WHO REALLY CONTROLS MIDDLETOWN? AND WHAT ARE THEY DOING?
For years, the Democrats have maintained that the Township of Middletown was run more for the benefit of the local Republican Party and its supporters than for taxpayers. Questionable decision-making, political appointments and poor management of large-scale projects raised questions about whether important decisions were influenced more by party bosses than by taxpayers. Democratic efforts to open government and increase transparency were opposed, including opposing the televising of Township Committee meetings and passing a resolution that forced video cameras to the last row of the Township Committee Meeting Room. In this article, we examine this history by reviewing the last decade of decision-making by a Township Committee, which has been solidly in the control of the Middletown Republican Party. We emphasize that this critique focuses on the local Republican Party and the issues that concern Middletown taxpayers. We agree with many of the steps taken by Governor Christie, and Committeeman Byrnes has repeatedly stated his support for the Governor’s spending cuts. Indeed, we believe that the fiscally conservative ideals espoused by the Middletown Democratic Party cut across party lines. Although our political leanings are clear, the facts set forth below speak for themselves. If we are to survive this difficult financial crisis and hope for future prosperity, than we must reach across party lines and work together to cut taxes. But to be clear, we don’t think this Mayor and his supporters have what it takes to achieve that goal; and here’s why.
THE TAX MAN DOES NOT COMETH, HE IS HERE
Mayor Scharfenbeger with the support of 3 of his fellow Republican Committee members voted this July to increase the tax levy on the municipal portion of Middletown’s budget by 14% in 2010. This record-setting jump in the tax levy is unprecedented and comes at a time when many taxpayers in Middletown have suffered financial setbacks. Lost jobs, frozen wages, cut backs in hours coupled with increased costs of health care and flood insurance created a perfect storm of financial pressures on families. Despite these pressures, Mayor Scharfenberger, who sharply criticized the Board of Education budget, now proposes a budget that is far worse. Just this year, the Mayor: 1) refused to create a Finance Committee, 2) refused in January to bid out the Township’s Engineering work (instead handing it to the same politically connected firm that has had it since the 1970s), 3) refused to force the Township Attorney to work on a fixed retainer, 4) refused to commence layoffs or furloughs until late in the year, 5) refused to consider making the Arts Center self-sustaining, 6) refused to consider disbanding the overhead-laden Sewerage Authority which pays its Director (a former Republican Mayor) and its Commissioners pay, pension and health benefits worth almost $200,000 per year, and 7) refused to consider televising Township meetings to allow greater transparency in government. Since coming to office he has raised taxes in Middletown over 25%. The financial treasure of this Township -- taxpayer dollars -- have been used to perpetuate a political machine whose tentacles extend into every corner of government. Until that reality changes, the yearly tax increases will continue.
POLITICS LURKING IN THE SHADOWS OF A LAKE
In 2007, the Democrats had secured one seat on the Township Committee and were running 2 strong candidates. A victory for those 2 candidates would shift control of the Town government to the Democrats for the first time in decades. From the Republican side, something had to be done. In October, Just prior to the election, Mayor Scharfenberger and the Township Committee, in a 4-1 vote (Democrat Patrick Short the lone dissenter) voted to undertake a $4.0 million dollar project to dredge Shadow Lake. As someone who managed projects for a living, Mr. Short voted “no” because he had seen little evidence of a plan for the dredging and had many questions. The majority rushed this vote as part of a desperate effort to solidify Mayor Scharfenberger’s voting base in Shadow Lake Village. It worked well. Mayor Scharfenberger was narrowly re-elected, that well-connected engineering firm started spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on the project, and the law firm of the Republican Party Chairman would get the bond work. Unfortunately, in their rush to get votes, the Republican Majority failed to plan for the proper staging and removal of the contaminated dredge spoils, resulting in DEP putting the brakes on the Project and cost estimates for the Project doubling. Today, the Project is essentially dead, the taxpayers are out the hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering and surveying costs and the residents of Shadow Lake have nothing to show for it.
IF YOUR PROPERTY IS CONTAMINATED, SELL IT TO MIDDLETOWN, THEY’LL PAY TO CLEAN IT UP
Ever wonder where all the money goes from the bonds that Middletown approves for real estate purchases? Bond debt in Middletown went from $48 million in 2001 to $75 million in 2009. Well, first, the issuance of bonds, a complicated legal process, is handled by the law firm of Middletown’s Republican Party Chairman (the same law firm that does bond work for the County of Monmouth along with a paid lobbying contract worth around $100,000). After the law firm takes its cut for the bond work, your taxpayer dollars often purchase contaminated real estate. Consider some recent purchases. Middletown Arts Center (10 years to clean up), COE property (contaminated), and the Mariguchi property on Middletown Lincroft Road (contaminated), and the recently purchased property, adjacent to the municipal complex (contaminated). The municipal complex property, although not recently purchased, is (you guessed it) contaminated. In fact, the Department of Environmental Protection has been trying to get the Township to finish remediating this property for years. The beauty of buying contaminated property is that it allows your hand-picked, politically-connected lawyers and engineering professionals to continuously bill for years and years.
