LINDEN — Long after employees have left for the day and the parking lot empties out, the lights in the mayor’s office continue to burn. It’s budget time and that is never an easy time for municipalities. Especially Linden.
Last week it appeared that even though the city took drastic measures to reduce the budget down from the $5.4 million more than the state imposed 2-percent cap, it was nowhere near enough.
Being discussed now is charging taxpayers for garbage service, which could bring in $3.2 million in revenue. Not an easy decision, the mayor said, but just about the only one left on the table that will provide the millions the city needs to balance the budget.
This has not been an easy time for a mayor who has little power over a budget that is $5.4 million in the red. It is time to pay the piper and the frustration over what that will mean, not only for taxpayers but also employees, has been a bitter pill to swallow.
As a former cop who spent years on the force, it is especially painful for Mayor Rich Gerbounka to realize the six new police recruits now in the police academy will never put on a Linden police department uniform.
Even though the city has been paying each of the recruits $45,000 each while they are in training, none will have a job to go to when they get out.
“What we need is more concessions from the police,” Gerbounka said, explaining the way things are being set up, the city will lose two uniformed officers off the street. However, detectives will also have to be moved to fill in where there are gaps among the rank and file.
“We can’t leave our streets unprotected,” the mayor said, but that is just one of the impacts this multi-million dollar budget shortfall has taken.
Although the city was planning on $1.5 million in savings by having every employee take one furlough day a week without pay starting July 1, that option is off the table. According to the mayor, because employees can file for unemployment, the city would be required by law to contribute up to $1 million or more to this fund.
“It just doesn’t pay to do furloughs,” said the mayor, but he added that in the last few weeks the police union did agree to $1.2 million in cuts, which is a help.
The city is still working with the Firemans Benevolent Association for additional concessions but the way it stands now, there is little doubt the city will be able to find a way to not layoff 32 firemen and shut down one of four firehouses. It is what it is, the mayor said, and there literally is nothing he can do about it at this point.
Gerbounka admitted the last few months have been draining and there is little chance the pressure will be off for some time. At least, not until the council pares down the $5.4 million and introduces a budget. Last year that came in around August, right after the state threatened to fine every council person $25 a day until they got the job done.
A year later, the city is back at the budget table and not much has changed. Only this time the city coffers have no savings to dip into in order to save the day. Gerbounka blames that on the fact the city form of government does not allow the mayor to participate in the planning of the budget, or even vote or veto it.
“This government is non-functioning,” he said, explaining once again that the form of government Linden adopted decades ago worked when there were major industries like Dupont and Cyanamid providing tax revenue. Not so much anymore. But there is one bright spot that continues to stand out.
“Right now its painful, but a few years down the road when we are bringing in more revenue, it will ease up and we can get things back on track,” Gerbounka said.
Spectra Energy will begin paying the city $2.5 million for a gas pipe that will run through Linden for a mile beginning in 2014.
The suggestion to charge residents for garbage removal is not one the mayor or council really wants to address, but there may not be a choice. The mayor, while not wanting to impose such a charge, felt there was no other choice at this point. Especially because the revenue generated would be high enough to get the city out of the financial hole that is preventing the budget process from moving forward.
For instance, if each resident was charged $25 a month by the city for garbage removal, that would generate $3.2 million in revenue. That would be enough, the mayor said, along with other measures such as layoffs of police and fire personnel, to reduce the $5.4 million needed to get under the 2 percent state-mandated cap. But while Gerbounka believes this is the only option left, council members are not aboard yet.
“Eventually they are going to have to decide how we are going to get rid of that $5.4 million deficit, but right now they just can’t make a decision,” he said.
Gerbounka’s frustration is beyond words, especially because there was no warning about the huge deficit in the 2013 budget.
“No one said anything about the severity of things until the 11th hour,” the mayor explained. “We only have a certain amount of time to introduce a budget before they fine us, like they threatened to do last year,” he added.
Until then, the budget meetings continue and the indecision only delays the inevitable, Gerbounka said.