Spending plan decreases spending; taxes again remain level
FREEHOLD – The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders adopted 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.
Freeholder Director John P. Curley cited a number of measures that were taken by the Board in previous years that have helped the county during the recent economic downturn, including a hiring freeze what continues today, a salary freeze in 2009 and a decision to continue making pension payments even when the state had allowed counties and municipalities to defer those payments.
“When I came into office in 2010 I brought forth 23 points that we utilize in our own family business to keep things afloat and I’m very proud that many of these things have been instituted in the county,” Freeholder Director John P. Curley said. “We also changed the employee health care administrator, which saved $1 million a year, developed a robust Shared Services program and reduced spending.”
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.
“Monmouth County is a state leader in efforts to create new revenue streams through shared services,” said Freeholder Deputy Director Thomas A. Arnone, who has been visiting municipal officials to urge them to consider sharing services with the county. “Sharing services creates savings for municipalities and produces revenue at the county level. This is the best way to stabilize 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 continues to face budgetary challenges,” Freeholder Lillian G. Burry said. “Revenue is still down, and the tax base in Monmouth County continues to erode, although not as much as we originally anticipated. Still, it is our responsibility to find ways to provide government services without placing a great burden on taxpayers, and I believe we are doing just that.”
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 in 2008.
“The county has continued a hiring freeze begun in 2008 and has reduced the number of county employees by nearly 700 in the last four years,” Rich said. “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, and reduced it again this year. They also made proportionate cuts to departments, and eliminated vacant positions. Last year, the Board placed a one-year moratorium on bond ordinances; the Board budgeted $2 million to cover the down payment of a bond ordinance this year.
Freeholder Serena DiMaso said that the county enjoys a AAA bond rating from all three major bond-rating agencies, something only a few dozen counties nationwide have achieved. The county’s financial strength 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 services the county offers 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.”
Rich noted that 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.
Craig R. Marshall, the county’s Finance Director, said department heads deserve credit for paring down the budget.
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