$45,000 cut from South budget

The price of replacing unsafe bleachers is a major cause for concern among officials from the three sending districts.

By: Linda Seida
   WEST AMWELL — Municipal officials from Lambertville, Stockton Borough and West Amwell Township approved South Hunterdon Regional High School’s budget Tuesday after cutting $45,000 from the proposed total of $6.9 million.
   The cut brings the budget total down to $6,873,591. The tax levy, or the portion paid by residents’ taxes, will be $5,972,329. School officials were unable to determine by The Beacon’s Wednesday morning deadline how the $45,000 will affected the tax rate.
   The budget defeated by voters April 15 contained a tax rate of 78.587 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for Stockton residents; 60.103 cents in West Amwell; and 84.236 cents in Lambertville.
   The school budget was placed in the hands of the three municipalities’ governing bodies after the budget failed; 510 of voters in all three communities voted against it and 454 voted in favor of it. Lambertville was the only community to support the budget.
   This year’s election marked the first time in 10 years voters rejected the high school’s budget. Eager to avoid a repeat next year, and anxious to show respect for voters’ wishes, officials tried to hammer out a compromise. If all three municipal bodies couldn’t agree on a specific dollar figure to cut, the budget process would have left the district and been bumped up to the county level, according to David Moraski, president of the South Hunterdon Board of Education.
   Tuesday, Lambertville and Stockton initially voted to approve the proposed budget without any cuts. The decision was based on a desire to avoid cutting programs that would affect students, and especially on safety and liability issues. The high school has a number of physical problems that need to be addressed, the most serious of which is the unsafe condition of its stadium bleachers. West Amwell, however, reasoned the $90,000 cost to replace the bleachers could be spread out over two years.
   Clearly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the dangerous bleachers in place, Lambertville and Stockton agreed to a compromise with West Amwell. They agreed to slash from the proposed budget just $45,000, or half of the bleachers’ cost, but only if the bleachers were given top priority in the list of repairs. The school board had placed it third, or at the bottom.
   "I have to tell you, I’ve watched children play on them, and I feel they are really dangerous," Lambertville Councilwoman Cynthia Ege said of the stadium bleachers, which everyone agreed had fallen into disrepair.
   Mrs. Ege said she, too, had fallen on them once.
   "I think it’s an accident waiting to happen," she said. "It only takes one person, one child, and you’ll be paying for it for a long time."
   West Amwell Mayor Peter Buchsbaum, however, said he believed the cost of the bleachers could be "stretched out over two years without endangering the public."
   The mayor and Committeewoman Nance Palladino spoke of the need they felt to address the wishes of taxpayers.
   "People have just about had it with taxes," Ms. Palladino said.
   Mr. Buchsbaum said the Township Committee recently cut the West Amwell School budget, too.
   "We were not thrilled with cuts, but we have an obligation to voters," he said. Similarly at the high school level, "the district as a whole has spoken," adding he wanted to "protect the democratic will of the voters."
   Representatives from Stockton disagreed.
   "We don’t find any fiscal responsibility in pushing off costs, especially when they endanger the public," said Borough Council President Andrew Giannattasio.
   At a meeting scheduled for tonight, Thursday, Stockton was expected to keep its elementary school’s budget as is, despite it, too, being rejected by voters.
   To facilitate an agreement and prevent the budget from going to the county, Mr. Moraski said, "We will take the onus, if you’re afraid of someone getting hurt."
   Stockton Mayor Gregg Rackin praised officials for acting in a civil manner to effectively hammer out an agreement.
   "A society is judged by how it treats its children and how it supports its senior citizens, and those in the middle are left to take care of both," he said. "The municipal bodies acted responsibly and in a way they could be proud of."
   After the meeting, Mr. Giannattasio expressed his displeasure with a budget process that would try to save a little while risking so much.
   "I really get upset with West Amwell," he said, noting the items of disrepair in the high school. "I think it’s stupid, but I agree it’s better than allowing it to go to the county."
   He added, "It’s all politics," and noted the cost of just one lawsuit from a serious injury on the bleachers likely would cost taxpayers far more in the long run than the $45,000 saved now by cutting the budget.
   The school district initially had placed the outdoor bleachers last in its prioritized list of necessary repairs and replacements. Sharing first place were a new ceiling for $125,000 and new lighting for $60,000.
   It makes sense to replace the ceiling and lighting now, Superintendent Cheryl Simone said, because the ceiling has to be ripped up anyway to install the school’s new alarm system. The alarm system will cost taxpayers just $11,400, Dr. Simone said. The remainder of the total cost of about $200,000 is being paid for with a $154,000 federal grant, and the school will apply for state funds for about 40 percent of the remainder.
   A combination of other items stood in second place, and included gymnasium bleachers at a cost of $65,000, a weight-room floor for $14,700 and a gymnasium floor for $168,000, for a total of $248,780. For all the items on the list except the stadium bleachers, taxpayers most likely would have to foot the bill for only 40 percent of the cost because the school can apply for state funds, according to Dr. Simone.