lean and mean for sure.”

The tax increase will be offset by the borough using $1.6 million in surplus funds, the same amount of money used last year. This will leave the borough with about $3.5 million in surplus, said Cuthbert.

Metuchen also is getting an infusion of $500,000 from the Parking Authority, down from $1 million last year. The borough is budgeting $1.4 million in state aid, which is still a question. “From everything our CFO is hearing … the state is not looking to touch aid at this point,” Perilstein said.

Revenues are also being anticipated in the form of $662,264 for fees, permits and licenses, $600,000 in delinquent tax collection and $368,148 in grants and other sources of funding.

The borough, like probably every municipality in New Jersey, was hit with unanticipated pandemic-related costs, Perilstein said. Metuchen spent around $102,000 on covid-19 related expenses for things like building sanitization, cleaning products and infrastructure upgrades to better protect employees such as plastic partitions. The borough is hoping for reimbursement from Middlesex County for such pandemic related costs, Perilstein said.

Municipal Court revenues are expected to decrease $175,000 to $200,000, according to the budget document.

The largest slice of the budget flows to salaries and wages for police and public works. Money also flows to things like debt service (15 percent of the total budget), sewage treatment, pension costs and professional services.

“We were very cognizant of the fact [that] these are tough times, we wanted to maintain services, maintain what people have come to expect … and be cognizant of the fact there was a major economic event that occurred, which impacted our revenues,” Perilstein said. “That was a big piece of how do we maintain this equilibrium with appropriations versus revenues, because you’ve got to come out even somehow, costs are still increasing even though our revenues decreased.”

Updated July 16 with information about how tax points are calculated. 

Street Smart NJ to focus on walker, biker safety along Main Street

Nov. 15, 2015: Metuchen gained a major ally in its quest to make its streets as safe as possible for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The New Jersey Transportation Planning Association, a federally authorized organization, selected Metuchen for the second phase of its Street Smart New Jersey pedestrian safety campaign, which will start in March, according to NJTPA and Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier.

The campaign uses advertising, grassroots public awareness efforts and law enforcement to enhance pedestrian and bike safety, the Association said in a recent public statement. This is the second phase of the NJTPA Street Smart New Jersey program, which kicked off in 2013 in Newark, Hackettstown, Jersey City and Woodbridge. The program is funded by the Federal Highway Administration.

mainstreetPrior the start of the campaign, Phase II communities like Metuchen will go through a pedestrian safety evaluation. In Metuchen’s case, the evaluation will focus on pedestrian and bicycle safety and handicapped accessibility along Main Street from Middlesex Avenue to Walnut Street, Maier said at the borough council meeting earlier this month. After the safety campaign, NJTPA performs another safety evaluation to see if drivers, pedestrians and bikers have changed their behavior, the organization said in the statement.

“That stretch [of Main Street] is the most congested, the highest use [and] we can’t change the speed on that county portion of the road,” Maier said in an interview after the meeting. It’s “really to try and improve one of our heaviest trafficked roads.”

NJTPA is known as a Metropolitan Planning Organization, which are meant to oversee federally funded transportation projects and provide a forum for local and state officials to plan a region’s transit future. Middlesex County’s NJTPA representative is County Freeholder Charles Tomaro, according to the NJTPA website.

Pedestrian safety is a priority in Metuchen. Borough Council will deliberate in December on whether to lower the speed limit on all of Grove Avenue from 35 m.p.h. to 25 m.p.h. The idea was moved forward by the Traffic and Transportation Committee earlier this month.

The borough also has applied for a $300,000 grant to build bike lanes along the length of Grove Avenue that runs through Metuchen.

Meanwhile, incoming Mayor Pete Cammarano made pedestrian safety one of his priorities. “We have a large number of young families that walk and bike around town and we need to ensure their safety. We also need to explore opportunities to expand foot and pedal power initiatives, including bike lanes and safer crosswalks and safer routes to schools for children,” he told BBB.

