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Editor's Voice: The council race--Is it a referendum on policy?

Posted 3/12/13

We applaud any effort by government to tell the public what it’s doing, so we are glad to see Middletown Borough Council is holding public meetings in each ward where citizens can meet council’s advisors – financial consultants and solicitor …

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Editor's Voice: The council race--Is it a referendum on policy?

Posted

We applaud any effort by government to tell the public what it’s doing, so we are glad to see Middletown Borough Council is holding public meetings in each ward where citizens can meet council’s advisors – financial consultants and solicitor – face to face.

The first meeting was held on Thursday, March 7 in the First Ward, and most of its focus was on Middletown’s financial situation. It didn’t reveal anything new about the borough’s finances, or how it came to be in the situation it’s in. However, it did reveal a peek or two of the future, and the philosophy behind what could come to pass.

Mark Morgan, the borough’s financial advisor under the state’s Act 47 Early Intervention Program, has recommended the borough cut two police officers from its force, one step in balancing a budget with a “structural deficit.’’ For ages, Middletown has sold electricity to its citizens at a profit, then transferred profits to its general fund. To stop – or, at least, reduce – the dependence on electric profits, council has eliminated the communications center and defunded the Middletown Public Library.

Council still must transfer some profits – or money from Middletown’s electric trust fund, money paid by Met-Ed to end a long-standing, cut-rate contract with the borough for cheap electricity – to its general fund to balance it. Morgan has not recommended the sale of the borough’s electric department to cut costs – it still depends on electric profits, he explained.

But he decried borough expenses that aren’t “core services’’ of local government, and the library, apparently, is one of those things that doesn’t meet that standard. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to name one local municipality that funds a library directly with its general fund revenues. The fact that residents from neighboring municipalities use the library seemed especially ludicrous to Morgan, and to council – since a majority voted swiftly to defund it on a surprising motion from the floor last summer that wasn’t even on council’s agenda. “If they’re not going to contribute to these things,’’ Morgan said of Middletown’s neighbors, “I don’t think you should fund them.’’
Problem is, cutting funding to the library to the bone, or eliminating it completely, could effectively close the facility, and then everyone loses, including Middletown residents. Council has worked to recreate the library as a nonprofit, believing the facility could live off donations – an idea that has some merit, if it wasn’t rushed into by overzealous councilors eager to chop electric rates before the conversion even began. “If the community really wants the library, they are going to get behind them,’’ offered Morgan.

The community has been behind the library all along, paying for it with its taxes and electric fees. It is hoped that it will survive on donations, but who knows?

A good indication of how the community feels about the issue likely will come in this year’s local elections. Five council seats will be contested, and as of Monday, March 11 – a day before a state deadline to get on the ballot – four of five incumbents are running. The race has drawn a large number – and quite a variety – of candidates so far, including those who support council’s decisions and those who don’t.

Ultimately, the community will decide what it wants.

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