As six towns await Transitional Aid awards, Dems bank on Christie’s budget flexibility absent $139M restoration

TRENTON – Nearly one-third of the $149 million in Transitional Aid for cash-strapped cities is coming due over the next few weeks, though to date, only $10 million has been budgted to pay for it. Democratic leaders in the Statehouse are shuffling their feet on the $139 million budget cut restoration proposed by Gov. Chris Christie, even though the governor’s proposal has been on the table for weeks.

The Democrats are still examining other budget cuts from Christie’s line-itemed spending plan, according to a lower chamber spokesman, and may include the Transitional Aid funding in a comprehensive discussion with the governor about restorations.

Christie said recently that he wouldn’t entertain an apples-and-oranges discussion on this particular restoration. “If they want to propose other bills to restore other spending,” he told the press, the administration will entertain those separately. “But I am not going to allow them to try to hold me hostage.”

Assembly Majority spokesperson Tom Hester Jr. said, “We remain pleased the governor has seen the error of his ways and moved to restore the money, (but) we’re still reviewing budget cuts and continue to have additional concerns, whether it be UEZs, women’s health care, and cuts to senior citizens, children, and Legal Services.”

Six towns applied for FY12 aid, half of the 12 municipalities that applied last year, according to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) website.

The six towns and their requests for aid for FY12 are as follows: Camden, Camden County ($67,500,000); Paterson, Passaic County ($47,673,000); Trenton, Mercer County ($25,600,000); Union City, Hudson County ($14,000,000); Lawnside, Camden County ($850,000); and Bridgeton, Cumberland County ($400,000).

DCA spokesperson Lisa Ryan said the aid awards are expected to be announced soon. She said once the award-receiving municipalities sign and return their Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to the oversight and stipulations the state puts on the aid, the department would provide the towns with 75 percent of the aid for the year immediately. (The other 25 percent would be provided after benchmarks have been met.)

But with only $10 million left in the account, the department would immediately fall short on that amount.

Hester, speaking for the Assembly Democrats, said, “(I)t’s our understanding that we can use the Joint Budget Oversight Committee (JBOC) to quickly move money to cities that run into any immediate cash-flow problems.”

The hurdle with transferring funding through JBOC is that the Department of Treasury must initiate the request, which means Christie – who is on record telling lawmakers to pass the restoration immediately – would be asked to cover for the Democrats’ voluntary delay in the matter.

Asked whether the Democrats in the Assembly had any commitment from the administration for the JBOC transfer, Hester said, “It’s expected that in that case everyone would work together cooperatively.”

Sources close to the administration said it is unlikely that Christie will aid and abet the Democratic delay as the majority prepares to package restorations that Christie wants separate.

For their part, Senate Majority spokesperson Chris Donnelly said, “Discussions on funding the Transitional Aid program are ongoing between both the Senate and the Assembly, and the Senate President hopes to have that discussion with the governor in the near future.”

A Statehouse source said the some of the Republican lawmakers are unhappy over the aid and that the sentiment may be spreading in the GOP caucuses, but Minority Conference Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21), of Westfield, said, “I haven’t heard any of that.”

At least one Republican is bucking the aid program restoration. “I won’t support it,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, (R-25), of Morris Township.

“Towns should pay their own way,” said Carroll, whose right-wing brand is nearest to libertarian as is found in Trenton politics. “They should immediately transition into responsibility.”

The aid-receiving towns, like Camden and Asbury Park, are spending beyond their means, he said. “If you look at each one of them, you can find evidence of things they can do without,” he said. “Yet they find a way to do with…They have municipal swimming pools, which we don’t have.”

The Transitional Aid is a mix of three types of special aid formerly distributed by the state to cities. For instance, Trenton was receiving Capital City Aid, which is awarded because nearly half of the city’s acreage is tax-exempt state infrastructure.

Christie fused the different aids into the transitional program, from which he plans to wean needy cities and towns off of the Trenton subsidy.

Carroll said, “We have been transitioning that since I’ve been in the Legislature. Now’s as good a time as any (to stop awarding the funds).”

As six towns await Transitional Aid awards, Dems bank on Christie’s budget flexibility absent $139M restoration