Brigantine's budget process this year has been an arduous one as city officials navigate a state review, a looming deficit and a new political majority guiding decision-making.
While most other towns have long since adopted their budgets, Brigantine is at least two meetings away from a final vote.
Hurricane Sandy exacerbated a set of perennial budget challenges that included outsized staffing expenses, mounting tax appeals and a dwindling surplus.
The state Division of Local Government Services is still reviewing the city’s preliminary budget. That review was triggered by the combination of a $43,000 deficit at the municipality-run golf course and the city’s participation in the Community Disaster Loan Program following Sandy.
Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, said Brigantine is one of about 30 towns statewide undergoing review.
“They will be able to move forward in a matter of weeks,” she said.
In the meantime, council meetings at which the 2013 budget was expected to be adopted have come and gone. At times, public hearings and council discussions have lasted four hours or more without a vote.
“It’s a complicated budget and we need to take our time,” Mayor Phil Guenther said last week.
But it’s likely this year’s proceedings still would have been long-lived, even without the added burden of Sandy and a state review. Last year, Democrats took control of City Council for the first time since 1897. They now hold five of seven seats.
“In the past, we really didn’t have open, transparent discussions about the budget process,” said Frank Kern, a Democrat who was elected in 2010.
A political shake-up also followed the hiring of a new auditor and manager, who have advocated establishing a fund in preparation for about $4.5 million in retirement costs — costs Kern said previous councils paid as they arose.
The new Democratic cohort have discussed a number of cost-cutting measures that have yet to be realized. At one meeting, for instance, they voted to place an employment ad seeking candidates for a public safety director to replace the city’s chiefs of beach patrol, fire and police.
That proposal prompted a lengthy public debate attended by law enforcement officials from Brigantine and around the state.
The ad has not yet appeared.
“That may seem like we’re disorganized, but it’s really (about) independent thinkers debating our viewpoints,” Kern said, adding that officials don’t meet to discuss proposals behind closed doors, as some other governing bodies do.
And then there are the complexities of Brigantine’s budget challenges.
The golf course, for instance, was purchased through the state’s Green Acres program, which places restrictions on how the space can be used. For example, Brigantine couldn’t sell the land to a real estate developer to help balance its budget.
Much of the budget is also tied to its employees’ salaries and benefits, and many of those benefits are set out in contracts negotiated by previous administrations.
According to city payroll documents, Brigantine has 35 employees earning more than $100,000 per year, including 19 in the Fire Department and 13 in the Police Department. Outside of those departments, only the city engineer, city manager and public works supervisor earn comparable pay.
In recent weeks, the city has sought voluntary furloughs to help reduce that burden. While the prospect of layoffs has been discussed in passing, they are not included in the city’s 2013 budget.
Kern said the city’s previous auditor had urged council to cut its staffing expenses, but that never happened.
“I would not be at all surprised if layoffs in various departments occurred this year in consideration of the 2014 budget,” he said.
The current preliminary budget calls for local tax-rate increase of 3.4 cents. That would translate to a municipal tax rate of 52.2 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
If the rate stands, it would mean properties valued at the average residential assessment of $499,316 would pay $2,606 in city property taxes, up about 7 percent from the $2,436 paid last year.
With so many of its residents still rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy, much council debate has hinged upon tax relief. Guenther has argued that taxpayers need as much help as they can get, while other council members point to an even bigger financial burden awaiting in 2014 as loans taken out to pay for tax appeals and Sandy repairs need to be repaid.
Residents have another two meetings, one of them tonight, to share their views. The council is expected to adopt its budget at its May 15 meeting, although that vote will also hinge on the state’s review.
A few residents have trickled out of the lengthy meetings before public comment, but most have stayed to voice their opinions. Some, such as Anne Phillips, don’t mind the arduous process.
“While people get a little restless at a long meeting, I think that’s part of the process when the former people in power are no longer there,” said Phillips, a member of the Brigantine Taxpayers Association. “It is very important we understand where we’re going.
“Nobody ever said democracy was neat,” she added.
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