The latest and last edition of “It’s Your Town” newsletter for the year, which covers the Middletown Township Committee meeting for Dec. 19th, 2011, is now available for your reading pleasure.
Category Archives: budget surplus
Dec 19th Hearing on the Ordinance Adding Two Additional Trustees to the Library Board: M’town Patch & Independent articles contain inaccuracies
By guest blogger Linda Baum
If you are a regular to Mike’s blog, by now you are well informed about the Library’s $500,000 transfer to the Township this year and the Town Committee’s plan to increase the number of Library trustees from 7 to 9 in 2012.
A public hearing on the Ordinance increasing Board membership was held at the Town Committee meeting on Monday, December 19th. Several reporters were present at the hearing. Mike Davis’s article in the Independent and Sue Morgan’s in the Middletown Patch were posted within a day or two. While they get points for timeliness, they lose some for accuracy.
Sue Morgan misstates the amount of the Library’s annual budget as $700K – it is $3.7M – but that is a minor error compared to the second to last sentence of her article. She wrote:
“Under an agreement hammered out by both the board and the committee, the township is now carrying the debt service on the library’s parking lot which recently underwent extensive repairs, the mayor added.”
The statement is inaccurate in two ways. As far as I know, there was no major work done to the lot recently, and the Library did not proceed with its lot expansion. Further, per the agreement this year between the Library and the Township, the Library has only two options for covering the cost of its capital improvements – they can pay cash or they can make the debt service payments on bonds (or notes) issued by the Township.
I don’t recall Mayor Fiore making the statement as it reads in the Patch article, and I think it can be attributed to an intentionally misleading comment he made, as quoted in the Independent, about encompassing “some of [the Library’s] capital projects into [the Township’s] capital program, including their parking lot and solar projects.” That made it sound like the Township is paying, but there is no cost to the Township for either the lot expansion or the solar project, which is a power purchase arrangement that involves no capital outlay.
Both the Independent and Patch articles included comments made by both Melanie Elmiger and myself. Melanie presented her comments very well at the hearing and I think they were captured fairly accurately in the articles. However, I think some of what I said was misrepresented in the Independent.
I would like to set the record straight, so here is a recap of my comments at the hearing along with excerpts from the Independent where I feel Mike Davis missed the mark.
Mayor Fiore has been framing the increase in Library Board membership as just an increase in public participation, with no other motive. So if more participation is a good thing for the Library Board, I questioned why that isn’t also true for the Sewerage Authority (TOMSA) Board and for the Town Committee itself, both with just 5 members each controlling budgets of $9 million and $60 million, respectively. In contrast, the Library Board currently has 7 members, soon to be 9, overseeing a budget of $3.7 million.
My point was that the Town Committee’s stance about the need for more public participation on the Library Board runs counter to their stance about the participation levels on other boards & committees. (Keep in mind the Town Committee has resisted the formation of a finance committee that would increase public participation and oversight of its own activities.)
Mayor Fiore replied that TOMSA has 7 board members, and I was quick to correct him that it is a 5-member board with 2 alternates, where only 5 vote at any time. Fiore again insisted, incorrectly, that there are 7 members.
Besides the inconsistencies in board size, there are also inconsistencies in oversight. I compared the Township’s scrutiny of the Library’s budget and operations to its hands-off approach to TOMSA and said that a consistent policy was needed. Fiore said that they do oversee TOMSA and that the money TOMSA gave to the Township – $730K over the last two years – is proof of that. Ridiculous. As I see it, that handout could just as easily be interpreted as a concession to avoid scrutiny. Regardless, it certainly can’t be construed as proof of oversight.
(An aside: If the Town Committee is really overseeing TOMSA and is so gung ho about public participation, how is it the TOMSA Board was able to avoid the public’s eye recently by ignoring a legal mandate to publish notice of their budget hearing? And shouldn’t oversight of TOMSA’s budget entail elimination of unwarranted expenses, such as medical and pension benefits for Board members? The Township has sanctioned these costs!)
Mike Davis’s article contains some partial quotes, inaccuracies, and re-ordering of comments that, combined, miss the point I was trying to make. He describes my comments as follows:
“Public participation is a good thing. You see [that] nine members are needed to oversee a $3.8 million budget,” she said, also citing the seven members who make up the Township of Middletown Sewerage Authority.”
The Township Committee was not exempt, she said.
“Right now you have five people on the Township Committee controlling a $60 million budget. It seems to me you need a consistent policy here. If you’re going to watch one closely, watch them all closely,” Baum said.
