By Thomas A. Arnone
FOR THE SECOND year in a row, Monmouth County will be collecting no more taxes that it did the year before. The tax levy in 2012 is the same as it was in 2010. The Board of Chosen Freeholders introduced a $487,350,000 budget on Feb. 23. The budget contains a $4.15 million decrease in spending from last year. Public hearing and adoption of the budget is 7 p.m. March 22 at Middletown Town Hall, 1 Kings Highway, Middletown. The spending plan reflects a successful months-long effort by the freeholder board and county department heads to reduce county spending to close an anticipated $14 million budget shortfall caused by a continued drop in revenues. As was the case last year, department heads were asked to cut their budget allocations proportionately in order to close this year’s budget gap. The county financial picture was helped by a change in state law that lowered the county’s pension contributions. The fact that Monmouth County has been able to maintain a stable tax levy these last three years can be attributable to actions the freeholders took in 2008 and every year since then. In the early part of 2008, preceding the crisis in the mortgage industry and subsequent bailouts, Monmouth County began curtailing spending in anticipation of a drop in revenues for 2009. The county also instituted an immediate hiring freeze and, in 2009, froze wages for most of the county’s workforce. That same year, when the state responded to the financial crisis by allowing local governments to delay their pension payments for future years, the county chose to continue paying its obligation on time, easing the financial burden in the budgets that followed. The county also began looking at its contracts. By switching health insurance administrators, the county managed to save $1 million a year. The county also shrunk the size of government. Since 2008, the county reduced the workforce by nearly 700 to the 3,088 we have today. Taxpayers in Monmouth County have benefited in other ways, too. Monmouth County has a very aggressive Shared Services program – among the best and largest in the state – that helps suppress the need for the county and municipalities to raise taxes. For example, the county’s provision of emergency dispatch services saves municipalities thousand of dollars each year. The county also offers cooperative purchasing arrangements that let municipalities purchase goods using the low, negotiated county rate. The county also offers a commodity resale program that enables towns and school districts to purchase items directly from the county. For example, many towns buy their road salt from the county more cheaply than buying it on their own. Without these kinds of programs, Monmouth County would not be able to keep taxes level. This year, the county benefited from a mild winter. This year, the county Department of Public Works and Engineering spent about $300,000 on rock salt and salt brine to keep the roads clear of snow and ice, compared with last year’s figure of more than $1.6 million. Another way towns save money is through the Monmouth County Improvement Authority (MCIA). Because 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 – municipalities, school board, and other government agencies can utilize the financial strength of the county to borrow money through the MCIA at the lowest possible interest rate. Local governments participating in the MCIA’s Pooled Equipment Lease and the Pooled Government Loan programs have saved more than $60 million in the last 25 years. Finally, it is worth noting 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. 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.
Thomas A. Arnone is deputy director of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders.