SOMERVILLE – The Somerset County Board of Freeholders has introduced a proposed county budget for 2014 that keeps operational spending below 2008 levels by running programs more efficiently, yet maintains service levels across the board, preserves essential services such as transportation for elderly and disabled residents, maintains senior programs and provides increased 911 dispatching services for 20 out of 21municipalities.
“With our ratable base still down and the costs of state programs and insurance continuing to go up, the 2014 budget presented difficult choices,” Freeholder Peter S. Palmer, county finance committee member. “Our priority was to continue to streamline operations so we can provide essential services to residents, while keeping any tax increase in line with the 2% cap law and maintaining Somerset County’s AAA bond rating.”
Apublic hearing on the proposed $231,399,430 budget will be held Tuesday, April 29, at 5 p.m. in the third-floor meeting room of the county administration building at 20 Grove St. To view the full budget document on the county website, go to http://bit.ly/2014SCBudget. To see the budget overview, visit http://bit.ly/SCBudgtPres.
“This year, we asked all county divisions, departments and affiliated agencies to conduct a detailed analysis of their budget line items and to request only the minimum amount needed to operate their programs,” said Freeholder Palmer. “This process was successful in keeping our operations and spending lean and in line with Governor Christie’s 2% cap law”.
Despite the ratable base shrinking by 11.5% or $7.3 billion, the cost of living continuing to rise and being hit with 3 major storms in recent budgets, over the last six years the County has been able to reduce operating cost by $5.6 million or 4%, reduce the total number of county employees by 9.6% (1329 to 1198) and continue to offer new shared services. Since 2008, the county’s no-cost shared service for 911/dispatch has saved well over $3 million for the 20 participating municipalities.
“When revenues are down, we have less financial flexibility. At the same time, there is an ever-increasing demand for services, especially by residents who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Freeholder Palmer. “We feel that it is important to maintain essential services for the quality of life of our residents.”
“Although we are pleased that spending remains below the 2008 levels, we need to continue to find more economies in operations and more shared services,” said Freeholder Palmer. “We also feel that it is crucial for Somerset County to maintain its AAA bond rating, which enables the county to receive the lowest possible interest rates when borrowing money for capital projects. The only way to maintain a AAA bond rating is to use fewer fund balance dollars to supplement the budget. If we lost that excellent rating, it would be very difficult to get it back.”
The proposed 2014 county budget:
- Maintains funding for nearly all critical services, including the continued expansion of the countywide 911 Dispatch Communications to serve 20 municipalities (at no cost to municipalities) and Full Dispatch Service for 13 municipalities, 18 fire companies and 16 EMS stations.
- Continues funding for all county services to seniors, such as the in-home meals program, the seven congregate senior centers, transportation and programs at the Board of Social Services to help residents stay in their own homes rather than going into nursing homes.
- Protects the county’s AAA bond rating by regenerating more fund balance than is used to supplement the budget. The AAA bond rating ensures that Somerset County receives the lowest possible interest rates when borrowing money for capital projects.
- Reflects increased capital funding for added road work due to the effects of an unusually harsh winter on the county’s 248 miles of county roads and 752 bridges.
- Funds under $1,900,000 in Special Emergency Funding due to various storms over the past three years (Nor’easter ’10, Hurricane Irene ’11 and Super Storm Sandy ’12).
- Accounts for a reduction of 26 employees from the 2013 budget. It also reflects rising expenses due to greater health insurance costs and an increase in Transportation expenditures due to a loss of over $1 million dollars in Casino Grants.
- Allows the county to continue all shared services with local governments and other organizations, including recycling, transportation, vehicle maintenance, vehicle fuel, the Emergency Services Training Academy (statewide), health services for eight municipalities and a Cooperative Purchasing Program (statewide).
Additional funds have been budgeted this year to hire extra Park Commission staff to handle maintenance for several new projects, including Skillman Park in Montgomery, the GSA depot park in Hillsborough and a new athletic complex at Colonial Park in Franklin. The parks budget also includes anticipate expenditures for cleanup and tree removal following widespread winter-storm damage.