Budget issues will pose challenge during 2011



The budget situation is getting really bad in some New Jersey municipalities. How would you like to live in Camden (silly question, I know), where municipal officials recently fired 168 police officers, 67 firefighters and 115 civilian employees, according to an article published on CourierPostOnline.com.

The layoffs were made as city officials attempt to close a $26 million deficit in the municipal budget. Officials said some of the laid-off employees could be brought back if their unions agree to certain concessions.

It is difficult to imagine a police department operating at 50 percent of its former staffing, and a fire department working with dozens fewer firefighters, but for a variety of reasons and over a period of time, this is the harsh reality Camden’s residents now face.

The southern New Jersey city is one of the nation’s most dangerous municipalities, and there is no way these shocking layoffs will do anything to change that fact.

Is it possible that everyone who is not involved in a criminal enterprise will eventually flee Camden and leave it to become a modern-day version of a lawless wild west town? The rest of New Jersey will watch how this situation plays out.

Budgets are also on the minds of people in the communities Greater Media Newspapers covers in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Municipal, county and school officials may well be dealing with the same types of issues — though not on the same level — that their counterparts in Camden have been facing.

By law, school districts, counties and municipalities must operate with a balanced budget and cannot operate at a deficit. It will not take a $26 million deficit for pain to be felt by employees and residents in local communities.

A $1 million or $2 million deficit in a Monmouth County or Ocean County municipality or school district could have significant consequences and could well mean layoffs of current employees or jobs being lost to attrition.

We have reported about layoffs and unfilled positions over the past few years, so this year’s scenario is nothing new for school business administrators, school district superintendents, municipal managers and elected officials to deal with. Compounding the situation this year, however, is a new limit on the amount of money that can be raised in local taxes to support the operation of school districts, county governments and municipal governments. My expectation is that we will see additional reductions in services and increases in fees.

I also expect Gov. Chris Christie to continue to snub suburban school districts when it comes time to dole out state aid.

Suburban taxpayers will continue to watch and seethe as millions of their tax dollars are squandered in school districts where a boatload of money has produced bloated administrations and outrageous per-pupil costs, but has not produced acceptable student achievement.

The state’s screw-up in this area has now forced the administrators of suburban school districts — who bear some blame for continuing to negotiate contracts that served union members, but not taxpayers — to institute student participation fees for sports teams and clubs, reduce course offerings, fire teachers and other staff members, and increase class sizes.

Christie did not create this problem with state aid for schools, but he has not done anything to address the situation. How does he not see this obvious inequity? Why does he choose to ignore it? The story has been in all the papers.

The proof of the governor’s failure to address and rectify this issue will become evident over the next few months when details of your school district’s 2011-12 budget are made public and then when you get your new tax bill.

You may also see property tax increases on the municipal and county levels, depending on officials’ threshold for dealing out pain to their employees rather than to taxpayers.

All in all, not a great time for New Jersey, although on the bright side, we are the home of the man who will become president in January 2013, right?