Category Archives: Cultural Arts Center

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.

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

Does A Cap On Legal Expenses Mean More Money For Lawyers Or Less? In Middletown There Is No Such Thing As A Cap!

If a township issues an ordinance or resolution to cap the legal expenses that an individual lawyer (who also happens to be on a $50,000 retainer) at $310,000 a year, doesn’t that mean that said lawyer doesn’t receive reimbursement for fees that exceed the $310,000 mark during that year?
I thought so, but apparently some of members of the Middletown Township Committee think otherwise.
Township Attorney Bernie Reilly, who until this year was the only Municipal Attorney in town, has been designated to handle all of the Townships litigation needs while new kid on the block and political cronie Brian Nelson, deals with municipal matters.  Each has been given the same deal with the Township, a $50,000 retainer and a cap on legal expenses of $310,000.
When Nelson was designated as Municipal Attorney and Reilly as Litigation Attorney, there were immediate objections by Patrick Short and Sean Byrnes, the Democrats that sit on the Township Committee.  In a time of economic stress and with a projected $3 million budget shortfall,they questioned how could the Republican majority justify doubling the expenses that the township pays in legal counsel.
They answered by saying, the expenses for each lawyer were capped at $310,000 each and because of Nelson limited roll as just “Municipal Attorney”, he should not exceed the cap on legal counsel that was in place. Their argument was the same for Reilly.
Well guess what, here we are 5 1/2 months into 2009 with no budget in place and the township committee slips in Resolution. 09-137  which authorizes the payment of an additional $7,041 to Bernie Reilly for work done in 2008.
How is this possible if there is a cap in place, a cap that Reilly agreed to no less? Unbelievable.
This is the game that the Middletown GOPers play to keep their buddies employed. They set a price, but have no intentions on holding their cronies to it. With the employment of two special litigators Nelson and Reilly, the potential to exceed the $310,000 amount stated in the resolutions voted on at re-org day is obvious now.
This is what keeps the tax rate on the upward spiral year after year (9.2% proposed for this year). If the town operated legally and stopped frivolous law suites against their adversaries (the Azzolina’s and Schwebel’s) there would be no reason for half the lawsuits brought on. 
And if this was not enough the Township also authorized the additional payment of $12,000 to The Special Construction Litigation Lawyer,Paul A. Sandars III of the law firm  of Lum, Drasco & Potisan LLC  for ongoing legal work on the Cultural Arts Center.  
Their legal work was capped at $45,000 by the township committee in Resolution 8-026 last year.
You can read more about this at MiddletownMusing, where Pat Walsh picks it a part.
 

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Filed under attorney fees, Bernie Reilly, Brian Nelson, Cultural Arts Center, Middletown GOP, resolutions and ordinances

With 25% Tax Increase In 4 years, Middletown GOP Needs To Be Held Accountable

It’s nice to know that the Township of Middletown pays attention to this blog.  

In response of my two earlier post of last week, Middletown GOP Push 9.2% Tax Increase Onto Residents & Thanks to GOP, Middletown Has Become Unaffordable, the mayor felt it necessary to issue a press release stating that Middletown is doing everything possible to seek further ways to reduce the 9.2% tax increase in this years proposed budget, which would be the 4th time in four years that the municipal tax rate would be increased and represent a cumulative 25% increase during this time.
Why do I assume that this press release was a direct response to my posts? Because on Thursday and Friday of last week, the days that the posts appear on MiddletownMike, the blog received several hits from township computers before the press release appeared sometime Friday afternoon. So being that this blog is so well read down at Town Hall, allow me to comment on a few of the points addressed in the press release.  
The revenue loss stems primarily from reductions in state aid, permit fees and interest earned on bank deposits.

