Ocean County officials will cut the tax rate this year as the combined ratable base of its 33 municipalities is flirting with records not seen since before the one-two punch of the 2008 recession and Superstorm Sandy’s destruction four years later.
“We are now within $2 billion from the highest we’ve ever been,” said Freeholder Jack Kelly. “We believe that next year when we present this budget, we’re going to have an all-time high in the tax base of Ocean County. That helps us to have a healthy surplus.”
Ocean County is one of New Jersey’s most financially solvent entities and one of the few to maintain a triple-A bond rating from credit agencies. The 2020 budget, introduced last week, sets forth a $450,793,747 spending plan that includes capital projects, the cost of providing social services and maintaining the state’s largest single road network. But with the increased valuation, the tax rate will drop by a half-cent to 33.7 cents per $100 of real property value. It is the fourth consecutive year the county tax rate has dropped, as freeholders have made good on a promise after Sandy to reduce the overall burden as the ratable base recovered.
“We have strong growth, a surplus and a tax rate decrease,” said Kelly. “We’re doing that while we are also funding all of the core programs of county government. As John Bartlett said before he passed away, as we return from Superstorm Sandy, we will reduce our tax rate, and that is exactly what we have done.”
While Ocean County’s tax base has been bolstered for decades by its enormous expanse of waterfront property and its two high-value barrier islands, there are some challenges. The county’s senior population has surpassed 200,000 residents – many of whom will require services at some point in their lives. And there have been growing concerns about overdevelopment in Lakewood, Jackson and other towns.
“As the population of seniors approaches 200,000 people we’ve always prioritized the frail and the vulnerable,” said Freeholder Joseph Vicari. “A lot of seniors live on a Social Security check of $1,400 per month, so it is so important for this board to provide these services. More and more of our seniors are no longer 70 or 75 years old – last week I met a man who was 108 years old.”
On growth: “Growth is good if it’s done safely and lawfully within the boundaries of each town where it’s controlled by the planning boards and boards of adjustment,” Vicari added.
This year’s budget includes about $129 million for capital projects such as road repaving, drainage improvements, bridge replacement and maintenance and similar projects.
One significant project is the reconstruction of the county’s social services complex in Toms River, which Shorebeat covered last week. Other projects include a $5 million replacement of the Colonial Drive north and south bridges in Manchester, $3.5 million for replace of Lake Shenandoah spill way and bridge in Lakewood, $2 million for the renovation of the Wells Mills Nature Center and $3 million for the construction of T-hangars at Ocean County Airport.
While the tax rate will decrease by a half-cent, the overall budget will increase from $431,967,163 in 2019 to $450,793,474 in 2020.
“That will continue to allow us to lower our tax rate and meet the needs of a growing county,” Kelly said.