By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Not long after adopting the town’s annual spending plan, Sea Bright officials are moving their fingers toward the panic button on a couple line items that are already nearing their established limits.
At the forefront of the strain are legal fees, which have run much higher than expected, and appear to be increasing partisan tensions at the borough council. Adding to the fiscal pressure is public works’ road maintenance budget, which was pounded as hard as the shoreline town was with heavy snow and a series of northeasters.
Now, the council is halting all non-essential expenditures and is looking at reducing the hours of some part-time employees to compensate. Beyond that, the council must draw up a plan to bring spending for those two items down, a task that already has divided the governing body.
At about $98,000, legal fees are rapidly nearing the $110,000 budgeted. One camp in the split over legal fees, represented by borough attorney and former Monmouth County Republican Chairman Joe Oxley, left, says they are legit and fall in line with the services the town is demanding of him and his firm.
Another side says the charges are unnecessarily high. That’s the position of Mayor Maria Fernandes, a Democrat, who says she just can’t figure the costs out, and wants to know: “What are we going to do for the rest of the year?”
Fernandes is dissatisfied with the council’s decision two years ago to implement a $20,000 retainer fee for Oxley’s services, which covers his attendance at municipal meetings and taking phone calls from council members, she said. And there are lots of phone calls to Oxley, claims Councilman Read Murphy.
“That’s a bunch of hogwash,” Fernandes says.
Murphy, who routinely gets into back-and-forths with Fernandes, sees it differently.
“She’ll use him herself. She’ll swear she doesn’t,” he said.
There are multiple reasons for the higher-than-expected billings, Murphy said. He cites ongoing legal issues with personnel, tax appeals and other litigation that has stretched out over years, he said, that have all come home to roost this year.
“We got a lot of old monkeys jumping on our backs again,” he said
Murphy, a Republican who is liaison to the finance committee, contends there’s no fluff in the legal bills, and says he knows this because he’s pored over them looking for it.
“The law firm bills us and they bill us for the work they do,” he said.
Fernandes said that a large part of the problem is what Oxley has been tasked to do. If there’s an issue or question brought to him that he doesn’t have expertise in, it gets handed off to somebody in his firm who can handle it. That work then costs the borough.
“These items get passed from attorney to attorney,” she said, “and we get zapped.”
She said Oxley, who is on an annual contract as borough attorney, offered to do something about the retainer fee in order to help the borough.
If officials can stem the legal spending, there’s still the public works section of the budget that must be addressed.
Murphy said road improvements and budgeted-for expenses are on hold for now. Bad weather earlier this year put the borough at least $20,000 over budget, he said. His solution at this point is to cut back on road department hours.
“That’s about the only thing I can do,” he said.
That is until November, when the council is allowed to make line-item transfers. The challenge is getting to November.
“I’m just trying to cut everything I can,” Murphy said.