EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Township Committee voted unanimously Monday night to not raise taxes and recommend that unionized school employees switch to a state-run health plan to help make up for the $3.48 million cut.
The committee also “highly recommends” employees in the Egg Harbor Township Education Association freeze wages and take one furlough day to restore cut jobs and programs, the committee said during a tense meeting at the community center attended by nearly 200.
The vote to set the township’s school tax rate comes weeks after voters rejected the proposed 13.5-cent increase. The township had until Wednesday to set the tax rate and now the school board must determine what cuts will be made to stay within the budget.
Education Association President Kathy Waszen said she met with members Monday afternoon to discuss a proposal that allowed the health care switch, but included a half-year wage freeze rather than a full year and a reduction of the workweek to four days during the summer to save expenses rather than a one-day furlough. The proposal comes as a package and members must approve all of the concessions or none of them.
“We have met you more than halfway,” Waszen said at the meeting. “This board has been working very hard and it’s going to be impossible to get that to zero.”
Members of the union, which includes teachers and school employees other than bus drivers and administrators, would have to approve the concessions before they become finalized, Waszen said.
“You want to bring staff back, then maybe you should take a pay freeze or partial pay freeze to help the situation,” Mayor James J. “Sonny” McCullough said.
School board President James Galvin said the board needs to discuss how it will handle the cuts. The first of those meetings will be at 7 p.m. today at the Alder Avenue Middle School board room. He said he knew the cuts would be deep, “but I wasn’t sure they were going to do all they did.”
The township can recommend only where the cuts may come from. The school board can either accept the recommendations, make its own cuts or appeal to the state.
Schools Superintendent Scott McCarthy said if the health plan is not switched to the state plan, additional jobs will be cut. The board eliminated 70 positions a number of programs in March as part of the first round of budget cuts.
“In the event this insurance change doesn't happen, that would equate to a loss of 30 jobs,” he said. “We have a legal obligation to make those cuts.”
During a contentious public comment session, teachers asked the committee to meet them halfway, saying that the cuts could affect the quality of education and retaining teachers on staff because of low pay and benefits. They told the committee and board they shouldn’t have to make sacrifices so township residents don’t see a tax increase.
“If township residents are not going to pay anything more, that’s an unfair request,” said Garry Schultz, a township resident and teacher. “Whenever concessions are given, whenever money is put back into the system I would urge you guys to concentrate on job restoration.”
John Carlson told officials that there are concessions involved in switching health plans. He said he and his wife, who are both teachers, would lose the option of a health care buyout.
“I’m willing to do it because I want to see those people back at work. What are you willing to sacrifice?” Carlson said.
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