RED BANK: SPARKS FLY OVER BUDGET

Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, seen here last May with GOP colleagues Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan, found herself at odds with them, and Mayor Pasquale Menna, Wednesday night. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

Red Bank adopted its 2017 budget Wednesday night amid some odd political frictions.

Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, who leads the budget-setting finance committee, took clear umbrage at a last-minute critique of the spending plan by Mayor Pasquale Menna. Then, the only ‘no’ votes when it came up for adoption were cast by her two fellow Republicans on the dais.

And before the night was over, Schwabenbauer’s main adversary in this year’s election, Democrat Ed Zipprich, issued a press release commending her.

Under the $22.4 million spending plan, the owner of a home assessed at the town-average $362,342 would pay $40 more in local property taxes than last year. That’s down from an expected $57 when the draft budget was introduced in early March.

The total $12.6 million levy, Schwabenbauer told the audience before the vote, is up just .3 percent since 2014, compared to overall inflation of 3 percent in that time. She called it a “very tight budget.”

Menna agreed, and called the effort that went into shaping it “herculean.” But he also zeroed in on the fund balance, or cash surplus, to Schwabenbauer’s chagrin.

“Constantly dipping into the surplus unfortunately puts us into a financial hole for the coming year,” Menna said, noting that the latest spending plan brings the balance “down to almost nothing, $150,000.”

He said he would propose, “almost immediately, emergency measures” to rebuild the surplus, including a freeze on discretionary hiring and spending. “Not to do anything and continue on our merry way puts us, I think, in a predicament,” he said.

Schwabenbauer, however, was clearly frosted, less by the talk of a freeze than Menna’s suggestion that the balance was precipitously low. A Certified Public Accountant at Prudential Insurance who’s now in her third year at the helm of the finance committee, she responded that the surplus forecast is appropriately conservative.

Following the meeting, Schwabenbauer told redbankgreen that the 2016 budget was similarly conservative, forecasting a year-end surplus of $350,000 that in fact turned out as an actual surplus of $1.45 million available for this year’s budget.

“Last year, I was accused of padding the budget and using slush funds,” Schwabenbauer told Menna, “so I find it curious that this is coming up at this time.”

“No, no, all I’m saying is that we have to take measures going forward,” Menna replied. “We can’t just sit here and say, well, we’re going to do better next year.”

“And that’s fine, and if you’d like to step back and not pass this budget, and find places [to cut] or raise taxes, that’s fine with me,” an obviously incensed Schwabenbauer said. “I think we have an extraordinary budget here. I wouldn’t change it. But that’s just based on my 20 years in the finance industry.”

The measure went to a vote, and all three Democrats — Zipprich, Kathy Horgan and Erik Yngstrom — sided with Schwabenbauer to pass it, 4-2. Republicans Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan cast the ‘no’ votes.

Neither Taylor nor Whelan offered a comment or explanation for his opposition until queried by Locust Avenue resident Ben Forest during the public comment portion of the session.

“It’s a budget with a tax increase,” Taylor said, adding that there was not enough time, once it became evident that taxes would have to rise, for him to propose offsetting increases in revenue to nullify the increase.

Whelan, citing his role in bolstering parking revenue and cutting the $70,000 from police budget, said he felt he had pulled his “weight” while other departments “didn’t come as on board as I necessarily did.”

Afterward, Schwabenbauer told redbankgreen that she sent the budget information to the mayor and council last week, asking for their comments and concerns, and none responded.

“Numbers are numbers. They are not political,” she said. “The budget is not a political football, and that is what is happening here. What the mayor is doing is called political posturing, which drives me crazy.”

Shortly before midnight, the local Democratic party, which is headed by Zipprich, issued a press release that praised her for “ensuring that the Borough remains on solid financial footing.”

Taylor and Whelan, by contrast, “explained that their negative votes were a refusal to pass any tax increase, no matter the magnitude,” the release said. “They did not provide any suggestions or recommendations on reductions in spending or avenues to increase revenue.”

“While Linda will be my opponent in November, I must commend her on being the ‘adult in the room’ when it came to this budget,” Zipprich said in the release.

Here’s the full release: Red Bank Democrats 042617

Zipprich is seeking a fourth three-year term in November, on a ticket with board of education member Michael Ballard. They’re expected to face Schwabenbauer, seeking a second term, and political newcomer Dana McArthur.