Flemington, NJ Tea Party

The website for the Flemington Tea Party (SM) group, Hunterdon County, New Jersey.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Meeting Summary: Hunterdon Freeholders Introduce Tax-Hike Budget

The Hunterdon County Freeholders introduced the 2009 budget this past Tursday, 4/23, by a 3-to-2 vote. The budget features a tax-rate increase of 1-cent per $100 of assessed valuation, from 27.78 cents/$100 to 28.78 cents/$100. This represents an increase of 3.6 percent.

Freeholders Mennen and Peterson voted against the introduction, primarily because they preferred to find additional budget cuts rather than raise the tax rate. Freeholders Melick, Holt and Sworen voted in favor of it. All the Freeholders expressed a commitment to finding additional cuts.

The meeting was attended by approximately 40 members of the public, several of whom rose to addressed their comments to the board. All of them spoke against the tax increase; no one spoke in favor of it.

Budget Figures
Some figures given out at the meeting:

2009 budget amount: $96.8 million
2008 budget amount: $96.9 million

Current budget surplus: $33.9 million
Surplus after usage by 2009 budget: $25 million (approx. 26%)

Public Objections
The public raised several objections to the raising of taxes:
  • Why not use more of the surplus, to avoid the tax increase?
  • Why raise taxes in the middle of a recession, when families are already facing economic hardship?
  • Raising taxes in a gubernatorial election year, when we have a vulnerable incumbent governor with a reputation as a big taxer, sends the wrong message at the wrong time to those who would be inclined to vote against him.

Opposing Views on the Surplus
Freeholder Melick addressed the surplus question by pointing out that the board has followed a rule of setting aside approximately 25% of the cost of annual operations in the surplus. He didn't indicate how the figure of 25% was arrived at. He also indicated that the surplus is a factor in the county's AAA credit rating, although he said it was not "paramount" in that rating.

Freeholder Peterson, on the other hand, expressed his belief that the surplus is there to be used "for times like this". He also indicated that our surplus is significantly higher, as a percent of the budget, when compared to other NJ counties that also have a AAA credit rating. Therefore, he does not believe that use of the surplus would be a threat to the credit rating.

Views on Raising the Tax Rate
Freeholder Sworen indicated that he has had many discussions with the county's financial people, whom he "trusts implicitly", and believes they've done a lot of work in cutting costs, in areas such as communication & phone systems, electricity, heating, cooling, etc., while at the same time pointing out that many of these savings will not manifest themselves for 3 to 18 months. He
seemed to be saying that the tax rate increase was necessary, because as much cost cutting as possible had already been done. (My conclusion, not his explicit statement).

Freeholder Sworen also said that "if the economy turns around [this year]", we can use the surplus to reduce tax rates next year". (By the way: he also said that the county's roads and bridges will be repaired with federal government stimulus money over the next 3-4 years. This is something we can put on our "to-do" list and keep an eye on!)

Freeholder Mennen stated that he "knows in his gut it's wrong to raise taxes in this environment". He said he would prefer to aggressively cut spending, and indicated that a 1-cent tax hike equals about $2.5 million. He also said the board is united in finding additional spending reductions.

Next Steps
1. The Freeholders indicated they are open to suggestions from the public for additional cost-cutting.

If you have suggestions for cost-cutting, send them to: budget@co.hunterdon.nj.us

Well, we took home a paper copy of the budget from the meeting, and frankly, it's difficult for us "average citizens" to pore over the many pages of the budget and try to identify areas for cost cutting. Also, if the proposed budget is available on the county website, I couldn't find it. (I'll call them Monday and ask about this.)

One thing that jumps out in looking over the budget is this: there are many line items that are being reduced from last year to this, which is good. However, there are also many line items that are going up!

So one general suggestion for the freeholders could then be: hold those line items flat, don't increase them. And, if it's absolutely mandatory that some of those line items be increased, then pay for them out of the surplus, not from a tax hike.

2. Call or email Freeholders Peterson and Mennen, and thank them for voting against the tax hike. There appears to be only one phone number listed on the county website for all the Freeholders; it is 908-788-1102. The email addresses are:

Freeholder Peterson:
epeterson@co.hunterdon.nj.us
Freeholder Mennen: wmennen@co.hunterdon.nj.us

3. Call or email the other Freeholders and express your disappointment that they decided to vote for raising taxes during these tough economic times:

Freeholder Melick:
freeholders@co.hunterdon.nj.us (Didn't have a specific address on his web page)
Freeholder Holt: mholt@co.hunterdon.nj.us
Freeholder Sworen:
rsworen@co.hunterdon.nj.us

The general Freeholders website is:
http://co.hunterdon.nj.us/frholder/frindex.htm


4. Attend the next Freeh
older's meeting on May 19th, which was called the "final hearing" on the budget, and make your opposition to the tax hike known.

While it may be too late to substantially change the current budget, we have to think long-term. This is an opportunity for all of us to learn the ins and outs of how the Freeholders develop the budget, which is vital if we're going to influence the budget in the future.

What's clear is that the general public (that's us) needs to get involved, in a meaningful way, in the budget process much sooner than April. Part of that involvement is to attend these meetings, and gain familiarity with the way things are done.




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