County Executive Tom DeGise, in presenting the budget to the freeholders at the May 13 meeting, called it "an honest budget" free of bonding gimmickry or "foolish reliance on one-shot revenues" to balance the books. "This budget anticipates not only the cost of completed labor contracts with the sheriff's officers, juvenile detention officers, and welfare unions," DeGise said, "but also the likely costs of contracts under negotiation with the sheriffs' officers' superiors and corrections [officers], and prosecutors' investigators. It increases funding for the two most crucial needs in our county: education and public safety." DeGise added, "It meets the unavoidable burdens of aggressively rising healthcare and pension costs. The county is spending $20.5 million below the cap limit authorized by the state for this budget cycle." In all, total spending in 2004-2005 will be $362 million, up from $354.5 million last year, a rise of approximately 2.2 percent.Ratables - which are taxable properties within the county -rose by 14 percent, allowing the county tax rate to drop by an estimated 63 cents per $1,000, or 9.57 percent, because more properties are contributing to the tax base.
"In addition to controlling spending and budgeting honestly, our support of pro-growth policies in our municipalities is paying remarkable dividends," DeGise said.
But with health care costs rising at six times the rate of inflation, and with bond obligations coming due, primarily for educational investments, a rise of approximately $6 million was necessary, he said.
"In total, more than three quarters of this modest levy rise were costs we are obligated to pay," DeGise said.
The increase breaks down to: $2.5 million went to cover increases in healthcare, $2 million was required for the new debt service, $1.2 million of it will pay for a bond for the Community College that netted a $600,000 match from the state, and $554,000 was needed to fund additional state-required pension contributions.
"The remainder of the levy rise paid for crucial investments in our future," DeGise said. "This budget continues our increased investment in the Schools of Technology and the Community College to help these schools continue to grow - and to excel - in the future. Our sheriff's officers' contract with its first-ever salary steps system will allow us to retain more qualified officers longer, improving the safety of our courts, our parks and our communities. And the hiring of more juvenile detention officers and corrections officers will, as they are trained and brought online, reduce overtime costs at the Youth Detention Center and the County Jail."
In 2004-2005, the county will receive approximately $30 million in grants, DeGise added, which help offset some of the costs for operations.
In voting to accept the budget, Freeholder Bill O'Dea said he was disappointed at the lack of town-by-town breakdown of impact, saying he had requested this after some confusion last year when the county had claimed there would be no tax increases when some towns actually received one.
The county tax rate impacts taxpayers in different towns differently due to a formula for the county's assessed values of the towns' properties.
County Administrator Abe Antun said this information would be provided to the freeholders before the public hearing, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. on June 3, at the Pavonia Avenue Freeholder Chambers in Jersey City.
At the same meeting, the freeholders passed a resolution that added a penny in tax for every $100 of assessed value on a home, in order to help provide for the purchase and maintenance of parks and other open space initiatives in Hudson County.
The Open Space Trust Fund was a big part of DeGise's campaign for re-election in 2003, when voters were asked to pass a referendum allowing the county to set up a fund for purchasing and cultivating new parks, upgrading old parks, and restoring historic sites.
Such park development would also accomplish the cleaning up and creative use of properties made vacant by previous development, areas that may be currently unused because of pollution.
Hudson County is among the last counties in the state to impose the open space tax, and by generating the additional revenue, the county will get additional money from the state as well.
"Last fall, we went to the voters with the support of environmental, community and civic-minded recreation organizations, asking the people to make a reasonable choice for the public good," DeGise said in urging the freeholders to pass the resolution. "Given the facts, the voters chose wisely and overwhelmingly to support the Open Space Trust."
DeGise said the fund would benefit every part of the county from contaminated sites in Jersey City and the Hackensack and Passaic waterfronts along Bayonne and Kearny to park creation in North Hudson.
"The Open Space Trust will fundamentally improve our county over time if we have the courage and the vision now to use this valuable tool given to us by the voters," DeGise said.