Posted Thursday, February 28th, 2013

The Morris County Freeholders have achieved their goal of developing a 2013 county budget with a zero percent increase in county taxes while maintaining critical county services.

The freeholders, during their public meeting Feb. 27, introduced a budget that slashes total expenses by more than $6 million and reduces actual spending by $2.3 million.

A public hearing on the budget, which may be viewed online, will be conducted during the freeholders’ 8 p.m. public meeting March 27 in the Public Meeting Room, 5th floor, Administration and Records Building, Court Street, Morristown.

“This budget reflects the first zero percent tax increase in 15 years,” said Freeholder Hank Lyon, chairman of the Freeholder Budget Sub-Committee. “It gives the families and taxpayers of Morris County the relief they deserve.”

Freeholder Director Thomas Mastrangelo, a member of the Budget Sub-Committee, said the freeholders worked diligently to ensure the tax freeze did not have a negative impact on county services.

“What we have here is a budget that maintains all county services in the midst of some very difficult economic times,” Mastrangelo said. “This budget allows allow us to provide more than 500,000 meals to our senior citizens and to make sure the 283 residents who call Morris View Healthcare Center home continue to receive outstanding care.”

Freeholder John Krickus, another Budget Sub-Committee member, said pension and health reforms signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie gave the county a “golden opportunity” to freeze county taxes.

“Those reforms alone saved the county $1 million, and we were able to redesign our own health care plan to realize an additional $2 million in savings,” Krickus said. “Plus, the county has 63 fewer employees and salary expenses have been reduced by $1.1 million.”

There is also a reduction in the budget of $3.9 million in the county’s Open Space Tax, but all aspects of the program will be preserved, Krickus said.

Freeholder Lyon said the proposed 2013 budget continues to fund a wide variety of human and social service programs including mental health; substance abuse; emergency assistance; transportation; and aging, disabilities and veterans’ services.

The proposed budget also continues to fund essential public safety services of the Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices, the Correctional Facility, the Office of Emergency Management, the Public Safety Training Academy, the Office of Health Management and its Hazardous Materials Response Team, as well as the county’s 911 Emergency Communication Center that provides emergency dispatch services for 23 municipalities and interoperable communications for all 39 towns in the county.

Director Mastrangelo noted the 2013 capital budget allocates $22.5 million for capital projects, which is about $2.5 million below the amount the county traditionally borrows.

“We took a long, hard look at our wants and our needs and exercised restraint in spending on capital projects,” Mastrangelo said. He said capital projects receiving funding this year include an addition to the Public Safety Training Academy, the renovation of the Central Avenue Complex into a multi-use non-profit mall for human services providers, and four multi-use turf fields on the former Greystone site now known as Central Park of Morris County.

Construction on each of those projects is already underway.

The 2013 budget does increase funding to the Morris County Tourism Bureau to assist it in promoting special events throughout the county relating to the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, and to the Morris County Economic Development Corporation for the promotion of businesses in the county.

“We consider these increases to be worthwhile investments in the county’s economic health,” said Freeholder Krickus.

He noted the budget also includes $40,000 for a shared service enabling the county to dispose of ammunition and fireworks collected by municipalities.

Funding for the County College of Morris, the School of Technology and the Morris County Park Commission remains at 2012 levels.

Freeholder Lyon said the lower budget; the tax freeze; reductions in employees, salaries, health and pension costs; reasonable long-term labor agreements; and the fact that the use of county surplus remains unchanged; all combine to ensure the county’s financial strength will be maintained this year and beyond.

The Freeholder Budget Sub-Committee is already looking ahead toward 2014, Lyon said.

“Risks to next year’s budget include continued reductions in Medicaid funding for Morris View Healthcare Center, and the potential for increases in health insurance and pension costs,” Lyon said. “However, the framework we used to achieve a zero percent tax increase this year is a fluid document that will be modified as needed, with the goal of continuing to provide tax relief to our citizens, ” Lyon said.