Daily Archives: April 27, 2010

Middletown Township Still ‘Crunching The Numbers’ As Budget Gap Widens

Excellent article written by Ryan Fennell of the TRT, the kid reports it straight with no spin and consistantly reports on important aspects of the Township Committee meetings without having to resort to press releases issued after the meetings are over.

By Ryan Fennell
The Two River Times

MIDDLETOWN – While no specifics have been released regarding the 2010 budget, the Middletown Township Committee intimated on Monday night that layoffs were imminent in order to bridge the estimated $4 million shortfall in revenue.

The Middletown Township Committee entered this year facing an approximate $4 million shortfall, which Committeeman Sean Byrnes now estimates to be closer to $6 million, in revenue for the 2010 budget. Since that time the Committee has hired a new CFO and consistently pledged to the township’s residents that it was “looking at everything.”

“We are now almost three weeks into April and we know as a Committee that we have a significant shortfall in revenue this year,” Byrnes said. “The news is only getting worse and as of right now I don’t think we’ve really executed on any plans. Our ability to see any kind of savings is hampered by the fact that time is passing.”

Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger said that he has been in contact with Governor Chris Christie’s chief of staff and has been assured that legislation is being crafted that would ease the situation for the township.

“He assured me that the ‘mayor’s toolbox’, so to speak, that will allow us to absorb some of these cuts is still in the process of being formulated. We’re hoping this will provide some relief and extensive policy out of Trenton that will allow us to get back on track.” Middletown resident Jim Grenafege was not satisfied with the explanation and challenged the committee to offer concrete solutions or information regarding the budget. “Its just week after week there is nothing concrete happening,” Grenafege said.

He asked that the committee provide numbers associated with proposals that have been offered by the committee that could potential cut the budget.

“We have a relatively new CFO and he’s still crunching the numbers,” Scharfenberger said. “We can’t quantify anything that’s been proposed when I don’t have the numbers to quantify it against. These are sound proposals. There’s no sense speculating.”

Grenafege charged that the committee was speculating with the proposals. “They’re speculation with no numbers associated with it. It’s disingenuous to make these proposals without saying and here’s what we expect to save.”

Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante said that there are concrete things happening regarding the budget. “We’ve discussed a lot of options for saving money. A lot of them are painful. A lot of them are painful to individual people. It wouldn’t be fair to speculate publicly about some of the things happening.” Resident Jeff Blumengold asked why the committee hasn’t at least started cutting the “low hanging fruit.”

Scharfenberger noted that Middletown operates on a workforce of approximately 340 employees which costs the township $872 per person, a low figure for a municipality it’s size.

“There’s not a lot of low hanging fruit,” Scharfenberger said.

Scharfenberger also pointed out that the Township experienced 15 retirements since January and could see as many as 20 by year’s end. Scharfenberger said that these retirements have affected the budget and eliminated areas to cut.

“We had no idea that was going to happen,” Scharfenberger said of the retirements. However, the Committee had expected and even encouraged its employees to retire in May 2009.

On May 18, 2009 the Committee unanimously adopted an ordinance entitled “Early Retirement Incentive for Eligible Township Employees.”

The ordinance encourages employees eligible to retire under the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) with the offer of health benefits upon retirement after 15 years of service with the township, lowered from 20 years of service.

According to the ordinance any employee who is eligible to retire who has 15 years of service shall have the entire cost of health benefits assumed by the Township of Middletown upon retirement. The ordinance has a “sunset provision” that sets December 31, 2010 as the expiration date.

“The process is the problem,” Byrnes said. “There is no process in place to get ahead of the things we’re talking about. We knew it was going to be bad. It’s very, very frustrating. I can’t fathom how we haven’t planned out for the problems we’re facing.”

“Now we will lay off people and those numbers are probably going to be bigger than they needed because we’re starting later than we should have,” Byrnes added.