I think that anyone reading that would have trouble following my logic. Also, he makes it sound like I’m arguing in favor of the two additional appointees to the Library Board, which I wasn’t. I’m against it given the current political environment, but I admit I may not have stated that outright. I didn’t organize my comments as well as Melanie did, so I can understand if there was confusion.
>The Middletown Library "Unfinished Business": The latest on the $500K transfer, the lot construction, the Lincroft Branch, and other issues.
>by guest blogger Linda Baum
Mike mentioned in a 5/17/11 post that a number of ongoing issues were slated to be discussed at this Wednesday’s 5/18/11 meeting of the Middletown Library Board, which I attended.
One issue concerned the parking lot expansion project. As Mike said, the Board had been told by the town that T&M Engineering would be the engineer for this work. The Board was given no other option or opportunity to compare costs, but will be responsible for paying the bill for these services.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the trustees voiced concern about the use of T&M, pointing out that the Board had not been satisfied with T&M’s services on a prior project. They were told that T&M is the town’s engineer for capital projects for 2011, so to the extent that the lot construction is designated as one of the town’s capital projects this year, T&M will be the engineer. So says the town.
Maser Consulting had been hired by the Library to do initial design work for the lot prior to the town’s taking of funds. That work is complete except for coordination with the engineer of choice.
It wasn’t clear if a decision had been made about who would pay for the actual construction, the Town or the Library. While the lot expansion was “included” in the $500K transfer agreement between the Library and the Township, the question of who would pay was left unanswered. Committman Settembrino’s comment at Wednesday’s meeting that the library would be responsible for “soft costs” (such as the engineering costs) seemed to imply that the library would not be responsible for the “hard costs” for actual construction.
The Library Board is making no assumptions – they are more likely to be on the hook than not. In fact, they haven’t decided to go ahead with any of the work. The Board feels they may not have sufficient funds.
There are still a number of steps and hurdles before the $500K transfer can be made. First, focus groups must be completed and a strategic plan finalized, and a package of materials including those pieces submitted to the State Librarian for approval. Committeman Settembrino said that Town personnel were under the impression that the package would be submitted to the state by the end of May, but Ms. O’Neal pointed out that the Board couldn’t submit the package to the state until the Board passes a resolution that it has filled all the requirements, where 4 out of 5 pieces require the Board’s approval. A decision was made to finalize review of the strategic plan at the Board’s June 15th meeting, in line with Committeeman Settembrino’s request that discussion take place before the Town’s regular meeting on June 20th.
An important point is that there is no guarantee the State Library will give its approval. Ms. O’Neal commented that the State could take issue with the reserve figure in the Library’s audit, where the reserve includes funds from municipal and other sources.
Some other topics discussed at the meeting:
The Lincroft branch is believed to have lead-based paint and asbestos in the walls given the age of the structure. The paint isn’t peeling, and therefore poses no danger. A concern about the asbestos is that it may be in the walls of the front entryway, which has termite damage. So there are costs involved for the inspection and abatement plan in addition to the repair work. An architect will be presenting on this topic at the Board’s June 15th meeting.
There was discussion about the need for either curbs or reflectors or boulders to prevent people from parking on the grass in certain sections of the library’s lot. (I bet you didn’t know that the fancy boulders in the lot aren’t just there for looks. Nope, they’re there to assist you in stopping.) The Board concluded that posts with reflectors would get the job done at a reasonable cost.
Kudos to Eagle Scout Andrew Bloy, who will be allowed to place a collection jar at the Library’s front desk because he has demonstrated considerable community benefit. Allowing the collection effort represents an exception by the Board to Library policy. The Board was impressed with Mr. Bloy’s request letter and community involvement. In fact, they mentioned that after Mr. Bloy learned that planting a medicinal herb garden at a local medical office would not earn him scouting credit, he did it anyway.
The Board discussed a software donation offer by a local company called Comprise Technologies. The software, offered free for six months, is designed to process payments made by credit card. The Board noted that credit cards are being used with increasing frequency for the payment of library fines. Comprise Technologies will be presenting at the Library Board meeting on July 20th. There are ongoing expenditures to be considered, including fees for the software and service, and costs for integration with other library systems. There was also discussion of implementing a charge for credit card payments, but the Board instead opted to request a donation when credit cards are used. The thinking is that folks probably wouldn’t mind rounding up their payment to the next dollar, at least.
>Tomorrow night’s (Wednesday) scheduled Middletown Library Board meeting on the surface seems rather innocuous and uncontroversial when you consider the course of events that transpired over the last few months between the Library and the Township Committee over surplus funds, but as we know appearances can be deceiving. The dangers that lurk under calm surfaces may be hidden from view but nonetheless still exist.
