OCEAN COUNTY – Ocean County residents will see a half-cent decrease in their county tax bill.
Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. acknowledged the decrease was small but is moving in the right direction. He is the main architect of the annual county budget.
The tax rate will decrease to 37.4 cents per $100 valuation. The rate dropped one-tenth of a cent last year.
The total budget is $416,092,260, up $8.1 million this year. The county will raise $346.5 million by taxation, up 1.29 percent but still below cap by about $6 million.
The county has $55.4 million surplus and will tap into about $22 million of that for this year’s budget. Bartlett told Jersey Shore Online, this paper’s web version, he expects to replenish the surplus used by underspending what has been budgeted, or “unanticipated” or “miscellaneous” revenues.
“We never want to take more from surplus than we are pretty well assured of replacing during the year,” Bartlett said.
“This is a fiscally responsible budget,” Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little said. “It is fiscally prudent. It will allow us to maintain our AAA bond rating, funds our programs and services and allows us to invest in our infrastructure.”
As excellent as its bond rating is, the county is seeking to use cash for capital when it can. The county included $25 million in such expenses for heavy equipment and infrastructure upgrades.
“If you run into a problem in the future, if the tax base doesn’t grow, or if we happen to have some kind of disaster, that’s something you can easily cut back on, and not have to cut back on services and the things that you feel you must do,” Bartlett said. “It’s a shock absorber.”
All services are maintained from last year, Bartlett said.
The county lost billions in ratables, both from the Great Recession at the end of last decade and Super Storm Sandy in 2012. The county is recovering – property values increased by 2.74 percent to $99.8 billion – but are still down about $9 billion from pre-disaster numbers. Bartlett expects the county to reach pre-Sandy numbers in about another 3 years.
“But we were $20 billion under, so we’re getting that up,” Bartlett said. “In the meantime, since we are starting to move back up, we’re moving to reduce the tax rate slightly, as we rebuild the tax base.”
Ocean County is a conservative county, Bartlett said. “There’s a million good things you could do with more money, but guess what? The money comes out of someone’s pocket. People have good things they can do with their own money.”
As the ratable-base grows, more money will flow into the county, more properties will be taxed, which should continue to decrease the county tax rate, he added.