Figures released Thursday show that state aid to area municipalities will be cut by $14.5 million in fiscal 2011, prompting mayors to say they likely will have to lay off workers.
Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed statewide spending reduction plan has 65 towns across Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties facing an average cut of 14 percent in state funds that help prop up local budgets and reduce property taxes. But some towns will bear more of the proposed burden. Vineland in Cumberland County and Atlantic City in Atlantic County will lose more than $1 million each in municipal aid.
Growth towns in Atlantic County, such as Hamilton Township, Galloway Township and Egg Harbor Township, and rural cities in Cumberland County, including Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton, dominate the list of worst-hit areas in this region.
Many local leaders said Thursday that the figures fell below the threshold that allowed towns to keep all public workers. Galloway may face the largest cut by percentage, with 24 percent less aid than it received last year. The township has already laid off two police officers and five government staff members in recent weeks.
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said he anticipated the cuts, and he thought that growth communities such as his and Galloway Township “are getting hammered.” McCullough said the challenge for all schools and municipalities is to “turn it around and reduce the costs of municipal operations.”
Barnegat Township Administrator Dave Breeden said the cut in state aid to his town — 21 percent — represents about one cent on the township’s tax rate.
“With our snow removal costs for this year up around a half-million dollars and our state aid being cut by $275,000, we’re already starting off in a very difficult situation,” Breeden said. “What we’re going to have to do is craft a budget that minimizes the financial impact on residents while finding a way to keep the level of services to the community at an acceptable level.”
Breeden said that won’t happen without sacrifices.
“I think we have to take a look at our organization and personnel structure,” he said. “We could have to reduce our staffing through attrition, furloughs or separation. We’re hoping we’ll be able to do it through attrition.”
Budget constraints prompted Hammonton to lay off four office workers last year. Mayor Steve DiDonato said layoffs are imminent again with a 20 percent projected cut in state aid this year — roughly $326,000.
“That is definitely much worse that we anticipated,” DiDonato said. “There is no way for us to close the gap for our budget without layoffs. I feel for all of the people this could possibly affect, but we have to remember that there are a lot of people out there who can’t afford to pay additional taxes. We have to do what is necessary to cut our budget down.”
The Christie administration had delayed releasing the figures for a day, taking time to review them. Many local officials said they had anxiety as they waited for the numbers from the Department of Community Affairs, following Christie’s budget address to the joint legislature Tuesday.
In that address, Christie, a Republican, outlined his $29.3 billion budget proposal, which tries to close a $10.7 billion deficit. His plan will now be sent to the Legislature.
Christie called for “shared sacrifice” from towns, school districts and public workers’ unions, to match the reduction in the state’s revenue. He announced that state aid would be cut by $271.4 million to a new total of about $1.3 billion.
“For two days, this has been all we mayors have worried about,” said Chuck Chiarello, mayor of Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County and vice-president of the state’s League of Municipalities.
His town, which laid off two workers and eliminated another job by attrition in December, had planned for $150,000 in budget reductions to offset anticipated state aid cuts. But on Thursday night, Chiarello said that the township’s proposed aid reduction, which shrinks the overall town budget by $182,000, also reduces the amount by which the town’s budget can grow. The state mandates a 4 percent levy cap on all towns, with few exceptions.
“These cuts send us over that budget cap,” Chiarello said. “To get our budget down below that acceptable cap, we will have to start from scratch, and find new ways to cut.”
Lower Township Mayor Mike Beck said his municipality also might have to cut jobs after learning it would be receiving nearly $400,000 less state aid than it did last year.
“It’s too early to tell, but it’s not something we’re going to do unless our back’s against the wall,” he said. “We’re not out to take the jobs of people.”
Beck said the township did not fill a few positions that were vacated in 2009, which could help to offset the cuts this year.
“This was bound to happen,” he said. “We were prepared.”
Still, Beck praised the governor’s cuts.
“It’s about time. Someone had to step up like this, with enough courage to take the bull by the horns and change the way we do business,” Beck said. “It is long overdue.”
Staff writers Rob Spahr and Michele Lee contributed to this report.
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