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Posted June 4, 2012 | comments 1 Comment

Middletown leaders revisit proposed staff cuts

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Town Council heard a message from former members, a resident and a current official on Monday: Don't cut staff to balance next year's budget.

Whether council members change course and keep two part-time positions and the town manager in the fiscal 2013 spending plan remained uncertain after a public hearing on the proposed budget. The hearing featured four speakers, each of whom urged council to not eliminate the three positions.

Former Mayor Marshall J. "Mark" Brown, who, with Barrington and John Wesley Blaisdell Jr. resigned from council under protest in March, claimed the town faced a shortfall of $19,018 -- not nearly the $70,000 saved if they cut the three positions as proposed. Brown lauded council's efforts to craft a budget knowing most members had not done so prior. Brown noted this feat likely came as a result of work by the town office staff.

"After study I can firmly state that this decision [to cut staff] was based on preconceived personal agendas and not a fiscal reality," Brown read from a written statement. "I charge that the mayor failed to ensure council carried out their fiscal duties in a responsible manner in allowing council to not consult with the town's treasurer, to not consult with the superintendent of public works, to not consult with the chief of police and especially to not consult with the town manager concerning the budget shortfalls as specified in these individuals' job descriptions."

If council does move forward to cut a police detective and a public works employee from next year's budget, they also can say goodbye to town Zoning Administrator Fred H. Wharton.

Wharton stated in a letter to council, read by Mayor Charles H. Harbaugh IV during a work session immediately following the hearing, he would resign if members approved a budget that cut the two part-time positions. In his letter, Wharton states council "should respect department heads and allow them to make personnel decisions."

Wharton said later outside town hall he would stay in his position if council takes the two part-time staff cuts off the table.

Harbaugh also read a letter of resignation submitted by Jason E. Ransom who advised he would step down as the town attorney. It was not clear if Ransom's resignation was related to the proposed staff cuts.

Council made no comments during the public hearing. Members conducted a work session following the budget hearing but didn't discuss the spend plan or the proposed staff cuts.

Clarence C. "Trip" Chewning III conceded that members needed to "step back and revisit some of the budget cuts we made, some of the personnel positions that were eliminated."

"I think we kinda got in the mode of we gotta get this done, we gotta get this thing cut down and maybe we did not take enough time to consider things and to realize what impacts some of our decisions would make," Chewning said. "We know that some of the ways in which things were handled were handled poorly."

Members then went into closed session to discuss personnel matters.

Former council member Gilbert "Gil" Barrington told council at the hearing he hoped staff cuts would serve as a last resort to balance the budget. Barrington suggested council instead look at not filling a vacant position to save money. Barrington advised council "not to threaten the employees."

"I know you're struggling with this but I hope you'll take an honest effort to try to keep from doing it [cutting staff]," Barrington said.

Wharton concurred with Barrington and then questioned the budget document itself. Wharton also suggested that council wait until January, after elections in November, to allow members then to address the issue of potential staff cuts.

"There are some hard decisions to be made on this budget and cuts had to be made," Wharton said. "But I go along with Gil on why are we hiring people or replacing positions if we're cutting people. It just doesn't make sense."

Wharton warned council the town likely won't see more residential development and the revenue associated with housing.

Stephanie Mitchell sided with the other speakers and noted in a statement her "alarm" when hearing that council has entertained the idea of cutting the part-time public works position, held by 30-year town worker Dick Leg.

According to Mitchell, who cited media reports, council called town department chiefs into a meeting without much warning and members asked them to defend their staff against potential cuts.

"I know firings and layoffs may have to come but please treat people with the respect and courtesy that you would expect to receive," Mitchell said.

Brown advised against eliminating the town manager position which he helped create to separate the political and professional sides of town government.

"The loss of these three positions will result in irrevocable and long-term harm to this community," Brown read from a statement. "Reported comments from irresponsible council members referring to the town manager as a glorified secretary and statements that a public works employee couldn't do his job because he had been seen walking with a cane reflects poorly on their judgment, and in the case of the public works employee could even open this town to litigation for inappropriate dismissal actions concerning the handicapped."

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