Having looked at the agenda for the upcoming meeting there is a discussion scheduled to take place title “Unfinished Business-Update” for line item #8.
This discussion could get interesting because this project was one of the priorities of the library’s Board of Trustees prior to the Township’s money grab last month, and as such, it was included in the agreement between the library and the Township on the $500,000 transfer of funds.
What make this interesting is that the Township’s trusted engineers of choice, T&M, would be the engineers on this project with no options given to the library for consideration of other firms, which means no competitive bidding on the project that could reduce costs and no say in the final design or outcome of the project by the library trustees.
So the question is, who will be watching out to ensure that the parking lot expansion project will be done properly and in a cost efficient manner? This is the first test for the Township to see if it can be trusted to do what’s right with the monies that will be given it by the library when the funds are finally transferred in the near future.
If you’re interested in attending the meeting it begins at 7:00pm and will be held in the Community Meeting Room of the Main Branch located on New Monmouth Road.
>I found the following press release from Monmouth County somewhat interesting since Middletown’s Township Committee threatened to turn over the operation of the Middletown Library to the county earlier this year if it did not receive adequate reserved funds handed over to it, so that the funds could be applied this years Township budget.
While the circumstances behind Atlantic Highlands transferring its’ library over to the county was no less controversy, you didn’t have the public grandstanding and threats by it’s town council Like you did in Middletown that sparked such public outrage amounts library supporters.
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – Monmouth County will officially welcome the Atlantic Highlands Library as the Library System’s on May 1, marking the addition of the 13th branch to the largest circulating library system in the state.
“It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome Atlantic Highlands as our newest branch in the Monmouth County Library System,” said Freeholder Lillian G. Burry, liaison to the Library Commission. “Atlantic Highlands is home to my daughter and grandchildren, and I know first-hand what a wonderful community it is. A library branch there only makes it more special.”
The Atlantic Highlands Borough Council last year voted to join the county library as a branch, and the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders confirmed the action in a vote in December.
“We are so pleased that the people of Atlantic Highlands have chosen to expand our long association by becoming a branch of the library,” said Renee B. Swartz, Monmouth County Library Commission chairwoman. “We will always be mindful of the faith you have demonstrated in our institution and honored that you entrusted the operation of the Atlantic Highlands Library to the library commission.”
Beginning May 1, the library at 48 Avenue C will offer new expanded hours:
Mondays, Wednesday and Saturdays – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tuesdays and Thursdays – 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Fridays – 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
During the past few months, work has been ongoing to make the borough library’s computer system and catalog compatible with the county system. The library is currently located on Avenue C while its new home is under construction as part of the renovations at the borough hall on First Avenue. The renovation project expected to be completed later this year.
The county library headquarters is located in Manalapan. Libraries with branch status in the county system include the Eastern Branch in Shrewsbury, Allentown, Atlantic Highlands, Colts Neck, Hazlet, Holmdel, Howell, Marlboro, Ocean Township, Oceanport, Wall and West Long Branch.
Also based on details about the contracts and information released about the layoffs that effect the Department of Parks and Recreation, I believe several people have decided retired instead of being laid off. I am wondering how these retirements have affected the budget? Seeing how the Township is using $3.5M in surplus funds to pay off tax appeals this year instead of bonding for the funds, this budget is only holding $500K in reserve. These retirements are bound to eat into the remaining surplus which would leave the township dangerously close to running out of money by years end.
>By guest blogger Linda Baum
There were only about twenty attendees at Wednesday’s meeting of the Middletown Library Board, a fraction of the crowd that showed up last month. Aside from Committeeman Settembrino, who is on the Library Board, no one from the Township was there. And the mood was different. It was calm, and everyone was polite. I took that as a bad sign.
A handful of people spoke during the public portion at the start of the meeting.
Jim Grenafege and I had a common message, that the Township has a history of mismanaging tax dollars, either ignoring problems or responding to slowly or inadequately. Add to that a history of nondisclosure and bad financial decisions – bad for the taxpayers, anyway — and it’s no small wonder they are looking for rescue now. My take is that if the Township is looking for a handout, the Town Committee needs to show that they have prudently managed the funds already in their charge. There is much evidence to the contrary, and I will get into all of that another time.
Right off the bat, Board President Gabrielan made a motion to give the town $250,000, half the amount that administrators and attorneys had come up with. Only he and Board VP Milne voted yes on the motion, and it failed 5 to 2.
At least one Board member expressed concern that much time had already been spent on discussion by the administrators and attorneys, who were charged with arriving at a figure. Mr. Gabrielan pointed out that they were not also charged with voting for the Board. Mr. Gabrielan felt the negotiations did not accurately represent facts or address concerns, and said that information could be presented in any manner to achieve a desired result. And with that, the sentiment from the last meeting reared its head.
