UNION COUNTY, NJ — If the freeholder board goes along with the county manager’s proposed budget, taxpayers will see an average tax increase of $57 on the county portion of their tax bill, but that is unlikely once the Fiscal Committee begins paring it down.
County Manager Al Faella’s $492 million budget is $10.7 million less than last year, but $336.1 million still has to be raised by taxes.
However, the bill taxpayers receive contains three parts: school, town and county. Only after all three parts have been tabulated and finalized will taxpayers have an accurate accounting of their total tax increase for 2015.
Last year when Faella first presented his executive budget it looked like the average taxpayer would see an $84 increase, but when all was said and done that number was reduced to $62.
Faella said the 2015 budget reflected a broad based recovery in the Union County economy and “our success in setting goals, implementing policy and continuing progress on all areas requiring attention,” which resulted in the “the lowest increase in years.”
“We are moving forward and now is not the time to stop,” he said.
The county manager did mention the sale of Runnells Specialized Hospital last year, calling it a major administrative goal “which not only brought in revenue from the sale itself but also will save millions each year,”
He did not, though, explain exactly what the county did with the $26 million it took in from the sale of the hospital.
Faella said the sale of Runnells’ would save on mandated costs such as health and liability insurances, pension and operating expenses, but did not mention what percentage of this financial windfall would go towards these costs.
Last year at this time, Faella said by the close of 2013 the annual subsidy for Runnells’ had gone up to $13.5 million, a total of $30 million over a two year period.
“These savings are helping to balance the budget, as we continue to build surplus. Over the past several years we’ve been able to boost our surplus by 71 percent as our financial condition has improved,” the county manager said. He explained the increase in surplus was critical to the county maintaining its bond rating, “which is among the highest obtainable.”
The county manager also brought up the touchy topic of changes involving operational efficiencies and the fact discussions about the correctional facilities are still on the table. He did not mention if the county was still negotiating with Hudson County to move adult inmates there, but he brought up that the county signed a two-year contract with Hudson County to accept their juvenile detainees to the Union County Detention Center in Linden.
Faella said this move will bring as much as $1.5 million in revenue, if not more each year.
“This occurs as we look at ways of achieving efficiencies at the Union County Jail, which I noted in last year’s budget message costs more than $55 million to operate,” he said.
Faella explained the county succeeded in reducing operational costs by $1 million at the adult jail through applying recommendations made by the Luminosity study, which was commissioned several years ago. However, he did not say whether the county is planning to reduce expenses at the county jail further, or how that would be achieved.
The county manager did note that while things are looking up economically, the county still had to contend with a $5 million increase in debt service, which, in part, had to do with paying for public investments such as the expansion of Union County College Cranford campus and construction of the state-mandated new family courthouse complex in Elizabeth.
Faella said the county also had a loss of over $800,000 in revenue as a result of the state’s pilot red light camera program shutting down, and also had to shoulder another half-million increase in pension costs.
However, he countered this by reporting increases in the stream of revenue coming to the county from several areas, including the parks and public safety departments.
For instance, revenue from the Union County Medical Services increased by more than 60 percent, from a 130 percent growth in calls to the agency. Faella said this was the direct result of the New Jersey Department of Health recognizing the county EMS as the “Outstanding Public EMS agency of the Year.”
He noted that combined with other important public safety programs, the Union County Regional Dispatch Center contributed nearly $1 million in revenue to county coffers.
This center, he said, now covers 17 agencies throughout the county since it began in 2010, pointing out the center processed 70,500 calls last year, up from last year when it received 57,827 calls for aid.
The county manager also reported that this economic recovery reached the real estate market, with the county ratable base increasing to $200 million for the first time since 2008.
Faella brought up Freeholder Chairman Mohamed Jalloh’s reorganization speech, pointing out the need to “keep investing in Union County.”
As a result of the new chairman’s initiatives the county will be spending tax dollars on several programs.
Included was a $2.3 million expenditure for the Workforce Investment Board, which partners with businesses to train residents and get them hired into new positions.
According to Faella, this has already reaped rewards, with this board announcing 150 new jobs for residents at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The county will also be commissioning a report from the Bloustein School at Rutgers to examine trends in the county’s overall economy. The purpose is to find strengths the county can focus resources on for positive outcomes. He did not say what his report would cost.
Jalloh has also commissioned an Arts Master Plan to catalogue county art resources and determine how to utilize and market them. The county also will be sponsoring five or more theater events at Union County Performing Arts Center, but Faella did not say what the cost to taxpayers would be for this expense.