TOMS RIVER – The Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders unveiled a "no surprise" budget that comes with a modest reduction in the county property tax rate, increased funding for Ocean County College and the vocational-technical schools, and appropriations to cover the county's core services and programs.
"As we continue to see a moderate increase in our ratable base, we are keeping with our pledge to lower the county property tax rate in reasonable annual increments so we can provide good quality government services and keep Ocean County affordable," said Ocean County Freeholder John P. Kelly, in presenting the budget measure to the Board. "This is a ‘no surprise' budget."
The proposed 2019 budget, which will be formally introduced by the Board at its 4 p.m., Feb. 20 meeting, totals $431,967,163 and the amount to be raised by taxation is $353,049,175, an increase of 1.89 percent, which is under the 2 percent state mandated spending cap.
"This year, we will be reducing the County property tax rate by another half-cent bringing the rate down to a little more than 34 cents per $100 of equalized property value," Kelly said. "This is the direction we will continue to follow – as our ratables rise, we will gradually reduce the tax rate."
Ocean County's ratable base began to drop dramatically after 2009, when the economy took a downturn, coupled with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the value of the properties in Ocean County plummeted by about $20 billion.
"We are seeing this loss diminish which is allowing us to lower the tax rate and keep County government on the well-disciplined, fiscally conservative course our residents and taxpayers expect from us," Kelly said.
Property values for 2019 increased by $3.4 billion to $103.2 billion. However the ratable base remains $6 billion below the 2009 ratable base of almost $110 billion – the county's highest.
Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines said the proposed budget covers the many key services provided by the Board and provides continued stability in county government.
"This is the County's budget and everyone on this Board participates in it," she said. "This document is the blueprint for 2019 and our future."
Prior to presenting the budget numbers to his colleagues on the Board, Kelly remembered the late Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., who served as the County's budget architect for close to four decades.
"As we present the 2019 Ocean County budget, I want to take a moment and first recognize the nearly four decades of our friend and colleague Freeholder Bartlett's contributions to producing county budgets that highlighted our work to maintain fiscal stability in our county government," Kelly said. "With John, the budget was the collective work of all of us on this Board, along with the staff. We always worked with him as a team in developing sound and disciplined financial policies that resulted in budgets that put the taxpayer first."
Kelly said the proposed 2019 budget, in addition to funding all of the core services and providing a modest decrease in the property tax rate, also maintains a healthy surplus and allows the Board to keep its AAA bond rating.
"And, as always, it prepares us for the future," he said.
Kelly said the budget includes increased levels of funding for Ocean County College and the Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools. The college will receive $15.7 million, up $454,418 and the vocational technical schools will receive $19 million, an increase of $372,768.
"Education is a priority for this Board," Kelly said.
The budget also includes a $9.3 million "pay as you grow" appropriation.
"This allows us to pay cash for some capital projects and purchases in 2019," Kelly said. "A benefit of this includes not having to bond, allowing us to continue to decrease our total debt."
The proposed budget also appropriates about $25 million for maintaining and improving county roads and bridges.
"This budget makes sure that we continue to improve our roads and bridges as well as maintaining them so they will be safe for everyone to use." Kelly said.
The budget also provides a combined $75 million in funding for county departments that oversee law and public safety.
"In the area of law and public safety, we are providing the funds to help fight the opioid epidemic that continues to grip our County," said Kelly, who serves as Director of Law and Public Safety. "Our Prosecutor's Office, our Sheriff's Department, our Correction's Department and Juvenile Services are all involved in addressing this very difficult and prevalent situation."
Kelly noted that with this budget, the County also is completing upgrades to its emergency communication systems with new cell towers and moving to 700 MHZ radios to improve communications for emergency responders.
"This budget also makes certain our most vulnerable residents are provided for, with social services and other programs to assist them," Kelly said.
Freeholder Gerry P. Little said the budget as proposed was fiscally responsible.
"While the demand for services is tremendous, we have been able to balance these demands and also lower the tax rate," he said.
Freeholder Gary Quinn emphasized the importance of lowering the tax rate.
"Reducing the taxes is a product of sound financial policies," he said.
Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari, who serves as liaison to Senior Services said the budget meets the needs of the growing population of seniors especially with the additional $100,000 for the senior nutrition program.
Kelly said the budget is the result of numerous meetings with department heads, senior staff, and the Board.
"Its together that we work as one in producing a budget that is fiscally responsible, that is conservative and disciplined and that meets the needs of our county residents," Kelly said.