Budget Woes in Middletown

From Sean Byrnes’s Moblize Middletown Blog:

For anyone interested, the budgetary challenges that Middletown faces this year are formidable. A perfect storm of events makes tax increases almost inevitable. But the cycle of tax increases need not continue indefinitely. Unfortunately, apathy toward what’s happening in local government guarantees continued increases.

Local government is broken. Taxes take somewhere between $6,000 and $7,000 on average from every household in Middletown, but few pay attention to how that happens. Sure, schools are expensive, but that’s a lame excuse for high taxes. Our locally elected officials continue to follow a governance model that will ensure financial deficits for the foreseeable future. It’s time to trash that model. It’s time to think outside the box. It’s time to view the tax money collected as a resource that must be spent wisely with an eye toward the entire Township, not just one public entity’s corner of it.

What I mean by that is we need to consolidate our operations and thinking. The Board of Education maintains property and the Township Committee maintains property. The Board of Education buys supplies, the Township Committee buys supplies. We provide benefits to employees and so does the Board of Education. We support artistic and cultural activities and so does the Board of Education. We hire lawyers, engineers and other professionals, and so does the Board of Education. Are you seeing a theme here? These two public entities operate in the same town completely separately from one another. Worse than that, they barely get along. And anyone who tells you that they cooperate on certain issues and work together is missing the point. The weak efforts to meet occasionally and discuss some common areas of interest produce almost no savings for the taxpayer. And, oh, we also have a Township Sewerage Authority that has its own lawyers, auditors, engineer, etc. Last year that the Sewerage Authority spent approximately $800,000 on one engineering firm. If that sounds like alot of money, it is.

To be fair, state statutes make consolidation efforts challenging. These distinct public entities are governed by different statutes. But that’s really no excuse. Locally, we have the ability to work together and share services. The Sewerage Authority, which also pays salaries, health benefits and pension benefits to its very part-time Commissioners (all seven of them) could be assimilated by the Township. In a Township with vacant land and lots of new construction, a Sewerage Authority might be necessary to deal with the activity associated with new neighborhoods all connecting to a sewer system in quick succession. We’re beyond that in Middletown. Our Public Works could take over the operations of the Sewerage Authority and save hundreds of thousands of dollars just in the costs associated with professionals. It’s time to do this.

That’s just one example of consolidation. Here’s another. We have an Arts Center that cost somewhere around $7.0 million to purchase and build. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to keep it open. (We also spent tens if not over a hundred thousand dollars to clean up the property because it was contaminated when we purchased it — and we knew it). Did we really need to take on this expensive capital project? Did the Township Committee look into leasing space at other local theaters, or working with the County, which already has arts programming taking place in close proximity to Middletown? Nope. A small group of influential elected officials wanted it, and they got it. Almost $7.0 million borrowed to get it done. It has been running at a deficit ever since, even when you don’t count the yearly payment on the bonded debt. Meanwhile, our Library, which reports to its own Board of Trustees, offers arts programming. Check out the calendar on their website. Performances, readings, movie discussion groups, teen art, cooking classes, “cartooning in clay”. Do we need two separate groups running two very expensive buildings who have nothing to do with each other? It is insane. Consolidate them. The Art Center is underutilized. How about offering some daycare there for all the commuters who jump on trains right next door every working day. You can still do Arts programming, but how about generating some revenue.

Here’s a real crazy idea. How about we make engineering firms bid for the capital projects we do every year, like roads, flood remediation, etc.? What do we do? We appoint one engineering firm every January (it just so happens that the same firm gets appointed every year, if you like, you can see them every election night at Republican Headquarters celebrating another victory with local Republicans). For any of you that have been on this earth more than a few years, here’s a question. Do you think the Township will get its best price by guaranteeing one firm all the engineering work? Or do you think we might do a bit better by making 5 or 6 firms compete for every one of these projects? I proposed just that at our Reorganization Meeting in January, but could not get any of my four fellow Committee members to second my motion. (I also had the nerve to try and limit our Township attorney to $15,000 per month flat fee retainer [which is on top of the $50,000 he gets as a salary] and that too died for loss of a second to my motion — by the way, the $15,000 per month I proposed equates to almost 1800 hours of legal time per year, that’s our attorney working all year on nothing but Middletown’s work!).

But I’ve lost my way in this blizzard we’re having, we were discussing shared services and consolidation. If this State (and this Township) has any prayer of recovering from the budget disaster we are all facing, we need real change. In addition to the proposals outlined above, we should consider consolidating the police departments of Middletown, Keyport, Union Beach, Highlands, Atlantic Highlands and maybe even Keansburg. No good reason for all those separate departments, separate municipal courts, separate judges, prosecutors, public defenders, etc. Ditto on the school systems. Red Bank, Shrewsbury, Little Silver, Rumson, Fair Haven, Sea Bright should all be one school district. Ok, if that’s too radical, why not make the grade school districts match up with the high schools. The County should take control of all major parks. They have more resources, more people and a good track record for running parks.

