Faced with at least 42 layoffs and the possibility of additional job cuts, county officials decided to cancel two popular music festivals, including one that was the subject of an investigation by the Prosecutor's Office last year.
Union County MusicFest and Union County Rhythm and Blues by the Brook have been canceled for 2012 due to budgetary constraints, according to a county press release.
"A consensus was reached by the Freeholder Board (March 8) following numerous fiscal committee meetings, union negotiations and departmental meetings," the press release stated. County officials say the cuts will save approximately $1.2 million.
“As we’ve continued to put our budget together for 2012, it has become apparent that we need to make programmatic cuts without sacrificing essential services,” Freeholder Chairman Alexander Mirabella said. “We are at a crossroads and must make tough decisions to achieve fiscal stability.”
According to the freeholder chairman, a plan to layoff 42 employees has been filed with the state. Mirabella said there will also be 30 vacancy reductions, meaning that there were 30 positions within the county that had been funded in the budget, but were never filled.
"Those positions have already been wiped out," Mirabella said, adding that additional layoffs on top of the 42 job cuts are also expected. Officials believe the elimination of the two concerts will help prevent further layoffs. "We have such a tough budget. The prospect of (additional) layoffs just didn't sit well with the board," Mirabella said.
Officials are working with the local labor unions to negotiate the layoffs. Mirabella said that nearly every department in the county will be affected by the job cuts.
"It's all departments. That's what we feel is the best way to do it, in order to best minimize the impact to any one area," Mirabella said. Union County Spokesman Sebastian D'Elia confirmed that there is a budget deficity, but did not know the exact amount, nor would he speculate.
D'Elia said there have been numerous meetings about the budget, which is usually presented in March. Mirabella noted while MusicFest and Union County Rhythm and Blues by the Brook have been canceled for 2012, these events and many other programs will be evaluated on a yearly basis. The freeholder chairman said the county would "continue its exhaustive review of all line items and programs to achieve continued efficiencies throughout the upcoming weeks before adopting a budget."
"These are things we don't take lightly," Mirabella said. He would not say what type of budget deficit the county is facing, since changes to the spending plan are still being made.
Last year's budget resulted in a 6 percent tax hike, which translated to an increase of about $108 on the county portion of the tax bills of Union County residents. Mirabella said last year's investigation by the Union County Prosecutor's Office into the bookeeping practices implemented during planning for MusicFest had nothing to do with the cancellation of the two concerts.
"It really didn't have anything to do with it," Mirabella said Monday. "We took the prosecutor's recommendations, and prior to last year's MusicFest, we were able to implement those recommendations to make it more transparent."
Mirabella believes the actions taken by the county subsequent to the investigation led to a more "transparent process and better accountability" during the 2011 Musicfest. In August of 2011, the Union County Prosecutor's Office announced that a five-month investigation into the financial dealings of the 2010 Union County MusicFest would result in no charges against the organizers of the week-long carnival and music festival that has drawn tens of thousands of people each September to Oak Ridge Park in Clark.The event, which was previously held at Nomahegan Park in Cranford, has featured big-name music acts such as Train, Blondie and Collective Soul.
The investigation began in March of last year, when Cranford resident Tina Renna, the founder of the Union County Watchdog Association and the County Watchers, wrote a letter to the Office of the Attorney General, alleging that as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars was missing from the parking receipts for MusicFest 2010. On-site parking cost $10 per car, and then-County Manager George Devanney asserted that as many as 80,000 people attended MusicFest. The Attorney General referred the matter to the Union County Prosecutor's Office, which ultimately said it found evidence of mismanagement, but not criminal activity.