City budget passes despite contention

Staff Writer

Despite being criticized for spending practices, the Long Branch City Council unanimously adopted a $51.1 million spending plan for 2013.

Councilwoman Kate Billings defended the budget, which represents a $700,000 increase over last year’s $50.4 million plan, during the May 28 council meeting.

“Many of the departments had a zero increase in their budgets,” she said. “We laid off quite a few people two years ago, and we haven’t brought them back.

“We are working on it, but there are some things that are out of our control — for example, health insurance, which by contract employees are entitled to.”

This year’s budget includes a $35.4 million tax levy, which is an increase over last year’s $34.3 million tax levy.

The budget calls for an increase in the municipal tax rate of 4.25 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, bringing the tax rate to 87.57 cents per $100. This increase equates to a $160 increase in municipal taxes for the owner of property assessed at the city average of $378,000.

According to Councilman John Pallone, the city lost $70 million in ratables — half of which was due to the storm and the other half the result of successful tax appeals — over the past year.

During the public hearing on the budget, resident Rich James said the city should cut spending in the face of the down economy.

“Every household has to tighten their budget periodically for whatever the reason,” he said.

“I do think, especially considering the conditions of the economy, it’s not insane to ask people to do a better job of watching how they’re spending money and to perhaps try to apply the brakes a little bit.”

Finance Director Ron Mehlhorn Sr. said most of the departmental budgets couldn’t be cut much further, particularly the police department.

“We started [cutting budgets] probably 20 years ago, and we’re at bare bones,” Mehlhorn said. “You have a police department that has $10 million in salary [and] that has close to $500,000 worth of operating expenses, and most of that is spent on bullets.

“There is really nothing to cut; anything that you could possibly cut would be so negligible …”

According to Mehlhorn, the police force is down to 78 officers, which is a 21-person reduction from the high of 99.

He also said the storm did not have a great impact on the 2013 budget.

“The only impact we have this year in the 2013 budget was [the] $5 million emergency note that we passed in November, and we are required to pay off one-fifth of that emergency,” he said. “This year, there is a $1 million appropriation in debt service that increased the debt service.

“That is offset by revenue of $1 million from FEMA, so it has no impact on the taxes.” Health benefits for city employees account for $5 million in the budget, and debt service rose in the past year from $3.9 million to $4.8 million.

Residents Vincent Lepore criticized the city for temporarily abandoning a parking meter proposal along the beachfront, and Jerry Scarano suggested that the city create a citizens’ finance committee to come up with creative ways to save money.

Lepore also was critical of the city’s legal bills, which he said mainly relate to the controversial redevelopment plans along the beachfront and lower Broadway.

“Stop paying for legal costs for litigation in redevelopment zones,” he said. “I urge this council to get a firm grip on payouts for litigation and redevelopment matters.”

Residents also suggested the city expand shared services with other towns, but Business Administrator Howard Woolley Jr. said the city shares services with the county and the West Long Branch building department.