These ideas are just for starters. We don’t really have a choice in my opinion. The wealthiest among us are changing residency or simply relocating, and they are taking the tax revenues with them. We have way too many public employees and all taxpayers are carrying their salaries, top of the line health care plans, both during their careers and during retirement. (Middletown currently owes approximately $106 million in accrued benefits to employees and retirees and we have no trust account or plan for how we pay for that — it’s pay as you go). In 2008, we should have set aside $10 million for these benefits, we paid $1.6 million. And that’s separate from our pension obligation. We only paid half of our required payment last year and face a staggering payment this year. Meanwhile large commercial tax appeals from prior years will drive down revenues as property values plummet.

It’s time to wake up. What has our Township Committee done in response to this? Layoffs? No. Shorter weeks? No. Forced professionals to take less money? No. Special meetings to discuss the looming financial crises? No. Consolidation? No. Reorganization? No. We haven’t even had a CFO for almost 8 months! Our 2008 audit found material problems. We ran out of money for health claims in 2008 to the tune of $1.4 million and had to push those payments into 2010. You can’t make this stuff up. We need to make hard choices and fast, or we will be facing substantial tax increases in 2010. I’ve proposed a finance committee at just about every meeting I’ve attended since my swearing in in January 2008. Large corporations have them, non-profits have them. It makes sense.

But I’m over that. I just want action. I don’t care what organizational structure produces that action. We need residents to swarm our meetings and demand change. I fully expect that the wave of conservative sentiment sweeping this Township and C0unty will escort me from my seat on the Township Committee this November. And my world will not end when that happens. But I will leave frustrated; frustrated that I could not effectively deliver my message to residents. Frustrated that I was unable to convince my fellow Committee members that our current system for delivering services is broken and that bold, courageous steps are necessary to protect our residents from additional taxes that they can ill afford.

13 Comments

Filed under budget deficit, consolidation of services, Cultural Arts Center, Middeltown Board of Education, Middletown, municipal tax rates, Sean F. Byrnes, Sewage Authority

13 responses to “Budget Woes in Middletown

  1. Good for you,Sean !!! Will the residents in this town ever smell the coffee ?? You can bet they will when their tax bills increase dramatically and that will surely happen under the ignorance of the current majority. To not have hired a CFO in over 8 months surely indicates some incompetence on the part of this majority. They better put aside politics (everything in Middletown is political!!!) and decide the time has come to do the business of the residents,NOW !! The residents are sick to death of their politics. Four inept committeemen who have no clue and cannot accept advice from the the one person on that dais with financial experiece.WHAT A STUPID SHAMEFUL SITUATION !!!

  2. "Taxes take somewhere between $6,000 and $7,000 on average from every household in Middletown, but few pay attention to how that happens. Sure, schools are expensive, but that's a lame excuse for high taxes."So, if the average tax bill is $6000 … then, on average, each houshold pays $1200 to the municipal govt for the functions / services they provide. Efficiencies can and should be found, but the majority of the average high tax bill is most certainly b/c of the schools (almost $400K on average).

  3. How can atlantic highlands merge its police force with Middletown when they are not a civil service town?

  4. Anonymous said……So, if the average tax bill is $6000 … then, on average, each houshold pays $1200 to the municipal govt for the functions / services they provide. Efficiencies can and should be found, but the majority of the average high tax bill is most certainly b/c of the schools (almost $400K on average).<Your right about that but don't miss the point, the Township budget is $7M short. If something isn't done soon the school budget will look like a bargin.

  5. Anonymous said…How can atlantic highlands merge its police force with Middletown when they are not a civil service town?Don't get all crazy with a "gotcha" Anonymous, Sean Byrnes named other towns as well as examples. If Atlantic Highlands can't be merged then maybe others could. It is worth a look, don't you think?

  6. People can understand the tax bill for education ( note the action of the Governor today) but they will not tolerate the shenanigans of arrogant,inept politicians much longer. There will be a people revolt….in Middletown and in any town where these politicians forget who they were elected to serve…the people or their party bosses.Don't let the door s hit them in the rear,exiting!!!!

  7. Mike, I wrote anon posts # 2 & 3. Regarding merging depts … I wasn't trying to play "gotcha". Don't get so defensive. I am actually interested in how it could work b/c I certainly think everything is worth a look!Regarding the budget … I recognize the fact that major issues have to be dealt with and I am not trying to downplay it. I just think that most of the ire of taxpayers goes to the TC because they collect all the taxes. Everyone needs to know where all there tax money is going … and it is a fact that most goes to the BOE. More of a reason that the BOE & town should work better together. It takes 2 to tango, and both sides need to work it out. Thank you for the dialogue.aNON

  8. aNON,sorry if I seemed defensive, but people have a silly tendency to dismiss ideas before they can be fully explored.Your points on the T/C and BOE are well taken and attitudes between the tow need to be changed, but allow me to say that the BOE gets a bad rap most of the time.Personnally I am no big supporter of the BOE, I have had my run ins with them in the past over my kids but overall they do have the kids best interests in mind.Please keep in mind that a big reason why the school taxes are so high here in Middletown is because of defered taxes. The Township owes the BOE $57 Mil. as of last year and if the school board elections are moved to Nov. like many people want, that bill will come due and our municipal tax rate will sky rocket over and above anything the BOE can dish out.

