SPARKS FLY OVER SEA BRIGHT BUDGET

murphy-fernandesCouncilman Read Murphy, in the foreground, got into a heated debate with Mayor Maria Fernandes, in the background, over the borough’s budget. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

Before Sea Bright’s council adopted the borough’s budget Tuesday night, Mayor Maria Fernandes asked a question: Is it any smaller than the version introduced last month?

That’s all it took to trigger a rumpus with Councilman Read Murphy.

Murphy, known to shoot from the hip, took umbrage with Fernandes’s suggestion that the council could, and should, make any more reductions to the borough’s $5.16 million spending plan.

“We’ve cut all we can, mayor. Where do we go?” Murphy, a Republican, said. “You show me. You hit us a million times, ‘you should cut.’ Well show me.”

Last month, Fernandes urged that the council find about $90,000 to trim from the 2010-’11 budget in order to get it down to a zero increase.

“The voters voted loud and clear with the school budgets, and what did they do?” Fernandes said to Murphy. “They lowered them.”

She says she did show Murphy and the council where to cut. Freezing pay for non-union employees and spreading out police vehicle purchases were a couple of cost-saving measures Fernandes said she proposed to council members.

“We actually could do a little better,” Councilwoman Dina Long said. “The mayor made suggestions of where to cut.”

“I don’t agree with her,” Murphy said.

He argues that if the budget is brought to a zero increase, it could hurt spending flexibility in the future. Governor Chris Christie’s 2.5 percent tax cap proposal will squeeze the borough, he said, and fixed costs will further restrict borough spending power.

Murphy said state aid — which was cut $45,000 this year — is a thing of the past. The borough was also hit with a 23-percent increase in its sewer fees and lost $50,000 in investment income, Murphy said. So, no, it wouldn’t be prudent to bring the budget back to zero, Murphy argued.

Fernandes, a Democrat, sees it differently. She said residents are struggling to afford their homes. With the approved budget, a home assessed at the borough-average $375,000 will pay an additional $86 a year, Murphy said. Fernandes said her plea to shrink the budget was not only the right thing to do, but what residents want.

“I’m just telling you what I’m hearing,” she said.

“Fiscal responsibility is one thing. Fiscal game playing is another thing,” Murphy replied. “Your arguments, to me, are moot and they’re also banal, because you’re hitting me with catchphrases.”

Once the tiff fizzled out, the council approved the budget, with Long voting against it.

After the meeting, Fernandes said she was disappointed that the council didn’t get the budget to the level she wanted.

Murphy, meanwhile, defended the plan.

“It’s a very fiscally conservative budget,” he said. “Small increases help keep stability.”