FRUSTRATION SURROUNDS M’TOWN BUDGET

mtown-trioThree of the five Middletown committee members Tuesday night at town hall. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

After months of delays and near misses, Middletown officials finally passed a budget for 2010 Tuesday night that will result in an increase to property taxes.

Talk of the difficult budget season for 2011 began immediately afterward.

The final spending plan doesn’t look drastically different from the one the township committee introduced in June. Officials trimmed about $400,000, bringing the bottom line to about $64.5 million, chief financial officer Nick Trasente said.

That plan calls for a 4.6-cents-per-$100 value tax increase from last year, to 39.7 cents, meaning the average property, assessed at about $435,000, will see an approximate $200 increase, Trasente said.

Tuesday night’s approval puts a period on a long year of budget setbacks for Middletown, which started off with a search for a CFO. Since then, a rash of costly retirements, a cut in state aid and a delay in state finance board approval dragged the finalization of the spending plan this far into the year.

The committee had hoped to cut more, but hit various blocks precluding the body from trimming more, said Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger. Still, he touted the committee’s agreement with local unions to accept a zero-percent increase, the elimination of 38 jobs and a 15-percent cut to each department in defending the budget. After introducing the plan in June, he said more departmental decreases were implemented and bits and pieces removed from various line items to cut spending.

Some of the dozen residents in attendance, however, questioned whether the governing body had done all it could to lessen the taxpayers’ burden.

“You can sit here and look me in the face and say, I did the best I could?” Lincroft resident Pam Ross asked.

“Sure I can,” Scharfenberger replied. “We’ve gone over everything.”

Some residents criticized the committee for poor planning, and others refused to believe that the increase amounts to only 2.8 percent, as Scharfenberger has said. Trasente said the increase is actually 2.67 percent, but some in town calculate it as 11 percent.

“An 11-percent increase is really too much right now,” Mike Ross said. “The problem is we’re just going to get to a point where we can’t afford our homes.”

Frustration mounted when resident Jim Grenafege, a meeting regular, criticized the committee for lacking transparency — a common complaint at the meeting — and accused it of withholding information from committeeman Sean Byrnes, the body’s lone Democrat.

Scharfenberger, clearly chafed by the “heavy accusation,” uncharacteristically let his frustration show, and got into a back-and-forth of raised voices and finger pointing with Grenafege.

“There’s much more of an effort to keep things opaque than to bring transparency to the town,” Grenafege said.

What was in agreement among the committee and the audience, though, was that Middletown must prepare for a hard, if not harder, budget year in 2011.

“We do need to start thinking about next year’s budget today, and I know that we will,” Deputy Mayor Anthony Fiore said.

The committee knows it’s facing a serious challenge with a pending 2 percent property tax cap implemented by Governor Chris Christie.

“There’s a lot more that has to be done,” Byrnes said, “and it’s not going to be fun and it’s not going to be well-received, probably.”