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.”