TOMS RIVER – Noting a modest increase in property values and a small decrease in the county’s property tax rate, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders unveiled its 2017 County budget on Feb. 22.
“The proposed 2017 budget is up about two percent and falls within the two percent state imposed budget cap,” said Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., who has been the primary architect of the county budget for close to four decades. “This budget includes the funds necessary to cover the core services for our residents while decreasing the county property tax rate.
“This is the best budget we’ve been able to put together in years,” Bartlett said.
Since 2009, Ocean County was affected by a struggling economy only to have that exacerbated by Superstorm Sandy which hit Ocean County directly on Oct. 29, 2012. As a result, the County’s ratable base decreased by about $20 billion or 19 percent.
“And while the value is still down about 11 percent from a decade ago we are seeing modest gains again,” Bartlett said.
The proposed 2017 budget totals $407,919,144, up $7.9 million. The Board of Freeholders is scheduled to formally introduce the spending package during its 4 p.m., March 1 meeting in Room 109 of the Ocean County Administration Building, 101 Hooper Ave., here. A public hearing and adoption is scheduled for April 5.
Bartlett said the budget remains within the 2 percent cap even with the county faces challenges like the implementation of state mandated bail reform and addressing the ongoing drug addiction epidemic.
“The 2017 budget makes certain the core essential services used by our residents will be funded throughout the year,” said Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari. “This budget comes with no surprises. It’s a straight forward spending package that provides quality services and programs to our residents and keeps Ocean County affordable.”
Bartlett said the budget includes funds for new positions in the Sheriff’s Department and Prosecutor’s Office needed to implement the state mandated bail reform procedure that calls for a bail hearing within 48 hours of an arrest.
“We need the personnel in order to meet the state mandate which was implemented Jan. 1,” Bartlett said.
Freeholder John P. Kelly, Director of Law and Public Safety, said by working closely with Prosecutor Joseph Coronato the funding for the implementation of the new bail reform act will be in place.
“I deeply appreciate the cooperation I have received along with the entire Board of Freeholders from Prosecutor Coronato and his staff so we can meet the mandate of the new state bail reform law,” Kelly said. “While the state ought to live up to its responsibility of state mandate state pay, until that occurs, we are meeting our obligations to adequately fund this new state program.”
Bartlett said the County’s surplus in 2017 is $51.7 million. The proposed budget includes $20.2 million from surplus.
“In order to maintain our AAA bond rating, it’s imperative we keep a surplus balance that is equal to about 10 percent of the budget,” Bartlett said. “Having the highest bond rating possible helps us tremendously when we need to bond for capital projects.
“In addition a strong surplus balance is necessary in times of natural disasters and emergencies as we all saw after Superstorm Sandy,” Bartlett said.
Vicari noted he provided preliminary budget information to municipal officials attending a recent Ocean County Mayor’s Association meeting.
“In addition, the rates associated with the Ocean County Library and the Health Department will be flat in 2017,” he said. “It’s important our elected officials and residents know we are doing all we can on the County level to make sure Ocean County remains an affordable place to live, raise a family and retire.
“Under this budget our roads will be maintained, our seniors will be afforded nutritious meals, residents will be assisted during emergencies, our courts will be secure, our emergency response volunteers will be well trained and residents and visitors can enjoy our parks,” Vicari said. “This budget is the work of this Board and our county staff, a group of professionals that are also fiscally responsible and provide the best services and programs possible.”
The proposed budget also includes 2 percent increases in the County’s contributions to Ocean County College and the Ocean County Vocational Technical School system.
The college’s appropriation will be $15.2 million, up $297,000 and the vo-tech will receive $18.3 million, up $358,293.
“A good, quality education provides opportunity for a good life,” Vicari noted. “This is an excellent investment in the future of Ocean County.”
In addition, about $25 million will be appropriated to maintain the county’s infrastructure.
Freeholder Virginia E. Haines said the proposed budget assures the county runs smoothly.
“We run our County government efficiently and this budget document shows that,” Haines said.
Freeholder Deputy Director Gerry P. Little said the proposed budget demonstrates that the Board of Freeholders continues to be fiscally responsible.
“We do not overspend nor do we spend what we can’t afford,” Little said. “This budget fully funds our priority veterans’ services programs, maintenance and improvements for the largest county road system in the state, and our great recycling programs that saves our towns’ taxpayers millions of dollars each year.”