Middletown Committeeman Sean Byrnes has just posted the follow column on his Mobilize Middletown blog that addresses the current fiscal mess that the Township finds itself in due to the lack of proper planning and the Republican majority’s refusal to address seriously his ideas and concerns about how save the taxpayers of Middletown from a nearly 13% tax increase this year and in years to come:
The Middletown Township Committee recently voted to introduce a proposed budget for 2010 that raises the municipal portion of the tax levy by 13%. In other words, the operation of the Township requires the taxpayers to contribute 13% more than they did last year. During a period of belt-tightening and financial hardship for most taxpayers, an increase of this magnitude cannot be justified. You will hear excuses about loss of State funds, retirements and other factors that made this a difficult year — and much of that is true — but our Township Government has failed to take the decisive action demanded by these difficult times. We are in an economic downturn of historic magnitude, and we need to take action that meets the challenge of these times. Just take a look around at other municipal budgets and see if you can find a town increasing the municipal budget by 13%. These neighboring communities operate in the same budget environment we do, but have been far more proactive in preparing for and dealing with this financial crisis.
The irony in all this is that while the Mayor touts the Governor’s actions to cut spending and serves on his transition team, he refuses to take comparable strong action here in Middletown. Instead, we vacillate and miss opportunities for savings. Rather than imposing layoffs and furloughs early in 2010 when we knew we were in financial difficulty, he waited until almost halfway through the year. When I recommended letting pre-qualified engineering firms bid for the road construction projects that we undertake each year, he voted no, choosing instead to award in January all of the Township’s engineering work to one engineering firm, thereby removing any chance of securing savings through a competitive bid process. When I recommended negotiating a fixed monthly legal fee from our attorneys, he voted no, again missing an opportunity to negotiate savings. The Mayor refuses to consider merging the Sewerage Authority into the Township Government to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars in overhead. We need to immediately merge all property maintenance functions in the Township into one Department. We need to move swiftly to outsource a significant portion of the leaf and brush pickup. The salaries and benefits necessary to support this operation represent a significant portion of our municipal budget. Moreover, we pay heavy maintenance costs for the equipment used by these employees in the leaf and brush pickup. We should also consider moving to a one day per week garbage pickup. While this may be unpopular with some residents, with a renewed emphasis on recycling of all types of paper, the volume of waste can be cut in half, and the savings to taxpayers would be tremendous.
But change cannot begin until there is an acknowledgment that we must radically change the way services are delivered in Middletown. The Governor has boldly altered the debate, and we need to seize this rare opportunity to restructure how local government is run. We must first identify the core services that residents need and expect and ensure these services are delivered as efficiently as possible. Everything else that falls outside the category of core services should be evaluated for reduction or elimination. For core services, we must analyze, with the assistance of professionals, which services can be outsourced. In my brief tenure on the Township Committee, I have observed that the burden of salaries and benefits in support of the delivery of services is crushing. In our decision-making, we frequently fail to measure the lifetime costs of employees. In addition to a person’s salary, we provide generous benefits that are unavailable to all but a small portion of private sector employees. After retirement, we continue to provide these benefits with little or no contribution from employees. As health care costs have escalated, taxpayers have picked up the tab. Until now, little has been done to contain these costs.
As elected officials, we need to be willing to make difficult, painful decisions to reduce spending. We will always provide police, fire and ambulance services. We will always maintain roads, respond to emergencies and pick up the garbage. But we need to examine parks and recreation programs, the swim club, the arts center, drug counseling, Middletown Day, and other non-essential services to determine whether we can provide those services through partnerships, outsourcing or other less-expensive means. We need to consolidate the sprawling, inefficient buildings that house are employees and programs. These decisions will not be popular, but the alternative is steady tax increases that make living here less attractive. We need to be prepared to lose elections in the interest of putting Middletown on a course that ensures its financial well-bring for the foreseeable future.