POINTING FINGERS & LOOKING FOR A PENNY
Agita continued to flow from Red Bank’s proposed 21-percent budget increase last night as one resident lashed out at the borough council, another sought details on where purported spending cuts had been made, and elected officials blamed Trenton and Freehold for many of the town’s fiscal woes.
“You people aren’t in the same world as the rest of us,” Arthur Parent railed at Mayor Pasquale Menna and the six-member council.
Noting that taxes on his Alston Court home are already up 50 percent since since 2001, he added: “You guys have to get real. This is not even close to reality.”
Kim Senkeleski, a Red Bank native and resident of John Street, politely ran through a list of questions she had prepared based on her reading of the spending plan.
Her theme: show me the cuts.
“It looks like these ‘decreases’ are from the (previously proposed) 2008 budget, not from 2007,” she said.
Officials acknowledged that she was correct in some respects, with several department trimming their funding requests in recent weeks. But they added that the town had also opted not to fill new police and code enforcement jobs that were approved last year year but not staffed, for significant savings.
Instead of beefing up the police force, for example, “from 42 officers, we’re going down to 40 in a few months” due to retirements, Councilman Art Murphy said. “The mayor has asked us all to tighten our belts.”
Had layoffs been considered as a way to cut the expected tax increase, Senkeleski asked.
“We asked each department head to look at that,” said Councilman Mike DuPont, chairman of the council’s finance committee. “There were some retirements… but all other departments stayed the same.”
Borough administrator Stanley Sickels added that the borough has eliminated 15 full-time positions over the past decade, yet “at the same time, we’re getting new mandates from the state and council” to do more with less staffing.
Senkeleski also expressed disappointment that new development had added $33 million worth of taxable property to the ratables base, but yielded just $127,000 in additional revenue, according to data from chief financial officer Frank Mason.
Bill Meyer, who owns 12 Monmouth Street, seized on that as well. “We’ve seen overdevelopment tax the infrastructure,” he said. “Everything I’ve read says chasing ratables only drives your taxes up.”
Borough officials contend the $19.1 million spending plan, which would boost the average homeowner’s local tax by $331 in the coming year, is a work in progress.
Though public hearings on ordinances are usually followed immediately by a council vote, the budget vote has been put off indefinitely while department heads and members of the council’s finance committee continue to scour for savings and revenue-boosters.
“It is still in a state of flux,” Menna said. “We are still waiting for additional information.”
DuPont said the finance committee hopes to knock another penny off the proposed 7.7-cents-per-$100 property tax increase. That would trim the increase on the average-assessed residence to $288, from $331.
As they have before, officials said the borough was beset by a mix of ugly inevitabilities. They include contractually mandated 3.5-percent pay increases this year for the two-thirds of the borough’s 200 public employees covered by collective baragaining agreements; state mandates regarding pension funding; a spike in debt service related to infrastructure failures in recent years; and the expected shrinkage in the amount of aid received from Trenton, to $2.6 million this year, from $2.8 million last year.
The contracts with the police department and other public employees expire this year, and officials said they would attempt to hold the line on increases. This year, the contracts account for 5.2 cents of the proposed increase, said DuPont.
But this year, don’t expect a “deus ex machina” miracle to save the day, Menna said, referring to an ancient theatrical tradition in which the improbable arrival of a solution to a vexing situation turns up late.
Auditor David Kaplan was met with derision from the audience when he said the impact on property owners would be “only 19.1 percent,” as opposed to an overall increase of 21 percent. Afterward, he told redbankgreen regretted his choice of words.
The proposed budget is online at the borough website.