Hightstown Council Dispute Blocks Borough Employees' Pre-Christmas Paychecks
As things now stand, borough employees will not be paid before the holiday weekend.
Even a lunar event unseen for 372 years couldn't eclipse the contention at Monday's Hightstown Borough Council meeting, when the defeat of a budget transfer resolution left in doubt how—or even if—borough employees will be paid before Christmas this year.
Just hours before the first total lunar eclipse on a winter solstice since 1638, the council voted 2-2 on a resolution to transfer $56,308 within the budget. That would have enabled the borough to cover unexpected costs—$42,000 of them being police overtime pay—to make good on its payroll this week.
The council was split among the Democrats between Larry Quattrone, the outgoing council president, and Walter Sikorski voting yes and Isabel McGinty and Dimitri Musing voting no. With the absence of Democrat Jeff Bond and Republican Skye Gilmartin, who officials said left after the earlier closed session due to illness, the two yeas were not enough to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass the resolution. The borough's mayor only votes to break a tie.
The disagreement stemmed largely from McGinty and Musing's demands to see specific police documents they said they have been denied. At the last meeting, the council agreed to pay about $29,000 in police overtime payments, but McGinty said the department was depending too much on the ability to do that without showing the need.
After the last budget transfer at the last meeting, McGinty said, she requested documentation to justify it. "Since $29,000 in police overtime seemed a very, very large number and one that would need to be justified to the borough it seemed to me that due diligence would require me to look at least some of the paperwork relating to that overtime," she said. Instead, she said the council got only "a few pieces of paper."
Musing also expressed disbelief at the budget numbers.
"Am I to understand that most of this is coming from overtime?" Musing said.
"I'm assuming we do budget over the year, so we know what we're spending when," Musing said. "Would it not be normal for the council to be advised that we're going to be shooting over our overtime numbers in the budget and that we're going to be allocating much more money to overtime before this money's spent?"
Chief Financial Officer George Lang said did not have advance warning of the excess overtime, but that such transfers aren't unusual. "Traditionally, every town transfers money in November and December to where they need money from where they have extra money. Are some of these numbers a little larger than in the past? Sure."
Borough Administrator Herbert Massa said the borough's early adoption of its budget this year, as opposed to adopting it in late fall as it did in 2009, meant more transfers were necessary in the final months of 2010, while Lang added that even if police overtime is over budget, police salaries overall are not. The department currently has eight officers, two fewer than normal, and the department has so far this year gone about $71,000 over its budget projection of $118,000, which Quattrone said was always a best-case scenario.
A second attempt to pass the resolution held at the very end of the meeting failed by the same margin.
The vote leaves the borough in a bind, according to the CFO. The council can either make an emergency expense, which has twice the impact on next year's budget; overextend the budget, which is not permitted; or hold an emergency meeting. As of this posting on Tuesday, officials were attempting to find a quorum so they could hold that meeting as soon as tonight.
Due to the holiday, checks were to go out Thursday this week. Direct deposit payments require an extra two days, according to Lang.
Asked at the conclusion of the Monday night meeting what would be done about payroll this week, he said, "I don't know; we have to address that. I'm not sure."
"If it's going to put is into a bind financially... we're not going to be able to spend that money," Massa explained.
Democratic Mayor-elect Steve Kirson said he understood the reasoning behind McGinty and Musing's votes but did not agree with their approach.
"There's no leeway here. Payroll must be paid. People work, you pay them," he said.
Asked directly if the council's move that night was the right one, Kirson said, "No, it was not. We should've made payroll. You have to pay people."