NAME: Sean F. Byrnes (Democrat, incumbent)
LENGTH OF RESIDENCE IN TOWN:
1. What do you see as the top three issues
a. Constantly Increasing Taxes.
b. Poor Governance Structure
c. Marginal Transparency
2. What specifically are you planning to do to address those issues?
The Township’s steady tax increases are the product of poor planning and a refusal to make difficult decisions. We had an increase in our municipal tax levy in 2010 that exceeded 13%. By my calculation, our municipal tax levy has jumped approximately 45% in the last 5 or 6 years. We have no published, agreed upon plan for attacking the categories of spending that drive these increases. We need to create the Finance Task Force I have been calling for since my election 2007, include some of our extremely competent residents who have financial backgrounds and develop a written plan to bring our spending in line with our available revenue. This will mean a reduction in services, but so be it. We can do this without cutting the core services that our citizens need. Non-essential services will be reduced. I have recommended the following measures for the last two years, and I will continue to advocate for their implementation:
1. Competitively bid the engineering work for all construction and road projects rather than handing this work to the same firm every year.
2. Consolidate the all maintenance departments in Town (Board of Ed, Recreation and Public Works) into one entity.
3. Privatize a much larger portion of our leaf and brush pickup.
4. Re-negotiate garbage contracts to create incentives for recycling and reduce the number of pickup days, thereby achieving substantial savings.
5. Re-negotiate employee health benefit plans to create incentives for savings.
6. Evaluate consolidating the Sewerage Authority into Public Works.
7. Negotiate fixed retainer agreements with legal professionals working for Township.
8. Re-organize the Parks & Recreation Department to reduce its size and provide for more fee-based services.
In terms of governance, as the managers of a $65M budget, we need to organize our work effort and delegate work to Committees. Middletown has not Finance Committee, no Personnel Committee, No Negotiations Committee and no Property Committee. Each of the 5 members of the Committee is responsible for all areas of Township Government. While this may be true from a fiduciary perspective, when it comes to getting work done, we need to delegate work. A Finance Committee should be working this time of year, preparing a budget for 2011, preparing recommendations for how to cut spending and reaching out to the Board of Eduation to see how we can cooperatively save the Township money by sharing services. Unfortunately, without the committees, we react slowly to changes to our environment. Even though we knew the financial crisis that started in 2008 would produce a loss of revenue, we failed to implement budget cutting measures until well into the crisis. It took two years to conduct layoffs, and we have done little to restructure how our services are delivered. The austere budget environment that we find ourselves in will continue for years to come, and we will need to work twice as hard to meet the demands placed upon us. To do that effectively, we need a delegation of work to subcommittees that are constantly working toward solutions to the changing environment we find ourselves in.
On transparency, the dramatic change required by these difficult times cannot be achieved until our citizens engage and demand change. Unfortunately, participation by our residents cannot occur until we make information available to them. We need all areas of our budget process to be made transparent. We need to make it easy for residents to educate themselves about our budget process, our spending line items and our organizational structure. Residents must also have the ability to watch our meetings and keep abreast of our decision-making without actually attending those meetings. I have consistently advocated for televising our meetings, but the majority of our Committee oppose these efforts. In fact, the majority in Middletown passed an ordinance that forces anyone with a video camera into the last row of our court room. As elected officials we should welcome transparency. The greater the transparency, the greater the accountability.
3. What will be the challenges in getting these goals accomplished?
Despite advocating a consistent message of fiscal conservatism that includes smaller government, privatization and shared services, my status as the lone Democrat leaves me without the ability to secure a second vote to allow for discussion on some of these ides. Procedurally, I cannot introduce a resolution for discussion without a second. The Republican majority always vote together, regardless of the issue, so I have no ability to force votes on these ideas. At our reorganization meeting in January 2010, I proposed competitively bidding the engineering work and placing our attorney on a monthly, fixed retainer, but could not secure a second vote.
4. What expenditures, if any, do you see as ripe for trimming in order to keep the budget growth under the mandated two-percent cap?
Parks & Recreation is almost as $2.3M per year. Most of that money is salaries, yet from my perspective, most of the recreation provided in the Township is done through volunteers. I think alot of our expense in this area is for property maintenance and we need to look to accomplish more of that work through private contracts.