  9. "… but overall they do have the kids best interests in mind."I don't doubt that … but why, then, do people in partisan politics always assume that everyone else is in it for self interest. Case in point is the last anon poster. Who says that they forgot why they were elected and only serve the interests of party bosses? This is a little over the top, don't you think?I always got a laugh when it was portrayed that Byrnes and Short were ALL benevolent and all their actions were for the benefit of everyone in Middletown … and that the republicans are ALL corrupt and just in it for the benefit of themselves and their "party boss". COME ON!This politics is funny business!aNON

  10. aNON,I can attest to you that Byrnes and Short were/are looking out for the best interests of Middletown residents.The Republicans have ruled Middletown for 25 years without much of an opposition. During this time 1 former mayor went to jail and 1 mayor cost the township tens of thousands of dollars due to a sexual harassment law suit.The Republican Party boss is the township's bonding attorney and has made hundreds of thousands of dollars off the township and political cronies are all throughout the ranks of Middletown. Their elitism has cost this township dearly, you just have to look at the Arts Center as proof.Democratic boss Caliendo is beholden to no one, his taxes rise just like everyone else's, he is on a fixed income and is mad as hell about how this town has run itself into the ground. This Township budget is $7 million short and the Township is in debt to the tune of $80 million.You can laugh all you want about how …"Byrnes and Short were ALL benevolent and all their actions were for the benefit of everyone in Middletown…" because many times the fact is stranger than fiction.Unfortunately you and others (myself included) will never know because the Republicans continue to run this town as if it is their own personal fiefdom, they raise our taxes and we get very little in return for them except for pet projects and sports complexes that no one wants and that we just can't afford.

  11. Mike,You are absolutely correct. It is a fact that the republicans have been the majority for all these last twenty five plus years and as the majority,the decisions have been theirs. It's a shame that they try to blame the two decent men who have served as democrats for all the mistakes the republicans have made and continue to make. To ignore the experience that Sean Byrnes brings to the table demonstrates the ignorance of the majority and just how incompetent they can be. Make no mistake their priorities are to serve themselves,their inflated egos and their cronies. It has been especially shameful in the last few years! To put this community and it's residents in the critical financial straits it is in is without conscience. A former mayor in prison for taking bribes,sexual harassment suits against another former mayor,an Arts Center millions of dollars over budget and it continues with electric bills that boggle the mind !! Make no mistake, it's all about politics,dirty,rotten politics…..and the republican majority is responsible for this nonsense.They have had the votes to do whatever they damned pleased and they should stop making excuses and pointing the finger at anyone else but themselves.Hypocrites !!! The people in this township will finally wake up, hopefully before much more damage is done because we can no longer afford this mob of "elitists" who clearly demonstratejust how useless as representatives of the people they are! They could not care less about us or this township!!!No,it's not over the top,this is the barefaced truth.

  12. Mike,You are absolutely correct. It is a fact that the republicans have been the majority for all these last twenty five plus years and as the majority,the decisions have been theirs. It's a shame that they try to blame the two decent men who have served as democrats for all the mistakes the republicans have made and continue to make. To ignore the experience that Sean Byrnes brings to the table demonstrates the ignorance of the majority and just how incompetent they can be. Make no mistake their priorities are to serve themselves,their inflated egos and their cronies. It has been especially shameful in the last few years! To put this community and it's residents in the critical financial straits it is in is without conscience. A former mayor in prison for taking bribes,sexual harassment suits against another former mayor,an Arts Center millions of dollars over budget and it continues with electric bills that boggle the mind !! Make no mistake, it's all about politics,dirty,rotten politics…..and the republican majority is responsible for this nonsense.They have had the votes to do whatever they damned pleased and they should stop making excuses and pointing the finger at anyone else but themselves.Hypocrites !!! The people in this township will finally wake up, hopefully before much more damage is done because we can no longer afford this mob of "elitists" who clearly demonstratejust how useless as representatives of the people they are! They could not care less about us or this township!!!No,it's not over the top,this is the barefaced truth.

  13. There had to have been a better site for the Arts Center than in the old Banfield building alongside the railroad tracks !! Did the former mayor responsible for pushing that project care what the cost to build or the cost to maintain that building would. Hardly think so…. She has moved onto bigger things and is working now on a much bigger state pension to be based on a lot more than the pittance she got as a committee person in this township.But the years in Middletown will help comprise the "multiplier".Isn't that the game of many local politicians?? It sure appears to be currently ….what is the current mayor promoting besides his own agenda and himself ???It's time for the voters in Middletown to think before they vote.It's time to ignore the exaggerated hyperbole out of these republicans….most of what they say is clear fabrication and distortion of any truth or fact. They should be ashamed of what they have the audacity to call good government !! is clear fabrication and distortion of any truth or fact.

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