RED BANK: SPARKS FLY OVER PAYOUTS

By JOHN T. WARD

The 2013 race for Red Bank council went from lukewarm to hot and humid Wednesday night, when the two Republican challengers teed up the all-Democratic council over cash-outs for five retiring borough employees.

Cindy Burham and Sean Di Somma pressed the governing body over what they called a failure to plan for the exits of employees added to the town payroll before 1994, when a borough ordinance capped cash-outs for accrued “sick” days and vacation for new hires at $15,000 per employee.

Their comments came after the council approved, in a 5-0 vote, an emergency bond for $362,000 to cover payouts to five recent retirees who were exempt from the ordinance. And the heated exchanges between Di Somma and the council continued after the meeting concluded.

“I don’t think it’s right to borrow to make these payouts, and I don’t think people do, either,” Burham told Council President Art Murphy, who led the meeting in the absence of Mayor Pasquale Menna.

Murphy said the town has no way of knowing how many sick and vacation days an employee might choose to use before retiring.

Di Somma pressed individual council members on whether they knew the town’s stated liabilities for vacation and sick days, as reflected in the budget. None knew the figure, which Di Somma said was $2.4 million.

“If you don’t understand a budget you passed, how can anybody trust you?” he said.

He said the council should “look at who was hired pre-’94, look at their ages, which is a very good predictor of retirement, then plan, save money.”

Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels defended the borough’s approach. He said including the payout costs in operating expenses would prompt an increase in the tax rate, whereas grouping the obligations in clusters and floating occasional debt avoided that result.

“We do plan,” said Sickels. “The problem is our liabilities exceeded the amount we’d booked.”

Chief Financial Officer Colleen Lapp, who was not present, “felt that this was the best course of action” after consulting with the town auditor, Sickels said.

Di Somma, a relative newcomer to town, first made political waves two months ago with an eleventh-hour robocall campaign opposing a water system bond. He was quickly enlisted by Republicans to fill the ballot vacancy created by Suzanne Viscomi’s departure from the race, which briefly left Cindy Burnham without a running mate.

Burnham and Di Somma are challenging incumbents Sharon Lee and Kathy Horgan.

The issue prompted GOP state Senator Jen Beck of Red Bank to renew her call for an end to what she termed “taxpayer funded jackpots for retiring local public employees who were fortunate enough to be healthy and accumulate hundreds of unused sick days.” Beck said Democratic legislators have blocked reform, leaving the state with $1 billion in liability.

Here’s the bonding ordinance, which was approved, 5-0, with Councilman Mike DuPont absent: RB 2013-19Also absent was Mayor Pasquale Menna, who does not vote except in case of a tie.