Freeholders introduce budget with no county tax increase

Freeholder Director Kathy DeFillippo
Freeholder Director Kathy DeFillippo

The Morris County Freeholders have again developed a county budget with a zero percent increase in county taxes and that maintains critical county government services.

The freeholders, during their public meeting in Morristown on March 11, introduced a $329.53 million budget for 2015 with a total tax effort that is the same as last year’s $217,899,755 figure.

“This is the third budget in a row that has a zero percent tax increase,” said Freeholder Director Kathy DeFillippo, who chairs the Budget Subcommittee. “In the midst of difficult economic times, we are continuing to give the taxpayers of Morris County the relief they deserve, while maintaining vital county services.”

The proposed 2015 budget is up $12.2 million from last year’s budget, said subcommittee member Freeholder Doug Cabana, who also said the tax effort remains unchanged from 2014.

Freeholder Doug Cabana
Freeholder Doug Cabana

Cabana said the increase can be attributed to an additional $.3 million for the provision of various human services programs; a $.9 million increase in group insurance costs; $1.2 million in anticipated annual salary adjustments related to labor agreements; $1.5 million for additional direct service staff in the Sheriff’s Office, Morris View Healthcare Center and the Office of Temporary Assistance, which has seen a dramatic increase in service demand from county residents in need of emergency assistance.

The budget also includes $1.8 million in debt service attributable to the second phase of the solar program; and $5.5 million for state mental health and human service needs, with $4.4 million of that amount being paid for by the state, Cabana said.

According to Freeholder Tom Mastrangelo, another Budget Subcommittee member, the zero percent tax increase was achieved because of several factors, including a $1.7 million savings in pension costs, the consolidation of some information technology functions and the county’s continued efforts to reduce staff in non-direct service areas.

Freeholder Thomas Mastrangelo
Freeholder Thomas Mastrangelo

Mastrangelo also said the county is restructuring its financing approach of maximizing cash flow, savings on the cost of issuance and minimizing to the greatest degree possible, interest expense.

Freeholder Director DeFillippo said the freeholders worked diligently to ensure the tax freeze did not have a negative impact on county services.

“This budget allows us to continue to provide more than 451,000 meals to our senior citizens and to ensure the 283 residents who make Morris View Healthcare Center their home continue to receive exceptional care,” DeFillippo said. “It also continues to fund a wide variety of other human and social services including programs for mental health; substance abuse; and transportation; aging, disabilities and veterans’ services.”

Freeholder Cabana said the proposed budget also includes provisions for essential public safety services of the Prosecutor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office, which provides security for the county courthouse complex; the Correctional Facility; the Office of Emergency Management; and the Public Safety Training Academy.

“The freeholders are providing for continued shared services with Morris municipalities and other counties including 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,” Cabana said.

He also pointed to Crime Scene Investigation and K-9 services provided by the Sheriff’s Office to all towns in the county; public health planning, environmental health services and HAZMAT response throughout the county and health services provided by the Office of Health Management to four communities in the county; the Juvenile Detention Center and the Youth Shelter, which each share services with four counties; and the office of the Medical Examiner, which shares its services with three counties.

Freeholder Mastrangelo noted the budget “continues to conservatively manage the county’s debt, while ensuring our infrastructure remains sound.”

This year’s budget allocates $24.9 million in debt for capital projects, with a continued emphasis on roads and bridges, educational facilities and law and public safety, according to Mastrangelo.

The capital budget includes $8.6 million for county-maintained roads; $2.9 million for bridge projects; and $4.9 million for academic facility improvements for County College of Morris and to assist the School of Technology in meeting its capital improvement needs.

Capital funds are also earmarked the Department of Law and Public Safety to upgrade and maintain public safety and communications equipment, to make improvements to the academy’s firing range and Life Safety Complex, and to purchase new self-contained breathing apparatuses for the county’s Hazardous Materials Response Team.

Freeholder Cabana said the Freeholder Budget Sub-Committee will continue to work year-round, as it has historically done, to work to identify and develop strategic solutions to potential risks to future budgets.

Those risks, according to Freeholder Mastrangelo, include continued reductions in Medicaid funding for Morris View Healthcare Center; possible increases in health insurance and pension costs; an anticipated settlement of litigation involving the Solar II program and the county guarantee for debt service for the Solar II and Solar I programs; and the potential restructuring of certain county operations to achieve efficiencies.

Freeholder John Krickus

However, Freeholder Director DeFillippo said the freeholders’ continued conservative budgeting practices, a reduction in pension costs, the strategic and methodical use of the county’s fund balance and advance planning in the event of future reductions in managed Medicaid revenues should combine to address the structural balance criteria the rating agencies expect, and ensure the county’s financial strength will be maintained this year and beyond.

A public hearing on the budget will be conducted during the freeholders’ 7:30 p.m. public meeting on Wednesday, April 8 in the Public Meeting Room on the 5th floor of the Administration and Records Building, 10 Court Street, Morristown.

Before the approval of the budget that evening, the freeholders plan to introduce several amendments proposed by Freeholders John Krickus and Hank Lyon that would realized some additional savings while allocating an additional $230,000 to the County College of Morris to help the college address a budget shortfall caused in part by a decline in enrollment.