Freeholders trim $3 million from tax levy increase

FREEHOLD, NJ  – The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders adopted a $493 million budget last night, an increase of 1.21 percent over last year.

The 4-to-1 vote came after the board adopted an amendment to reduce the proposed tax levy by $3 million. As a result of that amendment and the budget adoption, the amount to be raised by taxation is $302.4 million, up $7.7 million over last year, or 2.6 percent.

"In the face of pervasive economic peril Monmouth County has stood strong," Freeholder Director Lillian G. Burry said. "We acted early and decisively to reduce spending while preserving county services. This is not a perfect budget, but it is a good one."

Burry noted that 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. Yet she also cited concerns that factored into the preparation of this year's budget, including an erosion of revenues and an increase in fixed costs such as pensions and health benefits.

"The budgets for our operating agencies are actually decreasing while the overall costs continue to grow," Burry said.

As introduced, the budget is up by $5,899,848, or 1.21 percent, and is among the lowest increases in five years. The amount to be raised by taxation is $302,475,000, up $7,690,848, or 2.6 percent. The county tax rate is 23.89 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, up 1.04 cents.

Freeholder Deputy Director Robert D. Clifton, who oversees the county's Finance Department, said the Board has been actively reducing the burden on taxpayers for the past two years, starting with a 5 percent holdback of discretionary spending in 2008 and a 15 percent cut in department budgets in 2009. The freeholders also reduced their own salaries by 10 percent.

The amendment contained the following additional cuts:

  • reduce spending at Information Technology Services (ITS) by $219,053;
  • reduce spending at the Sheriff's Office by $409,629;
  • reduce spending at Public Works & Engineering by $29,940;
  • reduce Buildings & Grounds by $120,000 by eliminating consultants, and
  • reduce salaries by $675,000;
  • involved in negotiations and interest arbitration with most of our union contracts with the expectation of achieving greater efficiency.

In addition, the budgeted amount for unemployment insurance was reduced by $1.05 million dollars when updated numbers showed a favorable improvement. Also, a new transportation contract with ARC of Monmouth County will bring in an additional $350,000 in revenue. Larger class sizes for the Intoxicated Drivers Resource Center will bring in an additional $75,000 in revenue.

"One in five county residents relies on services provided by Social Services," Clifton said. "Is this the best we can do? I believe it is without destroying the services people need."

Freeholder John D'Amico said the critical issue in Monmouth County, the state, and the nation right now is the economy and unemployment and he was concerned that any further delay in the adoption of the county budget could delay construction projects that are already funded at a time when we need to get people back to work.

"We cannot hold these jobs hostage to a prolonged budget process," D'Amico said.

D'Amico said he is encouraged that Gov. Chris Christie and the Freeholder Board have followed his lead by ordering an evaluation of the privatization of certain governmental services. The Board is currently evaluating privatization of the Monmouth County Correctional Institution.

"In Monmouth County, this approach could save taxpayers millions of dollars in the operation  of the jail, which is costing us $47 million a year," D'Amico said. "We have before us a budget that is significantly reduced from the level originally proposed. It is clear that we need systemic reform."

Freeholder Amy A. Mallet also cited a decline in revenues and an increase in fixed costs as a major obstacle to lowering taxes. She has strongly advocated for consolidation of duplicative services wherever possible and more sharing of services at all levels of government as ways of reducing costs.

"This budget is the result of painstaking hours of work, drilling through the numbers from department to department," Mallet said. "As a result we have brought the impact on taxpayers down significantly. We are already moving forward on some of these cost-saving initiatives I have proposed, and I will continue to look for savings throughout the year."

The freeholders also took the following actions since 2009:

  • transferring the Youth Detention Center to Middlesex County resulting in an annual savings of $2 million dollars. This will be fully transitioned by June 1.

  • abolished Department of Health Care Facilities; transferred oversight to the two care centers;

  • switched health insurance carriers, saving $1 million in administrative fees;

  • restructured the Medical Examiner's office (shared service), saving $200,000;

  • removed $4.1 million in capital expenditures;

  • reduced overnight travel by county employees by 60 percent;

  • suspended the Employee Tuition Reimbursement Program;

  • capped increases to Brookdale Community College and the Vocational Schools at 4 percent;

  • reduced reliance on leased space for county operations.

For 2010, the county continued its hiring freeze whereby all positions are reviewed to determine if they can be abolished, consolidated or reduced to part-time. In addition, all departments were asked to reduce their budgets by 5 percent.

Freeholder John P. Curley voted against the budget, saying now is not the time to impose a tax increase when many residents are out of work due to the poor economy.

"I can not in good conscience support any tax increase," Curley said. "Residents have cut back on spending and so should we; we are taxing the people of this county to death and it is unacceptable. I gave my word to our residents; I am here to stand up for the taxpayer and will fulfill my pledge to the residents of Monmouth County by casting a no vote on this budget."

Despite an overall increase in spending, Monmouth County continues to rely less on taxes than most other New Jersey counties. As a percentage of the overall budget, Monmouth County's taxes  comprise 60 percent - behind Union, Hudson and Essex counties, which receive more in state aid.

By comparison, the amount of taxes as a percentage of the overall budget is 78 percent in Ocean County, 76 percent in Middlesex, 73 percent in Mercer, and 72 percent in Burlington. Monmouth County ranks fourth-lowest in this category among the 21 New Jersey counties.