Feuding Moorestown council under state ultimatum

Moorestown Mayor John Button has changed his mind on a spending plan.
Moorestown Mayor John Button has changed his mind on a spending plan.
Posted: June 16, 2012

The Moorestown Township Council is under orders to introduce its municipal budget — or else.

If it fails to introduce a municipal spending plan by the end of next week, each of the five members will be fined $25 a day until the job is done.

"Your budget deadline is more than two months overdue," said a May 25 letter signed by Thomas Neff, director of the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services. He gave the council until Friday to crunch the numbers and come up with a plan and a tax levy.

Thirty-eight other municipalities out of the state's 566 recently received the same notice of tardiness. Tammori Petty, a division spokeswoman, knew of no cases in which fines had been imposed.

"Towns almost always comply under the threat of the penalty, and we never threaten until there is serious, serious delay that is in bad faith," she said.

Last year, she said, Paterson came close to being punished, but then a council member there said he would vote yes to "avoid a penalty he could not pay."

In Moorestown, infighting on the all-Republican council has spread to a debate over taxes.

In a 3-2 vote Monday, the group decided against introducing a proposed $22.7 million budget that would have raised municipal taxes by $53 on property assessed at $529,800, the township average.

Weeks before the vote, the council majority, including Mayor John Button, had informally agreed to that spending plan and directed the manager and finance director to prepare it for a vote.

But then, Button said, he changed his mind.

"I just don't believe it is right to be raising taxes when we're having quite a bit of revenue coming in," he said, referring to an anticipated $4 million from the pending first-time sale of liquor licenses. In November, voters in the traditionally dry township approved the sale of liquor exclusively at restaurants planned for the Moorestown Mall. The mall owners have pledged to pay $4 million for four licenses.

"My preference is to use that money over an extended period of time for the benefit of taxpayers ... but we may have to use some bit of it" to keep taxes from rising, Button said.

Button, who will run for reelection as an independent in the fall, said he had also asked officials to look for more spending cuts and to examine outsourcing as a way to keep taxes flat. He was not endorsed by the township GOP to run for a second term after he clashed with the leadership over various decisions council has made during his tenure.

Councilmen Greg Gallo and Michael Testa, who have decided not to run for reelection in November, citing personal reasons, also voted against introducing the proposed budget. Council members Stacy Jordan and Christopher Chiacchio favored it, saying the spending plan was reasonable, especially as tax appeals have reduced township revenue.

Hastily, with the threat of fines looming over them, council members scheduled a special meeting for 8 a.m. Wednesday to try again. Button said he expected a new budget proposal would pass and hoped it would not include a tax increase. "I'm not anxious to see any council member receive a penalty," he said.

Township Manager Scott Carew said $363,500 of the anticipated liquor-license revenue had been put into this year's proposed budget. He said he and Finance Director Thomas Merchel believed the anticipated liquor-license money should be added gradually to the budget, in less-than-$500,000 increments, and the rest should be put kept as surplus to control taxes for the next eight to 12 years. Merchel could not be reached for comment.

"We don't want to use it all at once," Carew said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

The township could receive even more than the anticipated $4 million if the owner of the East Gate Shopping Center wins a legal battle to be included in the liquor-license auction. The referendum had limited the licenses to the mall, and the mall owners said they were interested in buying only four.

Moorestown is entitled to sell six liquor licenses, based on state regulations, and East Gate owners want to bid on the other two. They say the restriction benefits the mall and is unfair.

Last year, the township solicitor told council voters could legally limit the licenses to restaurants at the mall, but council members now say they will accept bids from East Gate and hold on to them until a court decides the issue in August.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog at philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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