M’TOWNERS STILL STEAMING OVER BUDGET

hot-topic rightBy DUSTIN RACIOPPI

Getting a budget in place is going to have to wait another month in Middletown.

A pending review of the 2010 spending plan at the state level pushed back the adoption date to mid-August. Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger said the Local Finance Board, which reviews municipal budgets for compliance with state laws and regulations, is backlogged, and Middletown is set to have its done by August 11.

Meantime, the township committee held a public hearing on the $65 million proposal, which would increase average tax bills by $211 annually.

As usual of late, the governing body took a beating from the public.

“Everything we buy goes up, but everything coming in goes down,” resident Angela Bennik said. “At the end of the day, when our tax bill comes in, it’s up.”

Bennik later said she’s disappointed with how the town has been run, without a budget in place for most of the year and, in tough economic times, an increase to boot.

“The town should be run like a family,” she said. “I go out to get groceries. If I can’t afford it, tough, you can’t eat. You can’t spend what you don’t have.”

There’s also a sense of frustration that the municipal portion of tax bills skyrocketed over last year, up 13 percent.

“I have wants and I have needs. I can’t have all my wants,” Sandra Craig Barry said. “You are asking us to sign off on a 13-percent increase. We just can’t do it anymore.”

“Not really,” Scharfenberger interjected. “It’s going to be cut down from there.”

Scharfenberger says pending measures, like spreading out retirement pension and benefits payouts, will drastically alter the spending plan when it comes back for adoption next month.

In the interim, he’s trying, as he did Monday night, to get input from residents on what and where to cut. Taking comments online doesn’t seem to be bearing anything useful, he said. Getting a sense of what’s worth keeping in town is integral to keeping a low tax rate, he said. He posed the question to most who took to the podium: “Where would you cut?”

“I would prefer people say what they could do without,” Scharfenberger said. “We have to hear that. We can’t just surmise it, and then there’s a lot of people on the other side.”

The mounting frustration stemming from the drawn-out budget process seems to be starting to show on the committee level, too, with testy exchanges among members, mainly committeemen Sean Byrnes and Anthony Fiore.

Byrnes, a Democrat up for re-election in November, has been pressing officials for months to form a finance committee to manage and oversee the budget process. He also wants to see sweeping reform to town management, be it slicing through the parks and recreation budget or reducing trash pick up to once a week. Overall, he says planning has been poor and there could have been measures taken prior to the budget season to prepare for what has turned out to be a hair-pulling process.

Fiore disputes that notion.

“To say that we haven’t been planning and we didn’t see this coming,” he said, “it’s pure politics, and it’s purely not true.”

The budget is scheduled for adoption at the committee’s August 16 meeting.