A reserve of $1 million set aside at the beginning of 2013 for pending tax refunds in Lawrence Township has already been used up, mayor James Kownacki told the audience May 15 at the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce luncheon featuring the State of Lawrence Township Address.

The use of those funds show that tax appeals continue to be an issue in the township and are still affecting the budget, he said. From 2008-2013, Lawrence had the second highest tax ratable decline in Mercer County.

At the event, held this year at The Lawrenceville School, Kownacki addressed a number of issues in the township. The brief speech touched on many points that have been issues in the township for more than a year—primarily the budget, revaluations and property tax.

“The Lawrence Township municipal government is doing more with less,” Kownacki said.

He noted that the number of township employees had decreased by 31 in the past four years. In 2008, he said, there were 195 full time and 17 part time employees. At the end of 2012, there were 163 full time and 18 part time.

Yet one of the biggest examples of lost revenue, he said, are the tax exempt organizations. The assessed value of those organizations, Kownacki noted in the speech, was $287.6 million, and would have contributed $2.5 million in property taxes using the 2012 municipal tax rate.

Earlier this year, the township had issued a request to all tax-exempt organizations in Lawrence for a “voluntary contribution” equal to 25 percent of what would have been the required property tax were that organization not exempt. The request had yielded only two contributions.

“Let me make it clear, this request was not an attack on nonprofits in Lawrence Township nor nonprofits in any other place,” Kownacki said. “These groups provide services that in some instances would not otherwise be available. The request for a voluntary contribution is quite simply a matter of equity. The objective of this unique effort is to create a system of formalized ongoing financial support from tax-exempt organizations toward the cost of municipal services.”

Kownacki spoke of developing a model of how those contributions would be run in order to get control of property taxes.

“I’m not picking on any tax group. You do a lot of work here for us,” Kownacki continued after his speech. “I’m more trying to go after the state.”

The state, he said, is also part of the problem. Since 2010, the township had lost $1 million in direct state aid and $12,361,153 in energy tax receipts and CMPTRA funding.

Kownacki finished the speech on a positive note, explaining that many things are improving in the township, especially the influx of opening and remodeling businesses this past year. Before his closing remarks, Kownacki invited a local chiropractor who practices in Lawrence to speak to the audience about what brought him to Lawrence. The chiropractor, whose office is by Colonial Lake, just celebrated his one year anniversary in the township.

The mayor also took time to mention several other new and reopened businesses in town, including a Polish deli in South Lawrence, the renovations at Quaker Bridge Mall and plans to open Brio alongside the Cheesecake Factory, and plans for the former Chevy’s restaurant in Mercer Mall—the space will eventually be home to Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill, Kownacki said.

“We see new stores opening, going up and down Route 1,” he said. “Things are changing, but it’s slow.”