Posted Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
In the midst of challenging economic times, the Morris County Freeholders have introduced a 2012 county operating budget that not only preserves essential public safety, health and human services but also delivers a mere 0.5 percent increase in the tax effort, inclusive of a ¼ cent reduction in the Open Space Tax.
“Our intention from the very start of the budget process was to develop a budget that held the line on spending and did not impact critical services,” said Freeholder Ann Grossi, chairperson of the freeholder budget sub-committee. “This is a true victory for Morris County.”
Since 2008, the cumulative tax effort, inclusive of both the operating budget and the Preservation Trust Fund budget, has decreased by over $400,000, said Freeholder Gene Feyl, also a budget sub-committee member.
“A budget is more than a spending plan,” Feyl said. “It is a planning document that brings to life our vision for the county for not just one year, but for several years to come. It is much more than dollars and cents.”
Freeholder Grossi agreed, calling the budget “a sound business plan that establishes our policy for future years.”
As well as preserving all county services, the 2012 budget prioritizes public safety, health and welfare programs for those in need, including several additional programs that enhance these services to residents and municipalities, said budget sub-committee member Freeholder Thomas Mastrangelo.
One example is the new Reverse 9-1-1 system that will give towns unlimited and unrestricted emergency calling capability. This type of system has been requested by communities, particularly after Hurricane Irene, flooding and snow storms this past year.
Another example of service enhancement in the budget, said sub-committee members, is funding for the expansion of the Public Safety Training Academy to accommodate the county’s Communications Center, which continues to take on additional towns interested in consolidating dispatch service with the county in an effort to be more cost-effective at the municipal level.
In addition to the Communications Center, the Public Safety Training Academy expansion also includes an expanded crime lab serving all municipalities, an enhanced countywide Emergency Operation Center and a safe and secure county data center with built-in redundancies and emergency back up systems.
Grossi said the county budget also provides for the initiation of a first-of-its kind Flood Buyout Program in response to the flooding from the hurricane and tropical storm.
“This new effort will be a component of the county’s Open Space program,” Grossi said. “Morris County is in the forefront of developing an initiative that will help towns purchase homes in areas of their communities ravaged by flooding.”
The 2012 county operating budget also maintains critical services for those in need, particularly those hard hit by the economic downturn, Freeholder John Murphy, liaison to human services, said. For example, the budget enables the county to continue to meet increased requests from those in need of emergency assistance, such as Food Stamps and other forms of temporary help.
Figures show the Morris County Office of Temporary Assistance experienced a 25.5 percent increase in its food stamp caseload last year from 2010, the second highest percentage increase in the state, while the office’s caseload for general assistance jumped nearly 17 percent, also the second highest percentage increase in the state.
“We were not about to let these services for those in need go unmet,” Murphy said.
Freeholder Feyl noted services at the county’s long-term nursing home, Morris View Healthcare Center, are also maintained under the proposed budget, even in the midst of state reductions in Medicaid reimbursements.
While prioritizing public safety, health and human services, the county has also continued to trim its own work force. Since 2006, the county has eliminated 400 positions, saving approximately $20 million in salaries and benefits, said the sub-committee members.
The 2012 budget eliminates 35 positions, excluding the addition of personnel for the Emergency Communications Center. Those Communication Center positions are funded by the municipalities, with 22 towns participating currently, whose emergency services are being dispatched by the county.
Another way that the county is looking at efficiencies is by including funding for an independent study of its Information Services division. This study is set to be completed in the next six months.
According to the freeholder budget sub-committee members, one of the major goals of the 2012 budget was to place the county is a fiscally sound position, not only for this year but also for the following year.
“This sound financial planning has enabled the county to be only one of 65 counties nationally to maintain a AAA bond rating, the highest a government agency can receive, from both Moody’s and Standard and Poors,” Feyl said. The AAA rating is important because the higher the rating, the more money the county and Morris taxpayers save in interest payments on bond and note sales.
Another major component of the 2012 county budget, said Freeholder Mastrangelo, is its emphasis on shared services, particularly as it results in cost savings for the taxpayers. This year, the county’s agreements for emergency dispatch are expected to generate $3.6 million in revenue, while at the same time saving the participating towns money in the form of personnel and technology upgrades.
Shared services contracts with Warren, Hunterdon and Sussex counties with the juvenile facilities have generated over $1,050,000 in income. Another shared service, the Morris County Medical Examiner’s Office, is expected to bring in more than $400,000 in anticipated revenue to Morris while also saving the county $150,000 annually in operating costs.
Mastrangelo said additional shared services included in the proposed budget
● Law enforcement including the Prosecutor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office.
● The Morris County Park Commission.
● The County College of Morris.
● The Mosquito Commission, which provides mosquito control, stream dredging and clean-up to all 39 municipalities.
● The School of Technology and its Career Academies, Share Time Programs, Share Time Programs for Special Needs students and Adult Education programs.
● The Morris County Library.
● The Division of Weights and Measures, which ensures that Morris County consumers are protected by checking all commercial weighing and measuring devices such as supermarket scales and gasoline pumps for accuracy.
● The training of all local emergency first responders.
● The Office of Emergency Management, which provides emergency and coordinating services to all Morris County municipalities.
● Health services provided by the county’s Health Management Office. Those services include environmental compliance, responding to hazardous materials spills, monitoring for outbreaks of infectious disease and supporting other public health agencies in the county.
● The Morris County Correctional Facility.
In spite of the continuing economic uncertainty, the Morris County Freeholder Board has been able to keep both operating expenses and salaries to increases of less than 1 percent, and pension and other statutory costs and insurance costs to minimal increases of 1.03 percent and 2.15 percent respectively over 2011.
Freeholder Director William Chegwidden thanked the budget sub-committee members and county staff for their hard work in developing the budget.
“This is a very responsible budget,” Chegwidden said. “Despite the prolonged challenges brought on by the national economic downturn, our 2012 budget proposal continues to provide the same level of quality service to Morris County citizens.”
The Freeholders will hold a public hearing on the budget on Wednesday, March 28 during the Freeholders’ public meeting that begins at 7:30 p.m.