Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

For the second consecutive year, the Morris County Freeholders have developed a county budget that has no increase in county taxes and that maintains vital county services. The freeholders introduced the $317 million budget during their March 12 public meeting in Morristown, after making a brief presentation of the spending plan’s highlights.

“This budget delivers lower taxes and lower debt,” observed Freeholder Director Tom Mastrangelo, “while controlling spending and maintaining essential services for Morris County residents. This freeholder board has achieved a smaller, smarter government, and I am also very proud of the county administration and employees who deliver the services every day, round the clock.”

The proposed budget also reflects a 0.5 percent total tax cut, aided by a $1.2 million reduction in the county’s Preservation Trust Fund tax. The freeholders have reduced that tax $5.2 million in the last two years, while preserving all aspects of the program.

“The zero percent tax increase was achieved by careful scrutiny of county spending and by controlling employee costs,” said Freeholder Hank Lyon, chair of the budget committee. “More than $1 million in various expenses were reduced, and reorganizations in several county departments including Planning and Public Works, Morris View Healthcare Center and the County Library last year resulted in 63 fewer employees.”

Lyon said the proposed budget also is in line with the freeholder board’s commitment to debt reduction.

“Not only has the county maintained a triple-A rating, but we are reducing the county’s debt by $8.3 million in 2014 with a goal of a $64 million debt reduction in five years.”

While reducing debt is necessary, the freeholders said important infrastructure improvements will not be sacrificed.

“Our focus in the capital budget plan is roads and bridges,” said Freeholder David Scapicchio, who also chairs the capital budget committee. “Even before we experienced this harshest of winters, we had increased county funding for road improvements by 55 percent. The capital spending has $14.2 million for road and bridges projects. Of that, $6.1 million will pay for road repaving and reconstruction projects, $2.2 million of which is direct county funding, up from $745,000 three years ago.”

Health and welfare programs and public safety are also key aspects of the county budget.

“The $86 million allotted for health and welfare will fund, among other things, Morris View,” Freeholder Kathy DeFillippo said. “The range of county services is truly impressive, with programs for senior citizens including nutrition assistance and transportation services; mental health and substance abuse programs; transportation services for people with disabilities; emergency assistance and veteran services.”

A shared service emphasis is also part of plans for 2014, according to Freeholder John Cesaro, who chairs the Shared Services Advisory Committee.

“We reached an agreement with the town of Morristown whereby the county will provide health services,” Cesaro said. “In addition, we are meeting with local officials in several towns exploring additional areas where shared services can benefit the taxpayer. One possible area may be shared services in technology for increased transparency in government at different levels including, but not limited to, local governments.”

The public safety portion of the budget, $81 million, will fund the Sheriff’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office, the County Correctional Facility, the Office of Emergency Management, the Public Safety Training Academy, the Juvenile Detention Center, the Youth Shelter, the Office of Health Management, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Office of Weights and Measures and the county’s 911 Emergency Communication Center.

“The Communication Center provides Emergency Dispatch Services for 23 towns and interoperable communications for all municipalities,” said Freeholder Doug Cabana, liaison to Law and Public Safety. “Now, the Sheriff’s Office is providing shared services with forensic training for all Morris County municipal police and the coordination of emergency response teams.”

Risks to future budgets include continued increases in pension and health care costs and a possible reduction in managed Medicaid funding for Morris View.

However, Freeholder John Krickus, a budget committee member, observed, “The county has never been in a stronger financial position thanks to conservative fiscal policies and constant improvements in how the county operates. We are using that financial strength to look for ways to be more efficient so we can deliver tax relief to Morris County taxpayers while also significantly reducing the county’s debt.”

The proposed budget can be viewed online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/212103333/Morris-County-NJ-Introduced-Budget-2014.

A public hearing on the budget will be conducted during the 7 p.m. freeholder meeting April 9.