Public comment welcomed at Eastern Branch library March 3

 

FREEHOLD – The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders introduced a $496 million preliminary budget last night, an increase of 0.53 percent over last year. The vote was 4 to 1.

Several department heads have not yet had an opportunity to present their budget proposals  to the board, and the freeholders expect more cuts will be made. The sheriff, the prosecutor, county clerk and the county surrogate are scheduled to present their budgets to the freeholders on Monday.

“This budget is very much a work in progress,” Freeholder Director Robert D. Clifton said. “We will know more about the budget after we meet with the constitutional officers. Our goal is to find more cuts without impacting government services and I believe we will be able to do that.”

“In these difficult economic times I can not believe that any elected officials think it is appropriate for an increase in taxes,” said Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Curley, who voted no on the budget. “I cannot in good conscience support anything but a flat budget, and the residents of Monmouth County should not tolerate anything less.”

As introduced, the budget is up by $2.6 million, or 0.53 percent, and is among the lowest increases in five years. The amount to be raised by taxation is $313 million, up $10,525,000, or 3.48 percent. The county tax rate would be 26 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, up 1.29 cents.

The county budget is tentatively scheduled for adoption at 7 p.m. March 24, following a public hearing. The freeholders will make a PowerPoint presentation on the budget March 3 at the Monmouth County Library Eastern Branch, Shrewsbury. The public is invited to attend and offer comments.

“Governments at every level face extraordinary challenges this year,” Freeholder Lillian G. Burry said. “Revenue is still down, and the tax base in Monmouth County continues to erode. Still it is our responsibility to find ways to provide government services and do it to our own high standard and without placing a great burden on the taxpayers we serve.”

Clifton, who oversees the county’s Finance Department, said the budget picture would have been much different had the county not implemented the spending cuts that were begun in 2008 when financial reports began to forecast a slowing economy. Those steps included reducing departmental budgets, embracing shared services, instituting wage freezes and laying off employees.

“To date, the county workforce has been reduced by 338 full-time and 36 part-time workers,” Clifton said. “The county has reduced its full-time staff by nearly 10 percent . That is a significant savings. It impacts pension contributions as well as health benefits.”

In the fall of 2008, the freeholder board directed all department heads to hold back 5 percent of discretionary spending and overtime was restricted to essential services only. In 2009, all departments were asked to cut their other expense budgets by 15 percent for a savings of $5.6 million. In 2009 and 2010, a number of county operations had been consolidated for additional savings.

The freeholders also took the following actions in preparations for 2011:

  • Asked the Library System to pay its full indirect rate, increasing revenue to the county by $2.4 million;
  • Anticipated an additional $1 million from capital surplus as a direct offset to debt service;
  • Accepted an additional Park System contribution of $1.3 million from the Open Space Trust Fund;
  • Canceled accounts payable to offset a decrease in Fund Balance, netting $5.1 million;
  • Placed a one-year moratorium on bond ordinance, for $2.5 million in savings;
  • Reduced Brookdale Community College allocation by $6 million;
  • Eliminated a Health Department appropriation of $335,000;
  • Requested proportionate cuts from departments, saving $10.8 million, and
  • Eliminated 90 vacant positions.

In addition, the county continued its countywide hiring freeze whereby all positions are reviewed to determine if they need to be filled, abolished, consolidated or reduced to part-time.

“Like last year, this budget reflects the difficult financial position governments everywhere are in due to the national economy,” Freeholder Amy A. Mallet said. “More work lies ahead to craft a 2011 budget that maintains essential services while minimizing the burden on taxpayers,”

Freeholder Thomas A. Arnone said the county needs to expand shared services. “We have a very austere budget and the county runs very lean,” he said. “The part that is missing is the revenue. We should be looking for new revenue sources through an expanded shared services program.”

Despite an overall increase in spending, Monmouth County continues to rely less on taxes than 15 other New Jersey counties. As a percentage of the overall budget, Monmouth County’s taxes  comprise 61 percent of the total budget – behind Union, Hudson and Essex counties, which receive more in state aid, and Warren and Cumberland counties, which are much smaller.

By comparison, the amount of taxes as a percentage of the overall budget is 82 percent in Ocean County, 77 percent in Middlesex and Mercer counties, and 72 percent in Burlington County. Monmouth County ranks sixth in this category among the 21 New Jersey counties.