Monday, March 10, 2008

Op-Ed from Freeholder Director Lillian Burry


There is no single power of government that directly touches the lives of more people than the power to tax. It is with this fact in mind that I approach each new budget.

The process this year was made particularly more difficult by the combination of a slowing national economy, which was reflected in a lower growth rate in Monmouth County as well, and the continuing fiscal turmoil at the state capitol in Trenton.

The Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders has adopted its 2008 budget that holds the line on taxes without sacrificing county programs.

Due to years of mismanagement and waste in state government, New Jersey residents will see their cost of living in New Jersey rise once again when Gov. Corzine and the Legislature shift more of the tax burden to local government in the name of fiscal accountability.

Noting that the governor’s plan to tighten the state’s belt will mean less in property tax rebates, municipal aid and school funding, the Board of Chosen Freeholders decided now is not the time to impose an additional tax burden on Monmouth County residents.

Therefore, there will be no increase in county taxes this year.

Taking the budget “on the road” so that residents could have an opportunity to examine the county’s spending plan and offer their input was invaluable. For those who took time away from their families to offer their comments, we heard you loud and clear.

As introduced in January, the budget contained an $8 million increase in the tax levy, or 2.8 percent, a figure that is below the rate of inflation for the third year in a row. We calculated that increase to equal about 9 cents a day for the average-priced Monmouth County home.

Following citizen input and especially after learning what the governor’s budget has in store for us, we could not in good faith ask our residents for another penny, let alone 9 cents.
The Board whittled the $8 million down to zero without tapping into our fund balance, as had been suggested. Applying more of the fund balance this year would have put us in a hole going into next year’s budget cycle. Instead, we achieved a zero tax increase this way:

• the county realized additional savings from a refinanced bond sale;

• recalculated its anticipated Social Security and disability insurance costs based on the experience in the first two months of this year;

• scaled back on capital improvements and will utilize unexpended balances in existing capital appropriations;
I feel it is a responsible plan because it creates no new debt and no additional tax burden. Despite our rising costs, the Board has found a way to fix the amount to be raised by taxation exactly as it was in 2007.

Pension increases and utility costs are largely responsible for the increase in the overall budget. The state’s mismanagement of the pension fund – by allowing a payment “holiday” several years ago – has resulted in mandatory annual pension payments to rise by 50 to 100 percent a year to cover the shortfall. Not only are all of New Jersey’s municipalities and counties paying dearly for Trenton’s mistakes, but they are required to pay the money back at 8.25 percent interest annually.
For each of the last three years, the Board of Chosen Freeholders has examined the county’s spending practices with the sole purpose of identifying areas where savings can be found.

We have employed new technologies in renewable energy to turn our landfill operation into a money-maker. Within the next two years, the gas-to-energy program will result in a savings of more than $1 million in electricity costs alone.

We have reduced overtime significantly – by $2 million since 2005.
Our consulting contracts are reviewed openly and transparently as they come up. We have reduced the costs associated with these contracts.

Meanwhile, the Board has been implementing recommendations in the Budget Review Committee’s report. The county is preparing a strategic plan and we are conducting an IT audit to identify areas ripe for savings. The IT audit is being conducted for free by Monmouth University.

County government provides services that the state does not provide and towns cannot afford on their own:

• All volunteer firefighters in Monmouth County can get their training at the county’s Fire Academy for free. Basic training at the county’s Police Academy costs $750.

• The county provides 911 and emergency services to 44 towns.

• The county has 38 award winning parks. The county recently passed a milestone by celebrating its 100 millionth visitor to the county park system.

• Brookdale Community College is one of the largest and best-ranked community colleges in
the state. The county also maintains and operates five vocational schools that are national award winners.

• The Monmouth County Library system is the largest circulating library in the state.
The county budget shouldn’t be about bailing out Trenton’s failure to adequately address the long-term problems associated with pensions and school funding, which we have no control over.
While tax troubles for the people of New Jersey may be far from over, one thing is certain – Monmouth County won’t be part of the problem.

* Lillian G. Burry is the director of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

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