Councilman says cuts may warrant second look

Jobs on the line as Howell tries to reduce spending


Staff Writer

With options dwindling, union protesters say they will force Howell’s mayor and Township Council members to take their fight home with them.

Meanwhile, one councilman said it may be worthwhile for the council to take a second look at the proposed reductions in force.

According to Christopher Mikkelson, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 225, Branch 4, in a continuing effort to get the council to rescind the planned elimination of municipal jobs, he and fellow union members will likely picket at the homes of the mayor and council members if the elected officials do not relent this week in their decision to lay off 25 Howell employees.

In an effort meant to cut costs in the township’s 2005 budget, the Howell Youth and Family Counseling Services Department is scheduled to be eliminated as of July 1.

A total of 19 full-time positions are being cut from the budget. Also getting the ax are six part-time vacant positions and the welfare department, which consisted of one position. The total salary cost for all of the eliminated full-time positions is $775,370, not including other health and employee benefits.

Municipal officials have said the 2005 budget will include a 5-cent increase in the municipal tax rate. If the planned cuts were not made, the increase would be 6.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Township officials disclosed at the council’s May 10 meeting that the 5-cent increase had been whittled down from a projected 19-cent increase.

Public comment at the May 10 meeting was divided.

The members of the all-Republican governing body heard from a number of affected employees and their supporters, including the Howell Township Education Association, who joined in asking that the cuts be rescinded.

Speaking in support of the job eliminations were stalwarts from among the Republican club membership who told the mayor and council they approved of the decision to cut the jobs.

Speaking a day before the council’s May 17 meeting, Councilman Peter Tobasco said that after hearing what the people who will be most affected by the decision had to say last week, he felt another look at the decision by the mayor and council was warranted.

“Open-mindedly, we should really take another look at this. I think there should definitely be more discussion among us about this,” the councilman said.

Tobasco said it appears “the pulse of the people tells me to take another look at it, especially since it appears the services offered by (Howell) Youth and Family Counseling Services is not available elsewhere.”

Tobasco told the Tri-Town News before the May 17 meeting that looking at the situation now, he wonders if a 1.5-cent difference is worth people losing their jobs along with the township losing a valuable and necessary resource.

“We need to look at this, especially through the eyes of our constituents who don’t have [health] insurance and need services for issues like domestic abuse, child abuse and drug and alcohol issues. We’re supposed to be compassionate conservatives,” said the councilman.

Some of the employees who are scheduled to be let go have been in their jobs for more than 20 years. Among those being laid off are three employees at the senior center who function as drivers and home food delivery persons.

Township Manager Bruce Davis said that despite the layoffs, the senior center’s activities and services would continue as in the past.

Mikkelson told the Tri-Town News that he and the union membership would remain united and invincible in their struggle to stop the “injustice” against their fellow union members and other non-union workers scheduled to be laid off.

The 2005 municipal budget was set for introduction at Tuesday night’s meeting. The next scheduled council meeting is June 14, when a public hearing and adoption of the budget are expected to be held.

Mikkelson and about 150 supporters showed up carrying picket signs and yelling supportive slogans at the council’s May 10 meeting. They yelled “Save our jobs,” “Joe must go” and “Lay off Joe” at Mayor Joseph M. DiBella.

In a written statement, DiBella said that “going into the budget we were mindful that Howell families and businesses are suffering from being over-taxed at every turn and so our motivation was to cut spending, eliminate waste.” He went on to note that “making wholesale changes to our local government is the only solution.”

Regarding the decision to eliminate the Howell Youth and Family Counseling Services Department, DiBella said, “As it relates to the department, this was a particularly difficult decision to reach. As a father and a husband, my heart goes out to those in need of special help … However, at the same time, my heart also goes out to those families who may lose their home because they cannot pay their taxes and still make ends meet.”

According to the mayor, the function of the department is a duplicate service that is available from Monmouth County.

However, Lynn Miller, director of the Monmouth County Department of Human Services, said the mayor and council members are incorrect when they refer to Howell’s Youth and Family Counseling Services as a duplicate agency whose services are provided by the county.

Miller’s voice was joined by others from within the community who showed up on May 10 to voice their dismay at the planned elimination of the department.

One individual not moved by the mayor’s rhetoric was the Rev. James Pierce, pastor of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Aldrich Road. Pierce told DiBella and the rest of the council members they were being a “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Speaking of the importance of keeping the department intact, Pierce said, “Every person who is helped to maintain a drug-free lifestyle, manage anger, learn how to parent, find self-esteem, discover personal worth and set new goals is a person who will contribute to our community. Each person who does not will cost our community in our policing, court costs, disregard for people and property and a general lessening of the quality of life.”

Pierce admonished DiBella and the other elected officials and warned them they could come to rue their decision come re-election time.

“If you make this drastic change in the way our government cares for the troubled, poor, distraught, erring or confused youth and families who are our friends and neighbors, we will make a determined effort to make a drastic change in who does the governing,” he said.

Pierce said he could not tell people from the pulpit how they should vote without jeopardizing his church’s tax-exempt status. However, he said, “As a private citizen with ties throughout the community, I assure you that I will influence as many people as possible to find compassionate leaders to restore the quality of life that we hold so dear in Howell.”

In 2004, Howell Youth and Family Counseling Services received $74,669 from the county and state, according to department director Holli Toline. She has been the director of the Youth and Family Counseling Services Department since its inception more than 21 years ago. Toline’s present annual salary is $70,397. The total payroll for her department, which consists of six treatment personnel and an administrative assistant, is $393,468.

The rest of the intended cuts include six employees from parks, recreation and grounds, and the public works departments. The total payroll for those positions at present totals $349,976.

According to Toline, her department is currently seeing to the needs of 250 active clients, not including those who come and go as treatment evolves.

Statistics show Howell to be third in Monmouth County (out of 53 municipalities) for child abuse reports and fourth in the county for drug abuse admissions.

At this point in time, Howell is one of a handful of towns in Monmouth County which still offers the kind of service available at Howell Youth and Family Counseling Services.

The decision was also made by the council to eliminate certificates of occupancy for home resales. That puts enforcement officer Patricia Hoover out of a job she has held for 21 years.

The decision to end the need for a continued certificate of occupancy has been criticized by some people as having the potential to negatively affect housing quality and invite homeowner abuses such as illegal rental conversions in residential basements and garages.