AMID BUDGET CONCERNS, AX FALLS IN M’TOWN

mtown-workshopMayor Gerard Scharfenberger listens to administrator Anthony Mercantante at Monday night’s workshop meeting. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

The budget ax has made its first swing through Middletown, claiming 16 employees last week as township officials continue to struggle with a plunge in revenues and a continual rise in expenses.

Layoff notices were sent out to 38 township employees earlier this year, Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger said, as a result of a cut in state aid and purse-punishing weather that put the town nearly $1 million over budget, among other things.

Many of those employees either quit, retired, or were reassigned after receiving the notices. Sixteen people, however, involuntarily ended their employment with Middletown on Friday.

The layoffs are the first round this year, Scharfenberger said, though he doesn’t anticipate more.

“At this point, no,” he said, but added that the possibility is not off the table.

The township committee has yet to unveil its 2010 budget, which runs on the calendar year, but Scharfenberger said he hopes to have it ready for introduction by the governing body’s next meeting in two weeks.

Scharfenberger said last week that he’s keeping fingers crossed that some pending legislation in Trenton will provide a little relief to the cash-strapped township.

Along with the aforementioned hits to the ledger, Middletown has, and continues to see, an exodus of longtime employees opting for retirement before Governor Chris Christie’s proposal to limit retiree payouts takes effect. Scharfenberger also said that pending legislation to spread out municipalities’ payments toward employee retirements would help out Middletown, which is about $2 million in the hole and counting since Christie announced the changes.

“Christie coming in January,” Scharfenberger said, “we got a flurry of retirements.”

One small way to help the town’s fiscal imbalance, to impose a six-percent penalty on all delinquent taxes more than $10,000, was passed on Monday night. But something has to change in how the budget is conceived and presented, said Sean Byrnes, the committee’s lone Democrat, who voted against the measure.

Byrnes, who has proposed forming a finance committee but hasn’t been able to get the support of his counterparts, suggested Monday night that the full details of the budget be available to the public before it’s formally introduced as an ordinance, so taxpayers can provide any suggestions or input to the committee. Normally, it’s introduced before the public can review it.

“We will need as many ideas as we can,” because it’s a tough budget year, he said.

Looking ahead, Byrnes’s idea to form a shared services commission appears to be gaining interest among the committee members. The concept is to cut out excess and consolidate services with the school district. The commission would be made up of two committee members, two school board members and two residents, Byrnes said.

“There’s some people in town, maybe even former board members, who wouldn’t be bad for that,” he said.

The idea will next move on to the board of ed for consideration.

But even if the commission meets and comes up with some areas to consolidate, it’ll only shovel so much sand against this year’s tide, Byrnes said.

“It’s more of a long-term thing,” he said. “We obviously need to come up with a better process for the budget.”