Ocean County freeholders said maintaining the county's core services while keeping taxes down will be an ongoing process, with 2013 budget work already under way as the 2012 financial framework is adopted.
The board unanimously approved its $354,189,256 2012 budget at its regular meeting Wednesday in the , Toms River. Freeholders pledged to provide the services county citizens need, especially in tough economic times, but said they will be forced to do "less with less" in the future as revenues decline and ratables disappear.
"Today is not the end of the discussion," said Freeholder John Bartlett, liaison to the Department of Finance. "It's really the beginning of the discussion because we will be in the process continually this year of refocusing county government toward its core functions."
To support the budget Ocean County will raise a $300,026,643 tax levy, up $6,747,893 over the 2011 spending plan, with a tax rate of 29.9 cents per $100 in equalized value, a 1.7-cent hike over the 2011 budget. Federal and state aid of almost $7.5 million, $29.7 million in miscellaneous revenues and $17 million in surplus will balance the books for the 2012 budget.
Although there is almost no spending increases in the adopted budget, freeholders were forced to increase the tax levy primarily due to two factors: revenues declined by more than $5 million from 2011 and the county's ratable base keeps shrinking, down by almost $4 billion from 2011.Year Ratable Valuation Tax Rate Amount to be Raised by Taxation 2008 $108,897,663,942 25.4 cents per $100 $276,305,117 2009 $109,906,985,727 25.5 cents per $100 $278,876,987 2010 $105,510,706,298 27.2 cents per $100 $287,002,464 2011 $104,334,745,378 28.1 cents per $100 $293,278,750 2012 (estimated) $100,177,834,492 $29.9 cents per 100 $300,026,643
"We used to say we're doing more with less but I'm afraid we have to say we're going to do less with less because we are darn near the bottom of the barrel," Bartlett said.
Spending across departments is largely flat over the 2011 plan, with increases to the Board of Social Services and law enforcement, as the expansion of the Ocean County Jail has necessitated 44 hires over the past two years. The overall spending plan totals $1.4 million above the $352.7 million 2011 budget, which raised $293.3 million via taxation.
Freeholder Director Gerry Little said the county will continue it's policy of shedding salaries via attrition, with departing or retiring staffers only replaced where there's a "vital need." The county is down almost 200 jobs in the past three years, with $360,000 saved from the 2011 budget by not replacing 56 staffers who departed.
"We will gradually reduce the scope of county government to reflect the financial reality of diminished financial resources. Our changes will be small, they will be predictable but... there will be no surprises," Bartlett said.
Freeholder Joseph Vicari said budgeting is an "ongoing process" that is especially difficult in "troubled times.
"We have a responsibility to maintain these programs," Vicari said. With Wednesday's adoption, he can look people in the eye and say "this is a good budget."
Gary Black, a resident of Jackson, agreed. "You guys got it right," he said. "This is a surprise; it's government doing what it's supposed to do."