Other Board members seemed just to want to get this issue behind them and get on with other library business. The Board members felt the need to agree to an amount to the town’s liking in order to be insulated from such attacks for the remainder of 2011 and to protect the library from the threat of transfer to the county system, a threat Mr. Gabrielan noted was without merit.
“Tax relief” was a handy feel-good phrase. It had to be obvious to everyone just how little relief the money would provide. I suspect the Board had an eye to how they would be painted in the press. In fact – if I heard right — a joint press release was part of the negotiated agreement.
There was also considerable concern about the town’s plan to handle the parking lot expansion on behalf of the library as part of the giveback, while still expecting the library to pay the debt service on a bond for the work. The issue, of course, was that the library should not have to pay anything after the giveback, which includes funds that were earmarked for the construction. I am not sure how this was resolved. I think the town backed down, and in the end it was agreed that after the giveback, the library would owe nothing more to the town for the lot construction.
After all was said and done, the Board voted to give just short of $500,000 to the town.
I stayed until the end, just me and two members of the press. There was a second public comment period at that time. I was the lone speaker. I felt the need to point out that the lot construction arrangement was not a good thing for taxpayers because the town would be using the library’s money for some other purpose and then bonding for the construction. That will burden taxpayers with additional unnecessary debt that we would not have had if the library handled the work itself. And it will be yet another reason why the town will be back before the Library Board next year and the year after crying for more money.
>Instead of the over inflated request of $1.2 million that the Middletown Township Committee wants to steal from the Middletown Library, local officials have now made a new and improved request to the library for only $500,000 of its reserved funds according to an article online this morning over at the Asbury Park Press.
The other quote that sticks out is from Township Administrator Tony Mercantante, “Both sides could sue each other, and we’d end up in court for three years, but no one wants that.”
This to me seems like an ill disguised vile threat if you ask me, especially if you add it to other inflammatory remarks already made by those who represent the township that threatened to change the composition of the Library’s Board of Trustees by not reappointing current trustees and by adding more trustees that would be more sympathetic to the Township’s wishes, along with handing the Middletown Library over to the County to run.
The article also reiterates what I have been reminding people of since the February 16th Library Board meeting, which is that this request will not save the jobs of the 26 employees already scheduled to be laid off:
Township officials have said they need the money to avoid laying off more than the 26 positions that are already part of a plan it submitted to the state Civil Service Commission last month. Included in the layoff plan are 10 township police department and 13 parks and recreation department positions.
>N.J. municipalities scramble to notify voters on property tax referendum; I wonder if Middletown has plans to hedge it’s bet
>According to the Star-Ledger, today is the last day that municipalities around the State have to notifiy their votes of the potential to hold a property tax referendum that would enable a municipality to exceed Governor Christie’s 2% cap on budgets.
I posted Saturday about how Middletown’s Administrator Tony Mercantante and others have stated that they had no intention to exceed the 2% cap and that there would be no referendum needed, especially since Mercantante had no idea how a referendum would work. He stated at the February 16th Library Board meeting that the State Legislature(code word for Democrats) in its bill, provided no guidance or allocated any type of funds to municipalities for the purpose of such an event. So Middletown wasn’t going to even consider such a possibility.
Instead of planning for the possiblility of a referendum, Middletown’s Mayor Tony Fiore, and others that control the town planned to follow Governor Christie’s lead and stay with in a 2% budget increase.
That sounds great in theory but wouldn’t be a good idea to hedge your bets and announce a referendum just in case they can’t stay with in the cap?
Is the Township Committee really prepared to lay off 10 or more police officers and the whole department of Parks & Recreation if they can not get union consessions during contract talks or if they Library Board refuses to hand over any more reserved funds then they are legally responsible to do, which at this point is in the neighborhood of $250,000?
I guess these questions will be answered at tonight’s Township workshop meeting.
TRENTON — New Jersey enters a new era today as voters get to find out if they may be asked next month to raise their property taxes beyond the Christie administration’s new 2 percent limit.
Under the law signed by Gov. Chris Christie last summer, residents will decide if their town or school budget can exceed the 2 percent cap through a referendum on April 27, the same day as school board elections.
Towns and schools were scrambling last week to meet today’s deadline to publish a newspaper ad notifying voters a referendum may be held. As of Sunday, five towns — Plumsted, Mount Holly, Riverdale, North Arlington and Chesilhurst — had placed ads and at least five more towns and two schools planned to, according to groups representing towns and schools….Read more >>> Here