Ocean County’s $408,400,000 operating budget sheds $27 million in spending for 2015 but includes a small tax increase due to a number of factors, mainly the continued recovery from Superstorm Sandy, an increase in the county’s obligation to the state’s health benefits system and increased demand for social services.
The $27 million reduction is a product of reimbursements for Superstorm Sandy funding that have been settled and no longer need to be placed in the county’s spending plan, said Freeholder Director John C. Bartlett. Though taxpayers did not locally fund the reimbursements last year, they had to be placed in the budget and represented spending. This year, the budget reverted to – for the most part – its usual form.
The budget, which is expected to be formally adopted by the freeholder board next week, includes a tax rate of 35.06 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value, an increase of just under one cent over last year’s rate of 34.1 cents. The freeholders were quick to point out at a meeting Wednesday that the rate is lower than it was 11 years ago, in 2004. The increase was well under the state’s 2 percent cap on tax rate and expenditure increases.
“A lot of counties try to reach that 2 percent,” said Freeholder Gerry Little. “We could increase taxes another penny, but we hold the line and keep the brakes on spending.”
The increase also comes as FEMA is providing less aid to the county to make up for its 16 percent loss in ratable base following Sandy. The ratable base recovered by $1.6 billion over the past year, but is still a far cry from its pre-storm figure.
Where the money is going
The proposed tax increase will fund a numbers of measures, including $3 million increase in the county’s obligation to fund the state’s employee healthcare plans and support mental health facilities statewide. The county also budgeted $22 million to repay a portion of the $115 million in emergency bonding after Superstorm Sandy, Bartlett said.
Ocean County also runs the state’s largest county road network, which will require $13 million for roadway improvement projects and capital expenses. The county also needs to update some of its equipment which is aging and dates back several years before the 2008 recession began and spending was cut, Bartlett said.
“We have had a horrendous winter, and it’s not just potholes,” said Freeholder James Lacey, the liaison to the county’s road department. “Our engineer will tell you that we had frost heaves this year, like they have in New England, where the roads actually lift.”
The county is also sending more funding to the Board of Social Services, which continues to serve more residents as the state’s sluggish economy combined with the slow pace of Sandy recovery has crippled the finances of some families. This year, the county has budgeted $24.1 million to go toward Social Services, an increase of $841,000 over last year.
Little said the Board of Social Services is administering more than 60,000 cases of food stamps county-wide, or about 10 percent of the county’s total year-round population. The county also funds a portion of Medicaid claims for its residents. The Medicaid rolls, Little said, have steadily increased since the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, loosened eligibility restrictions on the federal program.
“This is a tremendous responsibility we have as a board and one we take seriously,” Little said.
Salaries accounted for an overall increase in the budget of one-half of one percent, Bartlett said. Raises negotiated with the 21 collective bargaining groups that represent unionized employees have all been kept to about 1.5 percent, while attrition has reduced the workforce overall.
“It is not employees who are driving county costs,” Bartlett said. “When we have had vacancies, we are not automatically filling those that occur. They must be essential and vital.”
“While we haven’t had easy negotiations, all of them have been relatively reasonable, and I think our employees deserve all that credit,” said Little. “No one is coming in with a 10 percent [raise] request today. Everyone is negotiating within reason.”
The budget will also maintain funding for the county’s vocational-technical school district and Ocean County College, Little said.
The spending plan utilizes $16 million in surplus funding to reduce the tax levy, the same amount that was used for the same purpose in 2014. Last year, the county recouped the entire $16 million, which led to a starting balance in 2015 of $36.4 million.
Bartlett said employees are being asked to continue to look for opportunities to save money as the year goes on, and to find grant opportunities where possible.
“We have never operated under the theory of ‘use it or lose it,’ Bartlett said.