By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
The finale to each Middletown committee meeting the last couple months has, by Deputy Mayor Anthony Fiore’s account, become a forum for politicking and an opportunity to make for great soundbites.
Terms like “consolidation,” “planning” and “committees” tend to top the list of buzzwords, he said.
Monday night didn’t disappoint, when discussion related to a resolution to remove school spending from property tax bills widened a political divide among the committee, particularly between Fiore and his Democrat counterpart Sean Byrnes.
Byrnes, who voted against Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger’s proposal to find a new source of education funding, made it clear that, in his own estimation, the resolution is a way to take heat off local government’s problems at home a late budget and rising taxes by shining the spotlight on an issue that will perk the ears of taxpayers.
He said the resolution is vague in how a new funding source would be implemented and the idea is “radical change” that affects the whole state, but doesn’t hone in on Middletown’s problems, like having a budget in place.
“I think it’s more of a political resolution than anything else,” Byrnes said.
Rather than focusing on local issues, Byrnes said the resolution stirs debate on a topic better left for elected officials in Trenton. He then went on to outline ways to dig Middletown out of its fiscal hole forming a finance committee, privatizing certain municipal services, consolidating services and selling off valuable real estate were among them and said poor planning has led the committee to this point. With a little more than four months until the end of the year, Middletown has yet to finalize a spending plan, though the one proposed calls for an increase.
“I feel like this resolution is a distraction to shift the focus from what we have going on here,” he said.
Fiore took offense to the comments, saying that, “I agree, the budget is difficult, but to say there is no plan is just a good soundbite.”
He said the committee has a multi-phased plan in place to reduce taxes and find efficiency within its budget, namely by reducing the township’s workforce, reducing insurance costs and combing through the operations and expenses portions of the spending plan to find areas to save.
Fiore voted in favor of Scharfenberger’s resolution and backed up his vote by saying property tax reform would have a direct effect on Middletown tax bills. For example, he said the municipal portion of the budget typically accounts for about 20 percent of tax bills, but when there are successful appeals, the financial burden is placed 100 percent on the township. It’s not as if the town gets a refund from the school system for the money it pays out in appeals, he said.
“There needs to be some real serious change at the level in Trenton to look at education funding,” he said.
Scharfenberger contends that making noise about education funding is necessary. If not, then the trend will continue, he said.
“Unless we stand up and say something now, say goodbye to New Jersey, because there will be an exodus like you’ve never seen before,” he said.
Scharfenberger, who, like Byrnes, is running for re-election to the committee in November, closed out his comment period with a possible answer to Fiore’s description of recent meetings.
“It’s silly season a little bit early,” he said. “There are elections coming up, so you’re probably going to hear more of this.”