Locals: Budget ax punishes small towns

Gov. proposes cuts in municipal aid to towns of fewer than 10K


The small-town charm of local municipalities may be a casualty of Gov. Jon Corzine’s proposed state budget, which unfairly penalizes smaller municipalities, according to local officials.

“Governor Corzine’s budget punishes the most efficiently run local governments the most,” said Fair Haven Mayor Michael Halfacre in his blog. “Small towns like Fair Haven are efficiently run. We are not extravagant in our lifestyles.

“Our Borough Hall is nearly 50 years old and we run a skeleton crew, where employees wear multiple hats. We take our obligation to the taxpayers very seriously.”

“It’s an anti-suburb budget,” said Oceanport Councilman Joseph Irace. “I don’t know how you can place the burden of the state on the small towns.”

Halfacre criticized Corzine for introducing a spending plan that punishes small towns that are “doing everything right.”

Local municipalities with populations below 10,000 would have their already small state aid figures cut in half or eliminated completely under Corzine’s proposed FY 2009 budget plan.

“While all categories of municipal aid will be reduced, communities with populations of less than 10,000 will receive less direct support,” Corzine said at his budget address to the state Legislature on Feb. 26.

Specifically, “less direct support” means a 50 percent reduction in state support for towns with populations between 5,000 and 10,000 and absolute cuts for those with populations below 5,000, according to Corzine’s proposed spending plan.

Corzine called for “painful reductions” in municipal aid for the smaller communities in his budget address, and noted that they would receive priority consideration for $32 million in grants to develop shared services and consolidation agreements.

For boroughs like Fair Haven and neighboring Oceanport, this news is disappointing in light of efforts to keep spending down.

Both municipalities stand to lose about $150,000 in state funding, officials said, which represents half of their previous allotments, which were already less than 10 percent of the annual municipal budgets.

“To put this in perspective,” said Halfacre, “Fair Haven operates its local government with less than 8 percent of its budget coming from the state of New Jersey. There are dozens of towns in this state that receive in excess of 50 percent of the cost of their local government from the state. Elizabeth, West New York, Plainfield, Bridgeton, Camden, Paterson, Passaic, Union City, Perth Amboy and Trenton all receive well over 50 percent of their local government costs from the state of New Jersey.”

Fair Haven recently introduced a budget allowing for a half-cent decrease in the tax rate for citizens, the first time in recent memory that the borough was able to project a lower tax rate, according to Halfacre.

“Our one-half-cent decrease became a 1.5-cent increase in the blink of an eye yesterday,” Halfacre said.

Irace, who is chairman of the Oceanport Borough Council Finance Committee, said that the same thing is happening in Oceanport.

“Governor Corzine’s plan to reduce state aid to ‘small’ municipalities will be of significant harm to our borough,” Irace said in a letter to state Sen. Jennifer Beck.

He added that the state aid cuts, which are insignificant to state finances, will place a large financial burden on borough taxpayers of approximately 2 cents per $100 of valuation.

Oceanport, like Fair Haven, operates with minimal staff who “wear multiple hats,” Irace said.

“It’s amazing how much work these people do,” Irace said of the borough staff.

In light of Corzine’s suggestion for smaller towns to share and consolidate services, Irace had mixed feelings.

“We need to be selective when we share services,” Irace said, “but it’s discouraging. People come here and they want to live in a small town. It’s a shame that they’re forcing the small towns to lose their little town [ambiance] and share services.”

“You’d be surprised at how many people are opposed to consolidation of and regionalization of police,” Halfacre said to residents at a town meeting on Feb. 28. “There are a lot of people that feel that they like to know who the cops are. It gives them a small-town feel.”

This “small-town feel” is also important for Oceanport residents, and is the reason that the borough was recently ranked by New Jersey Monthly magazine as the No. 4 place to live in New Jersey and No. 1 in Monmouth County.

Irace requested that Beck urge Corzine “not to throw away” the small towns.

“Look to us as models of efficiency instead of models for consolidation,” Irace said.

According to Little Silver Borough AdministratorMichael Biehl, the cut in state aid would have a significant impact in Little Silver, a borough with a population of about 6,000.

He said that last year Little Silver received $923,007 in state aid, which was an increase of about $17,000 in state funds from the year before.

“We’re going to have a hard time working with less support. Our budget last year was bare-bones,” said Little Silver Mayor Suzanne Castleman of the governor’s proposed budget. “If they cut us too much, we will definitely have to look into more sharing services or cutting some of the services we have. We don’t want to have to cut services, but we may have to. We have to look further into it.”

One option for shared services that has been explored by Little Silver previously is to merge the police department with those of Fair Haven and Rumson.

A feasibility study was conducted previously to examine the possible savings that would come from combining the police departments in the three towns.