Middletown lost $180,000 in state aid this year and yes permit fees are down due to the economy. Construction jobs are down, people are out of work, parking at the train station is off 20% or more, and people just cannot afford to spend money at this time. Surely, this can’t add up to $2.4M. Could other sources include the $980k gap created by the sale of our cell tower revenues last year? 
Now the mayor is leaving it up to the residents to figure out what services they want to do without. Is this what was meant when she campaigned in November on putting the taxpayer first? I thought that someone ran for public office to represent the people, not leave it up to the people to decide what to do. This is a prime example of a total lack of leadership. A real leader would look at the cold hard facts and decide what is best for the taxpayer, not leave it up to them to decide.

Middletown needs new way to generate revenue. The day of subsidizing programs with taxpayer dollars must end. Programs need to be self-supporting, like the Swim & Tennis Club that almost pays for itself. Or, the Arts Center that costs over $20k per month for utilities to control a moisture problem and operates at $300,000 loss per year. There are scientists that are trying to figure out what a black hole is, all they need to do is come to Middletown and look into facilities such as these and watch the money disappear before their eyes in disbelief.

50% of FY 2009’s budget has already been spent, how do the Middletown GOP plan on plugging a $2.4 million hole in the budget when half of it is already spent? This budget deficit should not have come as a suprise to anyone, this shortfall is the same amount that the township needed fill last year with one shot revenue gimmicks such as sell off the cell phone towers mentioned earlier.
Face it Middletown, the GOP refuses to make hard decisions and would rather blame others for their bad planning. We will be stuck with a 9.2% tax increase no matter what Mayor Pam or Deputy-dog Gerry says, just like last year.   
Keep in mind come November, Democrats Patrick Short and Sean Byrnes have been warning everyone that this day was coming unless prudent steps were taken early on during budget meetings. It is unfortunate that there warning have again been ignored by the majority party in town.

There is much more to comment on, but I’ll leave those comments for another post. 

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Filed under Cultural Arts Center, Gerry Scharfenberger, Middletown, Middletown Democrats, Middletown GOP, Pamela Brightbill, Patrick Short, press release, Sean F. Byrnes, tax increase

If Fair Haven Can Reduce The Tax Rate, Why Not Middletown?

The great budget battle in Middletown continues to rage on.  Already nearly 40% of  FY 2009 budget has been spent by the Township through emergency appropriation. 

How can we allow this to happen? No matter how much budget wrangling goes on, it will be almost impossible to save taxpayers from a municipal tax increase with only 60% of the budget left to play with.
If anyone thought that the leaf pick-up this year was a fiasco, wait until you see what the results will be of the draconian budget cuts that will be needed to close a possible $7 million deficit in the township budget. 
The reason why Middletown is in this type of mess to begin with is because the Township Committee, controlled by Assemblyman want to be Gerry Scharfenberger, Pam Brightbill and Tony “the Fibber” Fiore, unlike Fair Haven, has refused to cut services. Instead, the GOP control Township Committee has raised our tax rate by 17% over the past 3 years to close the budget deficits, all the while blaming Trenton for it.
How did Fair Haven save it’s taxpayers 2% on their tax bill? They consolidated departments, bid out fro professional services and now do engineering work in-house.
Now granted, Middletown is a much larger town than Fair Haven, with more complex issues to deal with, but if Fair Haven can consolidate services to save money, then Middletown should also be able to, there is a lot of fat that could be trimmed before Middletown should consider a tax increase.
One idea being floated by Democrat Sean Brynes is to transfer the Cultural Arts Center from the Parks and Recreation department to the Middletown Library. Many of the programs offered at the Arts Center are duplicated by the library system, so why not ask the library to take over the Arts Center in order to run it more efficiently. In doing so, it could save the township over a quarter million dollars in operating fees alone.
Middletown should look at Fair Haven as an example of how to control costs and limit spending in order to contain the need for tax increases.
Click here to read how Fair Haven was able lower it’s tax rate 2 years in a row. 

