Metuchen adopts $15M budget

Spending plan is 6.7 percent higher than last year’s

The 2008 $15 million municipal budget was approved in a 4-2 vote during a Sept. 8 Metuchen Borough Council meeting, which translates to roughly a $163 annual tax increase, or $13.50 a month, for the average homeowner.

Originally the budget was introduced March 3 in accordance with state deadlines, said Borough Administrator William Boerth. But a final version could not be approved until the state provided final figures on state aid. Since January, the borough has operated with an interim budget.

The exact budget number is $15,342,907, roughly a 6.7 percent increase from last year.

Mayor Thomas Vahalla opened the floor to the public, where one resident was appalled at the lack of notification for the revised agenda adopting the 2008 municipal budget.

Valhalla said the council announced at the Sept. 2 meeting that they would consider voting on the budget.

A budgeting error resulting in a $624,000 shortfall also was announced at the Sept. 2 meeting. A total of $624,000 the borough collected for the Board of Education had been counted as revenue based on a conversation with accountants, but it shouldn’t have been, and thus created a shortfall, Boerth said.

Borough officials used funds from surplus, canceled appropriation reserves, and money from a land sale, as well as $300,000 in extra state aid to plug the gap, Vahalla said.

Voting on the budget split along party lines, with the two Republicans on the council voting against it. Councilmen Christopher Morrison and William Waldron each introduced measures to make cuts in the budget.

Morrison introduced measures that would cut a total of $96,000 and another that would cut $4,500. Waldron proposed a cut of $8,790 from the Shade Tree Commission. All were denied on a 4-2 split.

Councilman Timothy Dacey said it was too late for a 2008 cut, but that all proposals should be considered for 2009.

Councilman Peter Camarano said that while he’s in favor of finding ways to cut the budget, it can’t be cut “not knowing the direct impact of the cut so late in the game.”

They were not eleventh-hour proposals, Waldron said in an e-mail interview with the Sentinel after the meeting. He had presented them to Vahalla over Labor Day weekend, prior to the Sept. 2 meeting and more than a week before the vote.

Morrison also noted that he and Waldron had expected the final budget vote to take place on Sept. 15, not during the Sept. 8 meeting.

“It became clear at the end of August that we had a $624K hole in our budget,” Morrison stated in an e-mail. “It also became clear to us that some cuts needed to be made as a measure of good faith to the town and to our representatives in Trenton who went to bat for us to help us close the gap. Did we make earlier attempts to cut the budget? Not formally.”

Morrison explained that he and Waldron had anticipated a council meeting would be devoted to debating making some cuts earlier in the process, but that it never took place.

“We’ve had nine months,” Vahalla said in a telephone interview with the Sentinel about the budget. “But you can’t cut at this eleventh hour. It’s a very lean budget, and we did that without cutting services. Next year is going to be even tighter than this year. ”

Vahalla said the two council members hadn’t made their proposals “public” until Sept. 8.

Morrison added, “By the time we realized that no others were going to suggest cuts, we were already more than halfway through the budget year, and making the cuts became more difficult. Forcing cuts late in the year may inflict a hardship on a department that is spending based on the budget as introduced … . We ultimately tried to find areas to discuss where it did not seem likely we would be imposing an undue hardship.”

Vahalla said that in order for any cuts to be effective in terms of relieving the tax burden on homeowners, $97,000 in cuts are needed to cut a tax point.

“The reality is, if you’re going to cut, you have to look at cutting services,” Vahalla said. “I think people move to Metuchen because of the services.”

While the budget-cutting proposals that were introduced may have been minor, the two believe they would have sent an “important signal” to taxpayers and Trenton officials.

— Enid Weiss and Lauren Mortenson