Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 13
 
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
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Most Joint Budgets Cut by Five Percent

Dilshanie Perera

Borough Council and Township Committee accepted most administrative recommendations regarding joint agency operating budgets at a special meeting last Tuesday. Capital budget requests by joint agencies were not discussed.

It was agreed that most joint agency operating budgets would be reduced from last year’s levels by five percent, with the exception of the Human Service Commission and the Suzanne Patterson Center. The municipalities also debated the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) budget, and will make their decision after further administrative review.

Township Administrator Jim Pascale explained that since the First Aid Squad isn’t a municipal department, but rather a separate non-profit organization to which both municipalities make contributions, the five percent reduction affected their overall budget.

Observing that “this was one of the harder ones to cut,” Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi noted that the squad had not requested a budget increase for a few years, and that a reduction this year may cause them some hardship.

President of PFARS Peter Simon explained that the squad’s day crew had been funded by the municipalities until 2005, when the organization began seeking third-party reimbursement for their services. Since then, they have had to add new personnel as “the daily demands of the volunteer chief were simply too great.”

“Billing does bring in a large portion of our funding, but it has to go to cover a large portion of our operation,” Mr. Simon remarked, adding that since 2000, the squad has seen a 45 percent decline in the numbers of donors. “We’ll frequently see insurance companies negate a claim,” he added, saying that they lose a few hundred thousand dollars every year from individuals and insurance companies that don’t pay for the services.

The total operating budget of PFARS is $1.2 million per year, with billing revenue approximately $900,000, according to Mr. Simon. While six positions at the squad are paid, most of the staff is comprised of volunteers.

Township Committee member Chad Goerner suggested it would be unwise to “take a machete to the budget and simply carve off five percent,” adding that the squad provides an essential service to the municipalities.

Citing the decision to bill people for PFARS service, Mr. Pascale said that the assumption in 2006 was that municipal contributions would gradually be lowered as a result of the influx of revenue.

The need for more information was voiced by Borough Council member Roger Martindell, who mentioned “an absence of information” necessary to make a decision about the programs, the efficiency of billing, and the overall process.

The motion to accept the administrators’ initial recommendation of reducing the overall contribution to PFARS by five percent was defeated, with Township Committee unanimously voting against a decrease, and all Borough Council members voting in favor of it except Mr. Martindell. Margaret Karcher of Council was not present.

The municipal administrators will meet with members of the first aid squad and bring back their suggestions to the Council and Committee, Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman said.

Health Department

The Health Department’s budget was recommended to be pared down by $27,000 from last year. The decrease included the five percent reduction in operating expenses, as well as shifting two part-time employees to hourly positions to reduce salary costs.

“What troubles me is how we’re going here,” Council President Andrew Koontz commented. “Are we going to start picking and choosing winners and losers in this ‘budget game?’” He noted that the health department would clearly suffer more than others given the reduction.

Health Officer David Henry said that he was concerned about reducing staff hours in the vital statistics department because of the volume of records they are required to maintain by the state. Vital statistics include birth, death, civil union, and marriage records.

“By state statute we are required to provide sufficient staff to maintain quality service to the community … but the proposal to reduce those hours will severely threaten compliance with those statues,” Mr. Henry said, adding that the revenue the Health Department generated in 2008 was $186,000.

When asked about the University Medical Center of Princeton’s move to Plainsboro in 2011, Mr. Henry agreed that they would not have the “data or justification” to have the same number of people dealing with vital statistics, but with approximately 2,000 births recorded per year, and at least 25 minutes spent on each record, he asked the governing bodies not to reduce his staff “until the hospital leaves.”

“Our revenues are down [in the Health Department] even after we raised fees, and the amount of certificates is also down,” Mr. Bruschi said of his recommendation to scale back the vital statistics. “When we’re evaluating all these things, we cannot afford to put money back in the budget tonight without identifying areas to take it back out.”

Members of Borough Council voted to maintain the administrators’ recommendations, with Mr. Koontz voting against the Health Department decrease. Township Committee also approved of the decrease with the exception of Sue Nemeth. Township Mayor Bernie Miller added a caveat, asking that the functioning of the Health Department resulting from the budget cut be watched very carefully to prevent any breakdowns in other areas (like food inspections) under its purview.

Human Services

The agreement the Borough and Township came to regarding Human Services Commission passed with all members of Township Council, Mr. Koontz, and Council members Barbara Trelstad and Kevin Wilkes voting in favor of the the proposal, and Council members Mr. Martindell and David Goldfarb voting against it.

Township Committee member Lance Liverman remarked that “Human Services is a noteworthy department that is needed in Princeton,” adding that “the direction the Borough was headed in earlier, regarding the total elimination of Human Services was very disappointing to me.”

Though the Human Services budget is down about $28,700 from last year, it does include the full funding of a director, and one part time employee through June 1. The remaining funds for the part-time employee will be transferred to the Suzanne Patterson Center for the operation of the Cross Town senior transportation program.

The decision also stipulated that the liaisons to the Human Services Commission, Liz Lempert for the Township and Kevin Wilkes for the Borough, review the programming and staffing needs of the Commission by July 1, and bring their recommendations to the municipal governments.

The Suzanne Patterson Center’s budget increase of $27,500 to fund the Cross Town service was approved unanimously.

Other joint agencies that will see a five percent decline in their 2009 operating budgets include animal control, Corner House, the environmental commission, the fire department and facilities, planning board, recreation department, sewers, and solid waste. The library’s budget was reduced by $24,480.

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