CAPE MAY — City Council is honing in on overtime as one way to cut a proposed $16 million budget that would increase the tax rate by 5 percent.

The proposed budget drafted by City Manager Bruce MacLeod is now in council’s hands, and the debate at a Tuesday afternoon meeting was on ways to cut it.

Councilwoman Terri Swain said she was concerned with overtime at the Fire Department.

“It seems like there is a lot of shift work where people get paid overtime. When we look to cut, it seems we cut so many places and there is a big positive with the Fire Department and overtime,” Swain said.

Figures supplied by MacLeod show the city paid $456,159 in overtime last year. Each penny on the tax rate equals $280,000. MacLeod’s budget would raise taxes by 1.5 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, so if overtime was eliminated there would be no tax increase.

Washington Street resident John Fleming quizzed council on overtime costs. MacLeod said the Fire Department accounted for $104,706 with police getting $191,863. The Fire Department has 14 full-time employees while the Police Department has 24. Public works received $71,000 in overtime last year.

“Last year 38 percent of the employees made 63 percent of the salaries and it was mostly fire and police,” Fleming said.

MacLeod said overtime was rising a few years ago for police and public works, but it has stabilized. Fire overtime is still rising, he said.

“We have some ideas on how to approach that,” MacLeod said.

At least four firefighters, who also serve as EMTs here, are on every shift but MacLeod said the problem comes when others have to be called in for alarms. Fleming asked about pay scales and MacLeod said a first year firefighter would be paid $18.50 an hour on overtime, compared with a senior firefighters getting as much as $50 an hour.

Mayor Ed Mahaney said the high cost of Fire Department overtime is hurting other functions of the city and it has to be controlled.

“It’s not a matter of it can’t be done. It has to be done,” Mahaney said.

Overtime costs were just part of the discussion. Fleming said the city should look into hiring its own engineer rather than farming out the work.

Councilman Jack Wichterman wants to explore why sewer bills keep rising from the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority. Wichterman said sewer and water were both 50 percent of the utility budget in 2002 but now sewer is 60 percent and water is 40 percent. Council decided to ask county MUA officials to come to a future meeting and explain the rising costs.

“We have no say on the sewer part of that bill and it just keeps rising every year,” said Wichterman.

Columbia Avenue resident Jerry Gaffney asked about a new $120,000 line item for flood insurance for Cape May Convention Hall. Mahaney said this was increased by 20 percent because rate hikes are expected.

“I dropped my flood insurance because it was getting out of sight,” Gaffney replied.

Gaffney also questioned an increase in legal fees. MacLeod said $48,000 was added to hire a lawyer to fight the school funding formula at the Lower Cape May Regional School District, which educates children from Lower Township, Cape May and West Cape May.

Wichterman released the latest data showing the city is paying $6.6 million toward the $19.4 million school budget but only supplies 65 of the 1,557 students.

“We’re now paying $101,977 per student, a 22 percent increase over last year,” Wichterman said.

“My only concern is you don’t find yourself in a bottomless pit,” Gaffney said.

Wichterman replied that the city “is in a bottomless pit right now” so it makes sense to spend $48,000 to try and get relief.

Council made no actual cuts to the budget set for introduction on Feb. 19 with a council vote slated for March 19. MacLeod said there is still plenty of time to amend the spending plan.

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