After receiving a letter of reprimand from the state threatening fines if a budget isn’t introduced by next week, township council still couldn’t come to a consensus Monday night.
Township manager Scott Carew said the state has threatened to fine each individual council member $25 a day if the budget isn’t introduced by next Friday, June 22.
A plan presented by financial officer Tom Merchel would funnel $365,000 of revenue from the sale of liquor licenses into the general fund and impose a slight tax increase—$53 more for a home assessed at the township average ($529,800)—to balance the budget.
But when it came time to approve the budget for introduction Monday, council split 3-2, with Mayor John Button, Deputy Mayor Greg Gallo and Councilman Mike Testa voting “no.”
Button said he had a “fundamental problem raising taxes” considering the township’s bright financial future, with the drop in debt service in 2014 and the addition of commercial ratables (, expansion of the mall).
Gallo and Testa pushed for more cuts, with Testa calling the use of liquor license revenue “a joke,” since the township hasn’t received the money yet.
“That’s a gimmick … It’s an unsustainable revenue source,” Testa said. “We can do better.”
Carew and Merchel pushed back on Testa’s objections to using the liquor license revenue. Merchel has advocated spreading the potential revenue——over several years to help balance the budget and maintain services (, ) for the majority of township residents.
“Those are things that every single resident in town uses,” said Carew. “It is going to help everybody for a decade, and that’s not something to scoff at.”
But the three councilmen were obstinate in their insistence of a zero tax increase plan. Button said he wanted the “zero options.”
When asked by Carew and Merchel for specific direction, Gallo and Testa mentioned outsourcing and shared services, but were still somewhat vague on how they expected the administrators to bridge the gap if not with revenues.
“Some of it we have to be careful with because it has to do with personnel,” Gallo explained.
Councilman Chris Chiacchio—who along with Councilwoman Stacey Jordan voted “yes” on introduction—said he was just as unhappy with a tax increase as the other councilmen, but didn’t hear any better ideas being presented.
“I don’t hear one viable option or solution,” Chiacchio said. “Nothing’s going to change.”
Jordan made no attempt to hide her frustration with her fellow council members’ refusal to introduce the budget and seeming lack of faith in the township professionals.
“I feel like this is Groundhog Day. We keep telling (Merchel and Carew) the same thing,” she said. “Tom (Merchel) tells us this is a responsible budget … I’m relying on our professionals who I trust.”
The budget discussion became somewhat testy as it dragged on, with councilmen Testa and Chiacchio engaging in a snappy exchange when Testa boiled Chiacchio’s and Jordan’s stance down to a sound bite: “I don’t want to raise taxes. You want to raise taxes.”
“I’m sorry you have to make this a political stump speech,” Chiacchio fired back.
“,” Testa replied.
Gallo admitted though it may seem repetitive— and —to send the administrators back to the drawing board once again, it’s how they’ve succeeded in getting lean budgets in past years. He said former township manager Chris Schultz discovered a $40,000 cut during 11th hour budget discussions last year.
“I’m not satisfied we’ve gone as far as we can … To keep pressing is appropriate,” said Gallo. “We don’t want to leave anything behind.”
The budget adoption deadline for municipalities was April 20. Moorestown adopted its 2011 budget on June 27 last year, according to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA). The DCA did not, however, penalize the township for its late adoption last year.
Council tentatively scheduled a special meeting for 8 a.m. next Wednesday, at the , to take up introduction of the budget once again.