MTOWN BUDGET OUTLOOK: ‘UG-LY’

scharfenbergerMiddletown Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger talks to several dozen residents  who turned out Thursday night for the year’s first public informational meeting. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

The state aid numbers are in to Middletown, and Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger likely couldn’t put it more blunt.

“It is ug-ly,” he said.

Schargenberger was speaking to about two dozen residents, who may have showed up to the Middletown Arts Center with other topics in mind, for the first of three neighborhood meetings scheduled for the year.

But the budget seemed to dominate.

The meetings are a Middletown tradition, a way for locals to voice their concerns or ask questions without the pressure or formality of the “State your name and address for the record” atmosphere of a committee meeting.

A half-hour prior to the session, Scharfenberger was notified just how much state aid Gov. Chris Christie was cutting from the town: $1.3 million, or, considering last year the town received about $7.1 million, an 18 percent cut.

“Which is enormous,”  Scharfenberger said. “It’s worse than we’ve ever imagined.”

This year’s budget is around $62 million, Scharfenberger said.

Municipalities and school boards around the state have been bracing for the cut in aid, but in Middletown, it hurts an already-major budget problem, said Councilman Sean Byrnes.

“You’re talking about a five, six million dollar shortfall,” Byrnes said. “You are talking about a budget climate unlike anything anyone here has ever seen.”

The impact? Considering the information was so new Thursday night, it was hard for the committee to say. Sharing services and trying to bring down operating expenses are definitely at the forefront. Byrnes talked about ideas he’s had to combine school and municipal maintenance workers, offer day care at the arts center to try and raise revenue and, as an experiment, contracting out leaf and brush collection to see if it cuts costs. But they’re only ideas at this point.

Despite any possible revenue generators, a tax hike and layoffs, which Scharfenberger termed “last resorts,” are on the table.

“It’s almost premature to say what we can do at this point,” Scharfenberger said.

That’s one job for the town’s new chief financial officer, Nick Trasente, who started Monday, filling a months-long gap left by Richard Wright. Scharfenberger said the town is, “very, very lucky to get this gentleman.” Already the committee has talked to Trasente to look into the town’s debt to see if there’s a chance to repackage it at a lower interest rate.

Still, there’s a difficult row to hoe in terms of the coming year’s fiscal plan. Scharfenberger said revenue has been down. Income from recyclables, particularly newspapers,  has gone down about $400,000, Scharfenberger said. Tax appeals, which are frequent, can cost in the low millions, Byrnes said. The loss in revenues, coupled with the loss in state aid, is the biggest concern, Scharfenberger said.

“Even if you hold the line and your revenue goes down from the year before, you’re in a hole,” he said.

And for those who’ve railed against the contentious possible improvements to West Front Street Park? You might get your wish.

“We have to re-think using the bond at all,” Scharfenbrger said, referring to a $2.5 million bond approved in 2006 toward upgrading recreational facilities in town. An increase in debt service could put the township in violation of Christie’s 2.5-percent cap on spending increases, he noted.

If there’s anything to be taken away from Thursday night’s meeting, it’s that little is safe from the knife. Scharfenberger said the best thing for residents to do is stay informed, and maybe offer an idea or two on how to cut costs and increase revenue.

“If people start to get engaged,” he said, explicitly pointing out that residents should not believe all they read in the media, “I think that’s our best weapon.”

And there’s plenty of chances to engage yourself. The mayor holds office hours from 10a to noon the first and third Saturdays of the month at Town Hall. The next neighborhood meetings will be held: At 7p, March 23, at the Middletown Senior Center; and 7p, March 30, at the Tonya Keller Bayshore Community Center.

Trasente, by the way, is a former borough administrator and CFO of Highland Park who spent last year working for Hoboken. He’ll be paid $135,000 this year.

Here’s a township press release about his hire: rel-trasente