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Filed under budget deficit, Cultural Arts Center, Fair Haven NJ, Middletown, tax rate

Middletown Township Facing a $3.79 Million Budget Deficit: GOP Majority Unwilling to Make Hard Choices

A few weeks ago I asked Middletown Committeemen Sean F. Brynes and Patrick Short, for  their thoughts on how this year’s Township budget was shaping up.  They both expressed concerns about how their ideas, suggestions and previous business and budgeting experiences are being ignored  by the GOP majority that controls the Middletown committee. 
At this moment, Middletown is facing a $3.79 million budget shortfall. Brynes and Short are concerned about this because it seems as if the GOP majority of  Mayor Pam Brightbill, Deputy Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger and Committeeman Tony “the Fibber” Fiore, are not taking the process seriously enough to make the hard decisions necessary to balance this years budget. 
Comitteeman Brynes sent me the following letter to further expresses his thoughts and concerns about Middletown’s budget shortfall and taxpayers:

The Middletown Township Committee has a daunting task when it comes to balancing this year’s budget. Even with freezing spending at 2008 levels, anticipated expenses exceed revenues by $3.79 million, with the lion’s share of spending dedicated to salaries and benefits, squeezing the budget for a $3.79 million reduction in operational spending is almost impossible. Unfortunately, the structural changes that are needed to truly reduce spending take time. Reductions in personnel hold the greatest potential for achieving substantial budget savings, but we have waited too long to take action.

Last summer, I introduced a resolution to create a Finance Committee, so that we could begin the work of trimming our budget. At the time, then Mayor Scharfeberger criticized this idea, assuring the public that the Township had cut as much as we could, and further cuts were not possible. Further cuts are always possible. It becomes a question of what you are willing to give up in order to achieve spending reductions. The Township Committee can decide what programs we will continue and what programs will be suspended. It is our job to set policy. The current times call for unprecedented steps to curtail spending. Some programs, even some very popular programs, may need to be suspended until our economy improves. Our overriding goal should be to avoid burdening our taxpayers with any additional tax obligation, especially when some of our residents are about to be hit with increased costs of flood insurance.

I agree that we are at the mercy of State funding reductions, but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. We need to focus our efforts on softening the blow to taxpayers. I was pleased when my fellow Committee members agreed last week to schedule emergency meetings with all Department heads to review departmental spending and evaluate opportunities for reducing expenses. Everything should be on the table. We will not bridge the $3.79 million shortfall unless we squeeze every available line item. We have entered the month of March. We need to take action soon. As time passes, the amount of spending we can cut diminishes. I have proposed asking all professionals to accept 10 to 15 percent reductions on their professional contracts. I have introduced an ordinance to eliminate health benefits and salaries for commissioners on the sewer authority and their alternates. We don’t need 7 sewerage commissioners collecting benefits when we have a Township Committee of 5 who don’t get any health benefits.

Other savings opportunities are available to the Committee. We need to correct whatever operational problems are generating utility bills over $200,000 at the Arts Center. We need to consider consolidating some activities, perhaps merging the Arts Center with the Library. Recent legislation introduced at the State level would cut the Library’s funding in half. I oppose such a draconian cut. It would have a devastating effect on the services our Library provides. However, if we were to agree to continue the Library’s current level of funding, even if such legislation were passed, I think it would make sense to merge the Arts Center into the Library’s operation. We should move quickly toward outsourcing much of our property maintenance, thereby alleviating the costs associated with purchasing lawn mowers, equipment, and the servicing costs associated with them. We should ask our Board of Education to join in this effort. There is little reason that our parks, ball fields and recreational properties need to separately managed and maintained by two separate governmental entities. Our leaf pickup operation also needs an overhaul and could also be done by contractors. Hiring and paying Township employees to engage in these activities is extremely expensive when you consider compensation, benefits, etc. Recreational activities such as concerts, Middletown Day, etc. may need to be suspended if they cost more than they bring in. Obviously, suspending events like these should be temporary measures taken in a time of crisis. However, they must be on the table.

We have our work cut our for us, but these are challenging times. We will no doubt pull through this current economic slump, but in the interim, we need to ensure that the taxpayers, already feeling the pinch of a sinking economy, are not handed a higher tax bill.


