RESIDENTS SWEAT BUDGET DETAILS

rb-budget-042810Participants in last night’s Q&A on the Red Bank budget pick up info packets. (Click to enlarge)

Red Bank officials held a marathon budget walk-through before a standing-room crowd at borough hall Wednesday night, laying out the rationale for a plan that calls for a property tax increase and the possibility of furloughs for government employees.

Over the course of three and a half hours in an increasingly stuffy council chambers, they also addressed every one of 90 suggestions put before them by former GOP council candidate Kim Senkeleski, who had gathered the ideas for submission.

Given their opportunity to speak, though, audience members most wanted to talk about wringing some tax money out of the borough’s outsized population of nonprofits.

Tom Doremus of Hudson Avenue kicked off the nonprofit discussion when he asked if there was any way for the borough to “recoup our losses” from providing services to charitable organizations that are exempt from the property tax. Others questioned the historical and legal basis for giving charitable organizations a pass.

The prevalence of nonprofits has been seized on by local officials in recent months as an unfair burden, especially since the elimination two years ago of so-called extraordinary state aid, which took such matters into account in doling out revenue.

As home to Riverview Medical Center, the Community YMCA, Red Bank Catholic/St. James Elementary School, New Jersey Transit and some 30 churches, the borough has far more off-the-books property than any of its neighbors on a proportional basis, said borough Administrator Stan Sickels.

With 16.6 percent of its net asseessed value exempt from taxes, Red Bank is deprived of a potential $1.8 million in revenue. Middletown, with “lots of parks,” the Earle Naval property and more, “still doesn’t come close to us,” with 10.2 percent of its property exempt, he said.

Councilman Mike DuPont, who heads the council’s finance committee and has called for new laws allowing non-church nonprofits to be taxed, said Mayor Pasquale Menna discussed the issue earlier this week with representatives of the Christie administration, including officials from the Attorney General’s office. He said he did not yet know the substance of the discussion, “but our voices have been heard.”

Specific suggestions for reducing the borough’s expenses covered topics such as utilities, vehicle maintenance, snow removal and the shutting of firehouses, an idea that drew a large contingent of volunteer firefighters.

Many of the ideas, Sickels said, were being reviewed, while others were deemed unworkable. The firehouse issue, he noted, was complicated by the fact that five of the seven stations, including the First Aid Squad headquarters, are owned by the fire companies themselves. And while the two owned by the borough are in dire need of upgrades, consolidating them would mean answering two hard-to-answer questions: where to do so, and how to pay for it.

This morning, Senkeleski said she was “happy with the turnout of people who wanted to be involved in the process.”

But as to the responses to the suggestions, “I was a little disappointed with the number of ‘under reviews.’ Our purpose in pulling this together and submitting it a month in advance was to get more concrete answers.

“My taxes are going up, so they’re not doing their jobs. I think there’s more in there that they can dig out.”

DuPont, though, found the process fruitful.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he told the crowd. “There was a lot of internal debate about some of the suggestions. Some were good, some were bad.  But it did spur additional debate and thought.”