M’TOWN LOOKS TO TRENTON FOR BUDGET HELP

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Middletown officials are hoping to introduce its 2010 budget next week. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

A CFO has been hired. The school budget is back in the hands of the board of ed. What else could possibly snarl Middletown officials from introducing a budget for 2010?

A quorum.

At least, that’s one reason Wednesday night’s scheduled introduction of the 2010 budget was delayed.

The unveiling of the budget, which runs on a calendar year, was first put off because the town had been without a chief financial officer for several months to help guide the township committee. Then the committee had to focus its fiscal efforts — including a very public jousting between the mayor and teachers’ union — on trimming the failed education budget.

Then, just when a spending plan was to be introduced, it appeared that not enough committee members could make Wednesday night’s special meeting.

It’s OK, though, says Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger. He and the four-member committee are waiting on some pending bills in Trenton that, if they pass, will allow for more reductions in spending. And there’s a temporary budget in place, he said.

“Fiscally we’re on very solid footing,” he said. “It’s not as bad as it seems.”

Of course, he’s speaking in temporary budget terms. The short- and long-term budget picture is, naturally, ugly. State aid and municipal revenues are down, costs are up and the township was hit with a spate of retirements — including some this week — that will cost it beaucoup bucks that officials simply didn’t budget for, Scharfenberger said.

But that’s where the waiting game could pay off for Middletown, he said.

Pension and health benefits reform proposed by Governor Chris Christie, if approved, would not only limit the amount retirees are paid, but also spread the municipality’s payout over 10 years.

Scharfenberger pointed to Hackensack, which recently had to bond for millions in order to pay for a 33-employee exodus. Middletown, by the way, has seen 39 employees retire since Christie announced the changes, exposing it to huge costs.

“That just goes to show, it’s not just Middletown,” Scharfenberger said. “This year, so many people retired because of the changes in the state. There was no way to see this coming.”

Scharfenberger also said Christie has proposed changes that allow places like Middletown to opt out of civil service agreements, which would make sharing services more feasible. Middletown is bound by the rules of the Civil Service Commission, which requires tests and screening, making it harder to find outside municipalities that have as-qualified employees to share.

If the change goes through, “That would be a ripple effect on the town,” Scharfenberger said.

Middletown officials are also negotiating with health insurance companies to save money and have applied for financial relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for recent flooding, as opposed to paying out of pocket.

Scharfenberger is “cautiously optimistic” that some or all of these measures will come through before the town’s budget is presented to the public.

“Rather than introduce it and go back and change it,” Scharfenberger said, “we want to be able to cut as much as we can before we introduce it.”

Scharfenberger said the committee will shoot for late next week or early the following week to bring the budget forward.