If anyone would like to contact Committeeman Sean Byrnes directly, in order voice your ideas or concerns about this years budget or anyother subject that concerns you, he can be reached at the email address below.
sfbyrnes@gmail.com

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Filed under Budget, Cultural Arts Center, Gerry Scharfenberger, Middletown, Middletown Board of Education, Middletown Library, Pamela Brightbill, Patrick Short, Sean F. Byrnes, Tony"the fibber"Fiore

>GOP candidates are bad for Middletown

>What is the Middletown GOP’s motivation in this campaign that is affecting their judgment? It certainly isn’t dealing with the real issues that Middletown residents are facing on an everyday basis ” like putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their family’s head.

A possible motive could be covering up damage this Republican-controlled government has thrown in the face of Middletown for the past 27 years. The contamination at the Arts Center and Town Hall has been ignored, to the point where a state agency had to step in and start charging fees for the township’s oversights in the project.

When I’ve walked neighborhoods, what residents keep telling me is they simply can’t afford their homes anymore. They can’t afford their mortgages, their children’s college education or their taxes.

Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger’s praise of Middletown being in Money Magazine’s Top 100 Places to Live in the Country forgets some things: Middletown isn’t taking enough care of its own right now and the quality of life has declined.

What has this administration done to maintain the quality of life its residents enjoy? It has turned away many young people in its mismanagement of affordable housing, allowed properties to remain unsafely contaminated, and pretended as if FEMA was unreal, like it “couldn’t happen to us.”

Deputy Mayor Pam Brightbill and her running mate, have charged me with raising taxes in a town where I don’t yet sit on the committee. They have made assumptions, and the only reason for this is because they are running against me in a political election.

In exercising their apparent judgment, they are choosing to attack opponents, literally fabricating issues and spinning truth. The facts remain, but the truth is this: The Middletown GOP administration is on a path that will ruin this community, if allowed to fester any further.

It is evident their judgment has not been influenced by the public at all. The Middletown GOP is plagued by self-serving motivations, cronyism and partisan gifts handed out by chairman Peter Carton.

Jim Grenafege
Democrat for Township Committee
Middletown resident

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Filed under 100 Best places to live, Cultural Arts Center, Jim Grenafege, Mayor Scharfenberger, Middletown, Middletown Democrats, Middletown GOP, Pamela Brightbill, Town Hall

GOP candidates are bad for Middletown

What is the Middletown GOP’s motivation in this campaign that is affecting their judgment? It certainly isn’t dealing with the real issues that Middletown residents are facing on an everyday basis ” like putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their family’s head.

A possible motive could be covering up damage this Republican-controlled government has thrown in the face of Middletown for the past 27 years. The contamination at the Arts Center and Town Hall has been ignored, to the point where a state agency had to step in and start charging fees for the township’s oversights in the project.

When I’ve walked neighborhoods, what residents keep telling me is they simply can’t afford their homes anymore. They can’t afford their mortgages, their children’s college education or their taxes.

Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger’s praise of Middletown being in Money Magazine’s Top 100 Places to Live in the Country forgets some things: Middletown isn’t taking enough care of its own right now and the quality of life has declined.

What has this administration done to maintain the quality of life its residents enjoy? It has turned away many young people in its mismanagement of affordable housing, allowed properties to remain unsafely contaminated, and pretended as if FEMA was unreal, like it “couldn’t happen to us.”

Deputy Mayor Pam Brightbill and her running mate, have charged me with raising taxes in a town where I don’t yet sit on the committee. They have made assumptions, and the only reason for this is because they are running against me in a political election.

In exercising their apparent judgment, they are choosing to attack opponents, literally fabricating issues and spinning truth. The facts remain, but the truth is this: The Middletown GOP administration is on a path that will ruin this community, if allowed to fester any further.

It is evident their judgment has not been influenced by the public at all. The Middletown GOP is plagued by self-serving motivations, cronyism and partisan gifts handed out by chairman Peter Carton.

Jim Grenafege
Democrat for Township Committee
Middletown resident

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Filed under 100 Best places to live, Cultural Arts Center, Jim Grenafege, Mayor Scharfenberger, Middletown, Middletown Democrats, Middletown GOP, Pamela Brightbill, Town Hall