Property taxpayers throughout New Jersey are suffering sticker shock this week upon the receipt of their new bills. In Middletown, preliminary bills were sent out that have some of the township's strongest boosters angry.
In his interview with MoreMonmouthMusings earlier this month Middletown Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger made this case that extraordinary expenses and loss of revenue were driving the increases this year. On the expense side, $900K for snow removal last winter, and $2 million in golden parachutes (accrued sick and vacation time) for retirees. On the revenue side, Middletown lost $1.6 million in lost state funding (I refuse to call it aid since it is our money), $400K in reduced newspaper recycling. With almost $3 million in extraordinary expenses and $2 million in lost revenue, something has to give.
Taxpayers are done giving. The school board elections made that very clear.
Scharfenberger makes the case that Middletown is the victim of its own success. That while other municipalities throughout the state have been spending wastefully, Middletown has been well managed, making cuts more difficult. He's right about that. I pay property taxes in three municipalities including Middletown. Middletown is the best value of the three.
Scharfenberger also points out that Middletown is a model that the League of Municipalites points to in training elected and employed officials throughout the state.
Governor Christie's proposed "tool kit" is designed to reduce state mandates that have increased municipal costs and to give our local elected officials more flexibility in managing our budgets. The bottom line of the "tool kit" is to reduce the cost of government which means reducing the costs of government employee compensation packages. That is why, as InTheLobby points out, that the NJEA and the CWA are preparing for a bloody fight against the "tool kit" and threatening to withhold their financial support to the Democrats in the legislature.
One would expect elected officials, in Middletown and throughout the state, to argue that the tax increases are unavoidable until the "tool kit" is passed and encourage voters to lobby their legislators to pass the "tool kit."
There is an another option. Before Middletown Democrats get excited because they think this post is not a cheer for the Middletown GOP, they should consider that a Republican is proposing this option, one that they would never be able to propose and still call themselves Democrats. The option is cut services.
Cut services. If it is not possible to do more with less until you get the "tool kit," just do less.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced he was cutting the toilet paper budget. That was probably a silly stunt to make the point that everything needs to be cut.
In Middletown, I would prefer a stunt like gathering all the employees together and handing out the $2 million in sick and vacation checks for retirees and RIF notices during the same ceremony. That would make a point that the employees can tell their unions leaders about. It is a harsh point, but a realistic point.
Cut services and see what the people really miss. I would rather township committee meetings were filled with angry residents complaining about the roads not being cleaned or repaired fast enough, or that the grass in the parks is not being cut often enough, or that only two instead of three police cars responded to their call than with angry residents complaining about their tax bills. I would rather residents complain that the township adminsitrative and planning offices are only open 3 days per week, than complaining that they can't afford to stay here.
The Middletown Township Committee is waiting for the Local Finance Board to approve their budget with a waiver of the 4% cap. If the Finance Board declines to waive the cap, the township committee will have to cut further, and they can then blame the state for the reduced services. That would be an acceptable alternative to a 14% increase, but it would not be leadership.
Regardless of what the Local Finance Board does, Middletown should pass a flat budget. Make the cuts.
Be bold Gerry. Be bold Pam. Be bold Tony.