With Middletown embroiled in a budget crunch hotbed all its own, Republican Mayor Tony Fiore reacted on Tuesday night to Gov. Chris Christie’s afternoon 2012 state budget address saying he and the township can and will take the heat.
Of the mind that it’s better than a cut, hearing that municipal aid levels would stay flat pleased Fiore. Last year, he said, Middletown took roughly a $1.5 million slash in aid.
“That's right, mayors — at the exact same level as last year,” Gov. Christie said of state aid in his speech. “So there is no excuse for this relief to be eaten up with higher local taxes, between receiving no further cut in municipal aid, and implementing a 2 percent cap on property taxes."
Committed to the governor’s edict, Fiore, who is a first-time mayor, told Patch just before Tuesday’s Township Committee meeting: “We in Middletown are committed to conforming with the 2 percent property tax cap imposed by governor. The news that state aid won’t be cut (but will remain flat), helps. Because we couldn’t bear a further cut in state aid, it can’t be stressed enough that more of the governor’s tool kit needs to be passed by the state legislature to provide long term tax relief.”
At the meeting, the township’s municipal budget — that in a “worse case scenario” will give cause for a cut of 26 civil service jobs — was the topic of the night.
With township officials asking for a meeting of minds and financial aid between the library and township to keep the budget within the governor’s 2 percent tax cap and keep municipal services at a premium, neither side budged.
Saying it’s been done in several other towns across the state, the mayor is asking for the library to compromise and repay some of its debt service to the township ($898,000) from an old bond for its renovations. The library’s present $1.2 surplus is what the mayor said was a taxpayer-funded healthy one.
His claim that it is taxpayer-funded stems from the fact that “the library is funded by the township (and the municipal tax money it collects), based on what the state mandates we pay them,” he explained. Also, while operating as a separate entity with its own board of directors, it has employees who are technically township employees. (More on the library/budget subject later on Patch.)
Of those township staff positions slated for the only-if-necessary slash are: one in each of three departments, 10 police, 13 in the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Fans of a fee-supported fitness program sponsored by the department showed up to fight for their right to enjoy exercise in the township. Fiore told them they could be jumping to unnecessary conclusions.
Feeling as if there is a lot of public misconception concerning how Middletown’s budget is prepared and who has what authority, the mayor spelled out the process in his municipality:
The township administrator, Anthony Mercantante, is technically the budget boss. He and Chief Finance Officer Nick Trasente work together work together on the facts and figures and then convey their weighed cutting recommendations to all the township department heads, who must prepare to lop off staff positions and spending in line with their projections.
A projected “worst case scenario” plan is submitted to the state Civil Service Commission, as when civil service positions are cut, the proposed cuts must be approved by the state under its guidelines. Civil service, Mercantante had said, generally mandates, “not always fairly,” that positions get cut from the bottom up, meaning those with most seniority are usually protected. The budget, in the final phase, goes to the five-member Township Committee, which must pass it with a majority, or 3-2, vote.
This committee is all-Republican, as is the governor. While supportive of the fellow-Republican governor’s spending plan, Fiore stressed that he budget’s limitations make it all the more important that the Gov. Christie’s tool kit to be sanctioned by the legislature as soon as possible.
In the meantime, “We need to comply and will comply with this cap,” Fiore said.