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County OKs Budget, Small Tax Hike

Newest freeholder votes no on first budget.

The Morris County Board of  Freeholders adopted a 2012 $317 million budget Wednesday that calls for a half-cent property tax increase.

The budget sets the tax rate at 21.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That does not include school and municipal taxes, which are set separately.

The freeholders previously shaved one-quarter cent off the open space tax.

The budget was passed by a 6-to-1 margin, with the newest freeholder, William “Hank” Lyon of Montville, casting the sole “no” vote.

“When I ran last year I said I’d cut taxes,’ he said.

The project that concerned him the most is the new county emergency management center under construction in Parsippany.

The freeholders' own news release on the budget is as follows:

The Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders on March 28 adopted a 2012 county operating budget that preserves health, safety and human services that are essential to the public, while delivering an increase of just 0.5 percent in the tax effort, inclusive of a ¼ cent reduction in the Open Space Tax.

"When we began the budget process a year ago, our goal was to hold the line on spending and not impact critical services," said Freeholder Ann Grossi, chairperson of the freeholder budget sub-committee. "I am very pleased to say this budget accomplishes that goal."

The cumulative tax effort, inclusive of both the operating budget and the Preservation Trust Fund budget, has decreased by over $400,000 since 2008, said Freeholder Gene Feyl, also a budget sub-committee member. As well as preserving all county services, the $317 million budget prioritizes public safety, health and welfare programs for those in need, including several additional programs that enhance these services to residents and municipalities, the freeholders said.

The new Reverse 9-1-1 system that will give towns unlimited and unrestricted emergency calling capability is one example, the freeholders said. 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 in Parsippany 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.

Feyl 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," Feyl 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, he said 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 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. The county has eliminated 400 positions since 2006, 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," Grossi 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 the freeholders, 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.

The freeholders said additional shared services supported by 2012 budget include:
● 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.

The freeholders said they have 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 called the 2012 budget a very responsible one.

"In spite of the challenges we face because of ongoing national economic conditions, this budget continues to provide the same level of quality service that Morris County citizens have come to expect." Chegwidden said.

This post is shared among several Patch sites serving communities in Morris County. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.

Dan Grant April 01, 2012 at 11:35 AM
Just because you call yourself Thomas Paine doesn't give you wisdom. Of course it is a one year reduction. So what. We live in a time when any return to the Property Taxpayers makes sense. Everyone is looking for a "long term" fix while we are all worried about today, this month and this year. It is like building a boat next year while we are neck deep in water right now. You have no knowledge about what I am for or against. The County Open Space fund that is handled by the County has been mishandled for decades. Ten years ago I did a complete study of the County Open Space fund and put forward a plan that was more cost effective and fairer while running for Freeholder. You can't dispute that it has been a political fund for decades. BTW while I was on the Township Committee in Montville Township we had the strongest open space fund in the State for our local land preservation efforts.
Dan Grant April 01, 2012 at 12:16 PM
Thomas Paine??? You are joking right?
Ron Soussa April 02, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Craig Chapman - Perhaps an even better question is why do we need 37 different local governments and school boards in the county? Eliminating 37 redundant functions (municipal buildings, administrations, school superintendants, etc.) and consolicating them to the County level would necessarily bring costs, and local taxes, down.
Craig Chapman April 02, 2012 at 10:32 PM
This is where I wanted to take the debate Ron and TP. Most people always assume we need to keep doing things the way we always did them. With the country and most states broke and looking at all the unfunded liabilities of the welfare/warfare state, I say JUSTIFY EVERYTHING! “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.” ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
Ron Soussa April 02, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Exactly Craig. The 566 municipalities in NJ should all be required to justify their existences. The redundancies are overwhelming. The 21 County governments are likely all that is needed.

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