Image sourced from Wikipedia

Metuchen wins federal support for several parks projects

Nov. 9, 2015: The National Park Service recently awarded Metuchen a non-monetary grant to help coordinate several area improvements, including building a pedestrian bridge over Middlesex Avenue to extend the Middlesex Greenway.

dismalswampThe “technical assistance grant” only brings consulting help from the National Park Service, according to Jennifer Maier, borough administrator. However, federal parks department officials would help Metuchen identify potential funding sources for various improvements.

“Basically, the national parks association would attend meetings with Metuchen and the county to discuss the feasibility and coordination and funding sources for [improvements]'” Maier said.

The improvements would include building a pedestrian bridge to extend the Greenway, designing the Greenway trailhead area to have an open air pavilion, BBQ grills, bathrooms and a community garden and cutting a kayak trail through Dismal Swamp.

Photo courtesy of

Borough tries for $300K grant for bike lane on Grove Ave.

Oct. 22, 2015 — Momentum is building to lower the speed limit along the length of Grove Avenue in Metuchen from 35 m.p.h. to 25 m.p.h. to enhance pedestrian safety.

But, as has been pointed out at numerous public hearings by residents and officials, pedestrian safety takes more than just lowering speed. There are other fixes needed, like providing sidewalks and flashing lights at crosswalks.

Metuchen is trying to do its part. The borough is applying for a $299,920 state Department of Transportation grant to add a roughly 8-foot-wide bike lane on the 1.05-mile section of Grove Avenue that runs through Metuchen. Council approved the application at the council meeting Monday. The estimated cost of the project is the same amount as the grant, according to Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier.

The bike lane would be on the right side of the road for vehicles traveling from Woodbridge Avenue toward Middlesex Avenue and Metuchen High School.

“I think the DOT is becoming more aware of the need for multi-modal transportation,” Maier said in an interview after the council meeting.

Currently, Grove Avenue has signs asking vehicles and bikes to share the road, though that signage does not have much impact, Maier said.

“People don’t notice the signs, you have little kids … who don’t always stay right up against the curb or they shoot across the street,” Maier said.

Grove Avenue has been the focus of much community activism because of its heavy pedestrian use. Residents came out in support of lowering the speed limit all along Grove Avenue in Metuchen at a public hearing earlier this month. The Traffic and Transportation Committee will consider the matter at its next meeting in November. The issue would then have to go before the full borough council, which could happen in December.

A petition signed by at least 198 residents requested pedestrian crossing lights at the intersection of Mason and Grove avenues. Crossing guards work the intersection during school hours, but the intersection is “dangerous” on off-school hours, according to Sharon Jelleme, of Aldrich Avenue, who spoke at the borough council meeting October 5.

“It would help children cross, runners, everyone in town get across there. It’s extremely dangerous,” Jelleme said.

There is no money current in the budget for the project, which would cost at least $25,000 not including engineering costs, Maier said at the meeting. There also are no grants applications for the project at this time. The project would have to be considered for next year, she said. Jelleme’s petition was given to borough council and will be forwarded to the Traffic and Transportation Committee for further discussion.

The borough won approval of federal grant money for four lighted crosswalks, including at Christol Street and Grove Avenue, Mayor Thomas Valhalla said at the Oct. 5 meeting.

The bike lane grant was one of several the borough submitted this month to the state Department of Transportation for various projects, including streetscape improvements on Main Street and road repairs to Norris Avenue and Mason Drive.

Task Force: Metuchen needs a new firehouse

This year’s Metuchen Country Fair provided a clear example of the life of a volunteer firefighter.

Metuchen firefighters were out in force at the fair with a ladder truck raised high in the air displaying the American flag. As people toured the ladder truck, a call came in for a fire in the Jefferson Park Condominiums.

Firefighters immediately packed up and rushed to the scene, a residence on Newman Street. No one was hurt, but firefighters saved the family dog, Bella, who was cowering under a coffee table.

