Freeholders hold line on taxes 2nd year in a row

FREEHOLD – The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders introduced a $487.35 million  budget last night. The budget contains a $4.15 million decrease in spending from last year and marks the second year in a row the amount to be raised by taxation has not increased. The vote was 5 to 0.

The spending plan reflects a months-long effort by the freeholder board to reduce county spending to close an anticipated $14 million budget shortfall caused by a drop in revenues. 

“Unfortunately, the economy has not gotten much better and people everywhere continue to struggle,” Freeholder Director John P. Curley said. “Therefore, I cannot in good conscience support anything but a flat budget, and the residents of Monmouth County deserve nothing less.”

As was the case last year, department heads were asked to cut their budget allocation proportionately in order to close the budget gap. The county financial picture was helped by a change in state law that lowered the county’s pension contributions.

“Despite the challenge to provide services in a sluggish economy, the county has emerged as a state leader in efforts to create new revenue streams through shared services,” Freeholder Deputy Director Thomas A. Arnone said. “Sharing services creates savings for municipalities and produces revenue at the county level. Had we not done this, we would not have been able to stabilize county taxes.”

As introduced, the budget is down by $4,150,000, or 0.84 percent, from the 2011 budget, bringing county spending down below the 2009 level. The amount to be raised by taxation is $302,475,000, the same as it was last year and in 2010. 

The county budget is tentatively scheduled for adoption at 7 p.m. March 22, following a public hearing. The freeholders will make a PowerPoint presentation on the budget Feb. 29 at the Monmouth County Library Headquarters on Symmes Drive, Manalapan, and at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Eastern Branch Library, Route 35, Shrewsbury. The public is invited to attend and offer comments. 

“The county continues to face budgetary challenges,” 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 without placing a great burden on  taxpayers.”

Freeholder Gary J. Rich, 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.

“The county has continued a hiring freeze begun in 2008 and examines all vacancies to find areas where jobs can be consolidated or absorbed within existing resources,” Rich said. “As a result, the county has reduced its workforce by 10 percent or more over that time. That is a significant savings when you consider how it impacts pension contributions and 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.

Last year, the freeholders reduced its allocation to Brookdale Community College by $6 million; made proportionate cuts to departments, saving $10.8 million; eliminated 90 vacant positions, and placed a one-year moratorium on bond ordinances, among other actions. The Board budgeted $2 million to cover the down payment of a bond ordinance this year.

Freeholder Serena DiMaso noted that the county continues to enjoy a AAA bond rating from all three major bond-rating agencies, a fete only a few dozen counties nationwide have achieved. The financial strength of the county allows municipalities, school board and other government agencies to borrow money through the Monmouth County Improvement Authority at the lowest possible interest rate.

“The Improvement Authority and the county’s AAA bond rating continues to be one of the best perks offered to local governmental agencies,” DiMaso said. “It is another way the county is helping to keep taxes low throughout the county, providing substantial savings to participants.”  

Monmouth County relies less on taxes than 16 other New Jersey counties. As a percentage of the overall budget, Monmouth County’s taxes comprise 61.54 percent of the total budget – behind Union, Hudson and Essex counties, which receive more in state aid, and Cumberland County, which is much smaller.

By comparison, the amount of taxes as a percentage of the overall budget is 83 percent in Ocean County, 79 percent in Middlesex County, 78.5 percent in Atlantic County and 71 percent in Burlington County. Monmouth County ranks fifth lowest in this category among the 21 New Jersey counties.

“The department heads deserve a lot of credit for their hard work in paring down the budget,” said County Finance Director Craig R. Marshall. “This is the fourth year in which we asked for concessions from the departments and, as a result, this is the third year in which the tax levy has remained the same.”