The Toms River Township Council approved a cut of $222,346 from the budget of Fire District 1, reducing the amount to be raised by taxation
District 1, which is served by East Dover, Ocean Beach, and Toms River Fire Co. 1 & 2, asked voters to approve a $7.3 million budget, and failed by 16 votes in February's election.
The fire budget pays for the administration, equipment, insurance and hydrant rental, among other expenses. , 399 voters decided against approving the budget, while 383 were in favor the budget.
A public hearing of the fire budget drew comments from volunteer firefighters, residents and council members on what to cut. Some firefighters said the budget was trim and is in the best interest of preventing and fighting fires, protecting Toms River. Some residents urged cutting as much as $276,000.
Reduced Taxation to 2011 Level
Township Attorney Kenneth Fitzsimmons explained that state statutes call for the delivery of the defeated budget to the township council — who only have the power to recommend a flat dollar amount to be deleted from the budget, and have no input whatsoever on how the cuts are to be implemented or what budget line items will be axed. Fitzsimmons added that the council must complete that obligation within 30 days of the election.
“We took a look at the budget and analyzed the budget with our Chief Financial Officer, tried to take it apart and see what the various elements of the budget were. I prepared an analysis that I forwarded to council on Feb. 23, with some of what we had found,” Township Administrator Paul Shives said.
For the $7.3 million budget, the amount to be raised by taxation was about $4.774 million, according to the township administrator.
Shives also made sure to note that the capital items approved by voters in the amount of $880,000, the expenses related to LOSAP (Length of Service Award Program) in the amount of $425,000 and the $20,000 donation from the Fire District to local First Aid Companies cannot be affected.
“We also looked at the fund balance of the fire district both in 2010-2011, and where they project the fund balance to be at the end of 2012, even assuming that the budget had been approved. That was a fairly healthy fund balance of about $1.34 million, projected at the end of 2012 with the budget as introduced,” Shives said.
Shives then said that his recommendation to the governing body was to cut $222,346 from the amount to be raised by taxation, the exact increase in that amount from 2011’s budget to that of the proposed one in 2012 — in effect, restoring the taxation amount to its 2011 level, in the last budget approved by local voters.
With the recommended cut amount in play, that would reduce the total appropriation amount of the budget to $7,080,311.
Residents, Firefighters Weigh In
An opportunity for public comment was then opened, with Council President Maurice “Mo” Hill reminding those in attendance several times that the council only has the power to cut a flat dollar amount from the budget, and doesn’t have the authority to dictate what specific line items would be deleted — a responsibility in the hands of the Toms River Fire Commissioners.
Toms River resident Dennis Galante asked if there was still room in the budget’s surplus, and Shives replied that the terms “fund balance” and “surplus” were interchangeable — meaning that the projected surplus at the end of 2012 was $1.34 million.
Galante began to inquire about several specific line items within the budget, but was reminded by the council that such decisions about what to cut from the budget were not within their purview, with Galante adding that notice of that stipulation should have been provided on the township’s website for the public’s knowledge prior to the meeting.
Resident Nels Luthman recommended that $276,978 be cut from the budget in a brief public statement.
Toms River resident Carol Benson asked the council why citizens were merely limited to comments on dollar amounts, but Councilman George Wittman again explained that the council’s duty is merely to approve an amount to be cut from the budget, and not to discuss where cuts are specifically made.
“We don’t have the expertise that the Fire Commissioners have. The Fire Commissioners review the amount to be cut, and they decide where it’s appropriate to make the reductions,” Wittman said.
Benson then suggested that $250,000 be cut from the budget, while resident Mary Malagiere recommended that the budget be trimmed by $268,950.
Resident Joseph Lypowy labeled the amount to be cut as recommended by Shives to be “reasonable.”
“The costs of fuel and insurance are going up. As a taxpayer, my inclination at first is to the give our firemen as much as they can get, because they do volunteer and give their free service, and save us a lot of money. But seeing that we’re in bad economic times and everyone has to tighten their belt, it seems reasonable to me to hold the budget at last year’s rate,” said Lypowy.
Several members of the Fire Department, clad in formal dress blues, also took the opportunity to comment on the budget at Tuesday’s meeting — the first of which was District Chief Sam Seaman.
“Obviously, since I am a firefighter, my recommendation is to have zero reduction in the budget,” said Seaman, a former 12-year member of the Board of Fire Commissioners.
“I would like to clarify a couple of points, if I may, in reference to the capital items. The capital items that are funded in this year’s current budget were previously voted on in 2010 and years prior,” Seaman said. “The items that were voted on in this year’s budget, the four questions, are going to be future-funded. They are future capital improvements that will begin being funded in 2013.”
John Gonzalez, Chief of Fire Company No. 1, addressed the governing body and also recommended that nothing be cut from the budget this year.
“We all know that it is tough economic times. Your fire department in this town is 100 percent volunteer, and ultimately, the money that’s going to get cut is going to affect your volunteer firefighter. I just ask that you keep that in consideration,” said Gonzalez.
Richard Tutela, Assistant Chief of East Dover Fire Company, was next to speak. Tutela asked Shives if it was possible not to cut the budget at all, according to the state statute.
Shives replied that the statute in question does not set a specific dollar amount to be cut, but that the budget could not be approved as originally proposed, since it was defeated at the polls, which was seconded by attorney Fitzsimmons.
Tutela continued that the all-volunteer fire services in Toms River rely on all citizens to keep the service going, and that any monies cut from the budget will not help local fire services or the community’s citizens.
“We do ask the council to please take a long, hard look, and I recommend that we cut it by $1, and continue to fund this fire service to move us forward into the next year and from there,” said Tutela.
'Will of the Voters'
After the public comment was closed, council member Wittman made a motion to cut the budget by $222,346, as per the recommendation of Toms River’s CFO and Township Administrator.
“The voters voted this budget down, and I believe that we have to go with the will of the voters. Although I appreciate everything that the volunteers do, I think that it’s appropriate to cut the budget since the voters did not approve the budget, and we’ll have to go forward from there. I know that it’s a difficult situation, but I think it’s only fair to the voters. They voted it down, and I believe it’s a fair cut,” Wittman commented.
Councilman Alfonso Manforti agreed, saying that while volunteers should be given everything they need in order to serve the community, that same community is also governed by the will of the voters, and that it would be “a slap in the face” to them for the budget to only be decreased by $1.
Council President Hill closed the meeting with his own remarks, saying that he respected everything that firefighters do to protect and save the town’s residents.
“I know this is a bitter pill, but the voters have spoken. They voted the budget down. This cut, while painful, hopefully will not impede the fire service, and I have every anticipation that our volunteers will continue to provide the highest quality service to the residents of Toms River,” said Hill.
Due to conflicts, Councilman Brian Kubiel (Business Administrator for Fire District 1) and fellow council member Jeffrey Carr recused themselves from all discussion pertaining to the Fire District 1 budget at the meeting.