“We go from smiles and sunshine taking pictures with kids and handing out hats to breaking down doors, stretching in lines, opening up the roof and pulling people or pets out of the building,” said Metuchen Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Donnan at the borough council meeting Monday. “It’s a big thing to be a volunteer firefighter … we have to be prepared 24/7.”

Donnan came before Council as part of the Fire Station Task Force to explain the need for a new firehouse. Donnan methodically laid out in detail the deplorable state of the firehouse at 500 Middlesex Avenue, including deficiencies like a leaking and rotting roof, crumbling support pillars, plumbing and electrical issues and a door through which some sort of “critter” chewed.

Firefighters who sleep at the station lay on hose beds and pool tables. If they are sleeping near a loud snorer, they might sleep in the driver’s seat of a truck, Donnan said. During Hurricane Sandy, the firehouse lost power.

The leaks, structural weakness, even the lack of ventilation to help dry off equipment after use is putting around $4.6 million worth of equipment at risk, Donnan reported to Council.

Council took in the report of the Task Force and will talk in closed session at the next council meeting on 16 properties that could serve as the site of the new firehouse. Chief Donnan told Council some of those properties already have interest from other buyers.

Council has yet to decide whether to go with the “bandage” method of fixing up the existing firehouse, which was built in 1914, or building a new facility. The borough engineer estimated patching up the existing firehouse to get it into minimally better shape would cost around $1.8 million. That was a rough estimation made without a plan in place, the borough engineer pointed out at the meeting.

It’s not clear how much a new building, which would require the acquisition of property, would cost. It would likely require a bond issuance for funding.

Some minimal requirements for a new facility are a property of at least 1.5 acres, dual bay doors for two ways to get in and out of the facility, enough parking for 40 plus volunteers and a central location in the borough, said borough administrator Jennifer Maier in a separate interview after the meeting.

“The town is growing and changing, the fire station is falling apart, volunteer recruitment and retention gets harder every day, we’re running out of time and land to build on,” Donnan said. “The time to act is now.”

Council re-purposes bond money to buy bus for seniors

Metuchen senior citizens are getting a shiny new bus soon.

Borough council at the Oct. 5 meeting approved re-purposing money from two older bonds to buy a new bus to transport senior citizens. The bus, equipped with a lift, will be a back-up to the main bus, according to Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier. The current back-up bus is in disrepair, Maier said.

“Our back-up bus is ready for the graveyard,” Maier said. “When our main bus goes down, it’s a real problem.”

The borough’s senior center can transport up to 20 senior citizens a day, Maier said. The borough provides the bus service to drive seniors to various activities like doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, even hair appointments, Maier said.

Metuchen’s Senior Center is for residents 60 years and older. Cathy Ostermueller is the director of the senior center.

Council approved taking $49,000 from two bonds: one for about $1.9 million that was floated in 2011, and one for just over $1 million floated in 2012. Council financed $944,760 of the first bond for improvements and other purposes, according to borough council agenda from earlier this month. Council financed $770,070 from the second bond for the same given purpose. It’s not clear for exactly what projects the bonds were originally intended.

Many times Council floats bonds for projects, but has money coming in from other sources. In those cases, Metuchen only needs part of the bond for the given project, Maier said. That leaves money that can be re-purposed for other uses. Council has the authority to  re-direct proceeds through a legislative process that requires the passing of an ordinance (two readings of which occur in public) and a 20-day period before acting on the new spending.

Council is now in the 20-day waiting period before it can go shopping for a bus. The waiting period ends on Oct. 28, Maier said. “We are putting the specifications together now … then we will buy a bus, but we have to get competitive pricing first,” she said.

Metuchen also has to work with its bond counsel, McCarter & English, when re-purposing bond proceeds for other uses than originally intended, Maier said.

Overall, Council approved re-purposing $310,000 in bond proceeds at the meeting. For example, Council also approved re-allocating $30,000 from a $854,064 float from 2013 to buy police radar equipment.