A POLITICAL TEMPLE TO THE ARTS
Middletown has a nice Arts Center at the Train Station. But at what cost? This building was the pet project of a former 17-year Republican Committee member, who served on a Middletown Township Committee with no Democrats, and therefore no opposition. (She is now a full-time County employee earning almost $90,000 whose pension calculation will include her 17 years with Middletown) With no one to question the plan, the all-Republican Committee voted to purchase the Banfield Property, which they knew was contaminated. Over the next five years or so, the Township spent, mostly through new bond issues, $581,803 to purchase the property, and $7,179,551 to improve it. That’s almost $8,000,000 just to get the Arts Center constructed. The Township then leased it to a non-profit for $1.00. The Township continues to support the expenses of the Arts Center. Even with the Township paying all the debt service for the bonds, the Arts Center has utilities and personnel costs in excess of $200,000 per year. And while all this was going on, taxpayers continued to pay our politically-connected engineering professionals tens of thousands of dollars to “handle” the effort to remediate the contaminated property. It took 10 years to remediate the property. Why the Township allowed the Seller to transfer this cleanup liability to the Township remains a mystery. But the greater mystery is why the Township would choose to spend precious taxpayer dollars on such an ill-conceived project.
SOMETHING SMELLS AT THE SEWERAGE AUTHORITY
How much do you now about the Township of Middletown Sewerage Authority? They maintain the waste water collection and treatment system for Middletown. You might be asking yourself why is the Sewerage Authority separate from the Township Government? It’s a good question. The Sewerage Authority has 7 Commissioners, who meet once per month for under an hour. Why does the Sewerage have two more members than the Township Committee, despite having a budget a fraction of the size? Another good question. These members are entitled to a small salary, pension and most important, health benefits. Health benefits for a family can be worth over $20,000 per year. Many Township residents have no health benefits or see money removed from every paycheck to pay for these expensive benefits. Patrick Short shamed the Township Committee into discontinuing health benefits for its members several years ago, but not the Sewerage Authority. In 2009, Committeeman Byrnes introduced an ordinance to eliminated salaries and health benefits for the Sewerage Authority. The Republicans initially blocked this effort and then introduced their own ordinance that purported to eliminate these benefits, but actually grandfathered existing Sewerage Authority Commissioners. The 7 Commissioners who received these benefits are active Republicans, including a former Mayor, party Treasurer, party Vice Chair, etc. Taxpayer dollars have been providing these individuals with the aforementioned benefits for years. Moreover, as long as the Sewerage Authority remains a distinct entity, separate from Township Government, it will need its own lawyers, auditors, outside engineers, etc., all at taxpayer expense. Efforts by Committeeman Byrnes to investigate a merger of the Sewerage Authority and Township Government have been opposed by Mayor Scharfenberger.
THE MAYOR’S ALL TALK ON TURF
As the largest municipality in Monmouth County, our recreations fields should be top notch. For anyone with children engaged in athletics, you know that they are not. The Pop Warner football fields need a major overhaul. Only the incredible efforts of volunteers keep these fields playable. And yet, the Township authorized funds to improve these fields in 2006. Once again, bonds were issued and the law firm of the Republican Party Chairman made money. But after that, nothing happened. Years passed, and as taxpayers paid the principal and interest on these bonds, nothing happened. Poor planning and mismanagement created hostility in the neighborhoods where work was planned. Finally, in 2010, the Township approached the Board of Education about installing turf at Thompson Middle School. When the Board of Education sought more detailed information about the scope of the work and usage of the fields, the Township ended its discussions and decided to build a new stadium complex on West Front Street without ever seeking local input. When citizens complained, the Mayor shifted gears and suggested that the current financial crisis made the project unworkable. The problem with that explanation is that the bonds were already issued, the funds have been received and the taxpayers are paying interest on those funds. So, after spending money on well-connected engineering firms for designs, etc., the taxpayers have nothing to show for this expense. Meanwhile, the fields at Croyden Hall and Trezza Field remain in poor condition. How come so many other towns in Monmouth County can build beautiful facilities with ample parking and turf fields? How many fields could have been improved with the $8.0M spent on the Arts Center?
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As this year’s election approaches, you might want to ask yourself whether you want to continue the management approach of the last decade. Ask yourself whether the record of the elected majority warrants your support. If you would like to continue the pattern of purchasing contaminated properties, increasing taxes, poorly maintained fields, an unnecessary, top-heavy Sewerage Authority and ill-conceived, expensive projects that reward party bosses, lawyers and politically-connected engineers, then vote for Mayor Scharfenberger and his hand-picked running mate.
As an end note I thougth that I should point out that in the above letter the author states that taxes have risen 25% since Scharfenberger has been in office which just so happens to be a conservative number, the true figure will be more accurately close to 42%, if the current budget passes as he has proposed.