BUDGET INCREASES, BUT BY HOW MUCH?

mtown-budgetMiddletown resident Tom Stokes offers input on the 2010 budget in Middletown Monday night as committeeman Sean Byrnes looks on. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

As it appears now, the total tax bill for Middletown Township property owners for the current year will be 2.8 percent larger than last year’s.

But that hardly matters to those keeping an eye on municipal spending, according to committeeman Sean Byrnes.

As the township committee Monday night introduced a $65 million spending plan that will raise the average tax bill by $211 annually, the body’s lone Democrat pressed chief financial officer Nick Trasente on details to make a point: That the presentation Trasente gave was more smoke and mirrors than government transparency, and something needs to change with how the budget is put together.

Byrnes told Trasente that while the overall tax bill — including levies for schools, Monmouth County and municipal utilities — was up 2.8-percent, the local portion alone soared by double digits.

The amount to be raised via the property tax by the municipality — $45.55 million, up from $40 million — is up more than 13 percent, he noted. The new tax rate of 39.85 cents per $100 of assessed property value, up from 35 cents, also represents a jump of more than 13 percent, he said.

Byrnes cast the single vote against the spending proposal.

“It’s important to focus on what we’re introducing,” Byrnes said. “There’s a lot, I think, we could have done before we got to this day, with a 13-percent increase.”

Byrnes went through examples of ideas he floated to the committee on ways to trim spending, such as contracting out leaf and brush collection, negotiating with attorneys to accept a flat fee for services and going out to bid for engineering projects.

Months ago, as the town languished in a fiscal haze without a CFO, Byrnes pushed for the formation of a finance committee, but failed to get any support, he said.

He said one-off additions to this year’s budget, like a $365,000 transfer from the town’s sewer authority into municipal surplus, won’t be available again next year. He also said that 15 percent cuts across every department are not specified in the budget and can’t be relied upon to be there in next year’s spending outline.

But what started as a simple explanation of a ‘no’ vote turned into something more candid, and considering he’s up for re-election this year, risky, for Byrnes.

“I don’t expect I’ll be sitting here come January with the way things have gone the last couple years,” he said. “I’m just telling you straight up what I think this town needs.

“I really do have a problem with the budget that we’re introducing.”

So did a couple of residents, including Jim Grenafege, who lauded Byrnes for clarifying the town’s spending plan. Grenafage scolded the committee for its budget spin, saying it was misleading, and that a 13-percent increase in unacceptable.

“Rather than being transparent with that presentation, you just made it more opaque,” he said. “I just haven’t seen any thought leadership whatsoever. It’s just totally, totally unacceptable.”

Tom Stokes, on the other hand, was a bit more sympathetic, and offered up his own suggestions to save money, which members said they’d take into consideration.

“I think all five of you up there have been in an economic stranglehold,” Stokes said. “Part of the problem is us. We demand services but we don’t want to pay for it.”

In defending the budget, Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger said there were tremendous hurdles to overcome to keep the budget balanced. State aid was reduced by $1.5 million; abnormally terrible weather ate up almost $900,000; and following Governor Chris Christie’s pitch for insurance and pension reform, at least 20 Middletown veterans filed for retirement, unexpectedly costing the town $760,000.

Scharfenberger also said that whatever suggestions are made by committee members are taken “very seriously.”

“Not everything we come up with is viable, legal or saves money,” he said.

Among some cost-saving measures, the police department’s D.A.R.E. program and its community relations program are now closed. In parks and recreation, Middletown Day is at risk to be canceled if sufficient sponsorship doesn’t come through. Town officials have also closed the skateboard park and mini-golf course, as well as trim lifeguard days on municipal beaches to weekends only.

Officials are also considering holding off on hiring some or all of six new police officers until 2011 and eliminating or reducing the town’s annual $25,000 contribution to the Poricy Park Conservancy.

The public hearing on the budget will be held on July 19.