Freeholders trim $10.5 million to avoid a tax increase

FREEHOLD, NJ – The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders adopted a $491.5 million budget last Thursday, a $1.5 million decrease from last year’s figure.

The 4-to-1 vote came after the board adopted an amendment that reduced the tax levy by $10,525,000 by applying more surplus to the budget. As a result of that amendment and the budget adoption, the amount to be raised by taxation is $302,475,000, the same as it was last year.           

“We changed the way we did business this year in order to cut the budget,” Freeholder Director Robert D. Clifton said. “Taking more from surplus is risky, but future revenue projections are looking better and I feel it is worth the risk in these trying times.”

The $10.5 million reduction in the tax levy was achieved in the following manner: an additional $3.7 million reduction by the Sheriff’s Office, $500,000 cut to the vocational school district, a $230,000 reduction to the Mosquito Extermination Commission, and a $70,000 reduction from the Superintendent of Elections. The Board then applied an additional $6,025,000 from surplus.

 The Board is committed to making government smaller, Clifton said. “We have 600 fewer positions than we had in 2005, and we cut 300 in the last three years,” he said. “We’re spending less money than we did the previous year, and everyone here is committed to smaller government.”

 Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Curley voted against the budget, saying government spends too much money and is in too many businesses. He called for privatizing county properties that cannot be sold because they are permanently preserved as open space, such as the golf courses and the Monmouth Cove Marina in Middletown, and selling the two care centers.

 “I believe we should be shrinking the size of government,” Curley said. “We should not be balancing the budget using non-recurring revenue, like surplus, without making corresponding cuts.”

 Freeholder Lillian G. Burry said the Board’s major responsibility is to balance the competing needs of providing services and controlling costs, which is why during this time of economic distress it was decided that the Board would do whatever it could to avoid a tax increase.

“I came to the budgeting process this year with the commitment to preserve services to the greatest degree possible while holding our tax levy flat,” Burry said. “I have not changed my mind on that. This budget achieves this balance and that is why I support it.”

 Freeholder Amy A. Mallet agreed that it was vital for the Board to hold the line on taxes, but said she would have preferred to make even deeper cuts in the budget. She said they could be achieved with expanded shared services and further consolidation.

 “We have made some progress with printing and some IT functions based on suggestions I made last year on this topic,” Mallet said. “Our personnel functions should be centralized for better control and efficiency as well. The same is true for our purchasing departments.”

  Freeholder Thomas A. Arnone said he is confident that going forward county government will be made smaller and shared services will increase.

 “I ran on two things – smaller government and running the county like a business,” Arnone said. “In order to run like a business we have to keep our expenses down, run more efficiently and increase revenues. That’s my goal.”

The county’s financial strength has been recognized by the bond-rating agencies that have continued to give Monmouth County their highest recognition in the form of AAA ratings.

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.

 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 preparing the 2011 budget:

  • ·The Library System will pay its full indirect rate, increasing county revenue by $2.4 million;
  • ·Anticipated an additional $1 million from capital surplus as a direct offset to debt service;
  • ·Accepted an extra 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 ordinances, for $2.5 million in savings;
  • ·Reduced Brookdale Community College’s 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. 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.