Health care expenses are out of control. We are currently self-insured and that arrangement has not worked. We need to negotiate into our collective bargaining agreements incentives for our employees to save. We also have an obligation to help our employees get healthier. Healthy employees have fewer medical problems, especially some of the more chronic diseases. We should reward employees who engage in health and fitness activities and give them the time to do so. We should also encourage the use of generic and mail order prescriptions. It is important to provide health insurance, but our current procedures give all employees and retirees incredible benefits regardless of whether that employee makes any effort to curtail costs. This has to change.
Public Works: I believe that we can move to a leaf and brush pickup that relies more heavily, but not exclusively, on private contractors. I have pushed for this in the last two years, and our Initial efforts along these lines have produced savings in just one section of town amounting to $100,000.
5. Do you see any potential sources of revenue that need to be tapped?
Yes, I believe we have an opportunity to partner with a recreational service provider like the YMCA to provide a full-service health center for our residents. (perhaps at the site of our existing swim club) We have 66,000 residents in this Township, and we can sustain such a facility. I don’t believe that as a Township, we should be in the business of running a health center, but I do believe we can look to State and County officials to assist us in providing capital toward a full-service health center that would provide a pool, fitness center, (possibly a hockey rink), gym and other amenities to our residents (and possibly for additional fees to non-residents). Once this facility was built, we would enter into a contract with a partner like the YMCA to run the facility. We would receive a permanent revenue stream from the operation of the facility. This arrangement has been pursued by Woodbridge and has worked very well.
6.What, if any, municipal services should be consolidated among towns?
In the short term, dispatch services, inspections, health department. In the long term, police, fire, roads and schools. There are multiple townships up and down the Bayshore that all have their own police, fire, and educational systems. I think consolidation in these areas is almost inevitable, but will take time.
7. What is one thing voters need to know about you, but may not?
I have pursued this position because I relish the challenge of moving us away from the partisan, inefficient bickering that has plagued the Township for decades toward a vision for Middletown’s future that harnesses the spirit of volunteerism in this Township and efficiently uses our deep financial resources to improve our capital assets and the services we make available to residents.
1. Considering that this year’s budget wasn’t finalized until September, does the process by which the budget is develop need improving? Explain.
Yes. We have failed year after to year to have our spending plan approved and in place by January 1, 2010, using a worst case revenue scenario. At the same time, we should produce estimated spending plans for the following two years based on all available information. We should assume the worse and institute cuts that produce no increase in our tax levy. We should also be meeting regularly in the last quarter of the year with the Board of Education to set and deliver a common goal of no tax increase for our residents. If both governing bodies agreed to a 0% increase in taxes and promised to work together, with the help of the residents to deliver on that goal, I think it would create a groundswell of support and volunteerism.
2. After this year’s municipal tax increase, which exceeded the state-mandated cap of ? percent, what needs to be done to avoid a repeat?
Our larger Departments needs to be restructured. We must consolidate maintenance activities. It makes no sense to have multiple departments in the Township maintaining Township properties. We should convene a Task Force that includes health insurance experts from our community to prepare recommendations to reduce our health care expenses. Thereafter, we must negotiate those recommendations into our bargaining agreements. Our Parks & Recreation Depatment’s budget is excessive and needs to be cut. We should reach out to local neighborhoods and seek their assistance in the maintenance of smaller parks and fields. The maintenance of these properties in currently handled by full-time employees. We should pre-approve five engineering firms who could then bid on all engineering projects during the course of the year. This would save hundreds of thousands in my opinion. There are certain full-time positions that should be part-time or contracted out. We must insist that residents recycle. Moving paper out of the waste stream and into the recycling stream on a large scale would save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
3. What do you think the township should do with its swim club? I think we should look to transform this facility into an all year health center. The City of Woodbridge built a large facility that has a pool, health service center and hockey rink. They contracted with the YMCA to run the facility once it was built, and the city collects a percentage of the revenue. Middletown is large enough to justify this type of project and a membership based arrangement with a discounted fee for residents (including substantially reduced fees for those who qualify) would produce revenue for the Township on a long term basis.