Council to present budget with five percent tax levy increase next week Sparta After months of negotiations and stalemates, Sparta police and the township could not come to an agreement on salary and benefits. The township has a $1.6 million dollar gap in the municipal budget. As a result, on May 9, the town will have five fewer patrolmen and one less sergeant, who will be demoted to patrolman. The $23.9 million dollar budget, which is currently awaiting state approval, will carry a tax levy increase of just over 5 percent, even though the state recently capped tax levy increases to two percent. The budget represents a loss of revenue to the town of well over $700,000 due to tax appeals, and an increase in expenses of $950,000. The state does not include increases in health care, pension obligations, and long term debt service in the tax levy cap calculations. These increases are well over $600,000. The police department budget is the largest of the municipal departments, at $4.3 million for salaries and wages alone. Township Manager David Troast announced the police would need to come up with at least $400,000 worth of concessions to help close the gap and stay within the constraints of the budget. Two years ago, the township negotiated a contract with police that included a 3.75 percent increase. Police were asked to take a wage freeze or contribute more toward health care in lieu of laying off officers, but an impasse was reached on this matter. The Frateral Order of Police reps offered a complex proposal that would have saved funds over period of time, without reducing officers, but township officials said it was not sufficient to close this year’s budget gap and the town could not afford it. Each side believes they offered the best they could, in good faith, and that the other side did not consider their offers. FOP President Patrolman Marc Rubino said, “We have offered Mr. Troast more savings then he is spending on our salary increases and he has rejected our offer because we ask for a protection of no layoffs if he accepts our offer.” Township Manager David Troast said that although the layoffs will take effect on May 9, “My door is always open. If the union reps come to me with concessions that meet out budgetary constraints, even at the eleventh hour, I would stop the layoffs.” Troast also explained the original layoff plan included six less patrolmen and two demotions, but a retirement in the ranks allowed for the new plan. Troast said after his discussions with the Chief of Police, he feels confident in the chief’s assurance that the public safety needs and concerns of the community will be handled by the officers he has in place. Some concessions were reached with Teamsters Union Local 641, which represents the two dispatchers who were part of the layoff plan. The tentative agreement is still being worked out and these two employees will retain their jobs. Mayor Scott Seelagy said, “I’m confident that our town will have adequate police coverage. We have a great force and they will continue to protect the town.” Citizens have been very vocal in their response to the police layoffs, with several citizens speaking up at meetings since March, urging council to retain the officers, especially after a string of uncharacteristic crimes in the area. At the last council meeting, citizen Jonathan Rush said, “I think it’s unconscionable that the council would hold a referendum so citizens can decide if they want another liquor license in town, and not hold a referendum so citizens can decide on whether or not to significantly reduce our public safety force.” What’s next? Seelagy said the state finance board is still reviewing the budget. If they approve it by next Tuesday, the budget will be on the council’s agenda that evening. If the approval does not come in time, the budget will be placed on the agenda for the following meeting in two weeks. Unless the state requires any changes, Township Chief Financial Officer, Mike Guarino said the $23.9 million budget represents an increase in municipal taxes of $82 per year, based on the average assessed home value of $301,000.
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