“The silver lining in all the bad news we’ve been confronting is that people are starting to engage,” Byrnes said. “People seem to be paying more attention to what’s going on. That’s a good thing. Part of the problem of what we’re in now is people didn’t pay attention and that is the key to getting out of the very dire situation we find ourselves in.”

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Filed under budget cuts, Budget Shortfall, Gov. Chris Christie, Jim Grenafege, Mayor Scharfenberger, Middletown, Ryan Fennell, Sean F. Byrnes, Two River Times

Christie’s latest offensive against teachers may prompt mass exodus of NJ’s best

BY PAT SUMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

With a state budget that focuses almost entirely on cutting spending rather than raising revenues, it’s no surprise that Governor Chris Christie has targeted publicly funded teachers and education — astutely transferring financial problems from the state to local municipalities.

As proven on April 20, he can persuade a majority of the voting public — a.k.a. the disgruntled property tax-paying public — to defeat school budgets in districts where teachers refused to accept a pay freeze. The incongruity of a governor acting against his own state education system and its students was obscured by the elections results: for the first time since 1976, the majority of New Jersey’s school budgets were voted down.

Talk about a “bully pulpit.” Or as a letter to the Times of Trenton had it, “in taking money from the needy and giving it to the greedy,” Christie is a “reverse Robin Hood.” And that’s one of the nicest names he’s been called lately.

Christie’s latest maneuver against teachers is his plan to reduce pension and health benefits. Next month, he’ll request the passage of bills (1) requiring those who retire after August 1 to pay more toward health benefits and (2) changing how pension benefits are calculated, resulting in a loss of income.

Obviously, Christie hopes that rather than continue teaching and accept the projected cuts, eligible veteran teachers may opt out this summer. (Those retiring by August 1 will get a free pass.)

Of course, if seasoned, master teachers are forced to retire early for this reason, the schools, and the students, will be the losers — only for starters.

Overall, according to a Star-Ledger analysis, 20 percent of the state’s certified teachers are qualified for retirement. Should this happen, the two Mercer County districts probably most in need of excellent veteran teachers — the city of Trenton and the Mercer County Special Services District — could lose the highest number of them. In Trenton, those eligible to retire represent about 31 percent of the total, while the Special Services District virtually tied, at 30 percent.

And it gets worse, both for New Jersey students and fledgling teachers in the faculty room. More than 42 percent of those with doctorates and 25 percent of those with master’s degrees would be eligible to retire.

Through this shortsighted approach, the old management axiom, “Trust the veterans,” could become obsolete by September. Sure, the ranks may be re-filled with younger teachers inexplicably willing to enter a profession where they’re insulted, devalued and threatened. But they’ll lack for the “voices of experience” new teachers have traditionally had on staff, and their road to master teacher status becomes much longer.

All that will make a difference very quickly. Everyone in a town loses when school funding is cut. Ultimately, students who are less well-educated can only contribute less to their communities. Possibly less likely to get or hold jobs, they could become additional drains on the already reeling economy.

Not only does Christie dismiss the incalculable value of teacher experience, but he’s also treating the state’s fiscal problem with woefully outdated — and discredited — management techniques of his own. He’s practicing top-down, power-over “Scientific Management” — whereby employees lose dignity and are treated like machines, with money as the incentive.

Our state’s fiscal problems are not unique in the country. But Christie’s answer — a focus on cutting spending — has put New Jersey into “a small peer group,” the New York Times reported last month. Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia are all led by Republicans, a number with national aspirations.

As has been counter-argued on line and on the street, Christie’s selective about the groups he asks to sacrifice. He’s not calling on doctors, lawyers or bankers; nor is he asking millionaires to do their bit — which would be easy enough through re-enactment of the “millionaire’s tax,” which he insists won’t happen.

Finally, the ranks of those exempt from sacrifice also include the political appointees on Christie’s staff. Their salaries reportedly exceed the total for the same group under Governor Corzine.

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Filed under budget cuts, Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey Newsroom, School Board elections, Teachers