The Southies got the crowd they wantedand the startled attention of Red Bank’s governing bodyas an overflow throng descended on the Borough Council Monday night to demand a halt to rising property taxes.
Responding to a recent leafletting campaign launched by South Street homeowners, residents packed the council chambers, catching elected officials off guard both with their numbers and with their calls for an end to tax hikes.
“I obviously didn’t know we were going to have this many people here,” Mayor Ed McKenna said near the outset of the meeting, a remark that was echoed by two council members.
“We’re here to tell you we’re hurting,” rally organizer Marta Rambaud told the council. “We need to change the trend. We’re hurting and we need help. That help has to come from you, or we’ll have to move away.”
By the end of the nearly two-hour session, the audience had been treated to an emotional call by McKenna for respect he said was due him for “over one thousand nights of my life” spent attending public meetings; yet another volatile exchange between McKenna, who is not seeking re-election, and mayoral candidate John Curley; and a Leighton Avenue resident’s Vaudevillian re-enactment of his encounter with a topless prostitute as he retrieved his morning newspaper recently.
The overflow crowd prompted McKenna to open up the public comment portion of the meeting earlier than expected, following a presentationobviously prepared in advanceby new chief financial officer Frank Mason on the borough’s tax increases relative to nearby towns.
“As I see it, Red Bank is handling it pretty well,” Mason said of the challenge of keeping taxes in check.
McKenna drove home the same theme. Sixteen years ago, “when we took over,” he said, the borough had the second-highest tax tab in the county. Today, he said, it ranks 26th out of 52 towns.
Throughout the session, McKenna parried with residents, depicting the borough as fiscally better off than it once wasand carrying a lighter tax load today than neighboring towns. He detailed steps his administration had taken to keep spending under control, and said that the burden of having a large number of tax-exempt properties such as Riverview Medical Center in town made the job all the harder in the face of soaring healthcare, pension and energy costs.
He also equated calls for across-the-board cuts without specifc recommendations on what to trim with “grandstanding.”
The mayor also said the borough was in for a windfall of revenue, starting with “a ton of money, and I mean a ton,” next year from the new Hovnanian Enterprises headquarters. Pressed for a sum, McKenna estimated Hovnanian’s tax bill at between $400,000 and $500,000. Moreover, two other propertiesthe Grandville Towers apartments, which may go condo, and the Red Bank Corporate Plaza office building under construction at the corner of Maple Avenue and West Front Street, should soon be adding substantially to collections, he said.
Still, the questions, criticisms and advice camebetween gripes about development, a Catherine Street liquor store and the adequacy of the borough ordinance on fences, that is.
“I’m glad to know you’re adding more to the pot,” Audrey Oldoerp of South Street said in response to McKenna’s revenue forecast. “But are you doing anything to cut the budget?”
William Poku of Bank Street said it was time to merge the public schools with the charter school. “There’s really no reason to have two separate school systems,” he said.
Gary Morris of River Street asked council members, all of whom have full-time jobs outside their borough duties, to forego publicly financed health benefits. (Councilwoman Kaye Ernst and Curley said they already do.)
Rambaud challenged McKenna for repeatedly linking demands for tax restraint with the prospect of onerous cuts in services. “Massachussetts has a cap on property taxes, and they still have police,” she said. “California has a cap, and they still have police.”
Judith Hathaway of Ambassador Drive, a regular at the meetings, appealed to the crowd to become frequent attendees themselves, and to vote in school board elections.
“You can be here as part of the process,” Hathaway said. “You need to be involved. You can’t be angry and do nothing.”
Afterward, Rambaud voiced mixed feelings about the session.
“It’s good that a lot of people showed up, but (the officials) always have excuses,” she said. “Now we have to keep up the pressure on them.”