Union County budget proposal discussed

UNION COUNTY, NJ — A $508 million budget for Union County was formally introduced by county manager Al Faella at a freeholder meeting on Thursday, Feb. 18, at the freeholders’ headquarters in Elizabeth, and the proposal — if approved in the next several months — would be a 3.25 percent increase over last year’s budget of $492 million.

“Just as a reminder: this is not the final budget, but a starting point, which can be reviewed and amended as necessary by the fiscal committee and the freeholder board, before final adoption sometime later this spring,” said Faella, as he outlined the highlights of the 2016 budget. “This year’s executive budget is a demonstration of the county’s continued economic growth, and the success of our sound management and budgeting practices, as validated by our most recent determination of a AA bond rating.”

For residents across the county, the 2016 executive budget will increase the amount of taxes collected to $346 million, up from the 2015 number of from $335 million, which is a difference of 3.25 percent.

As proposed, that would be the largest tax increase for Union County since 2013, when the county tax bill went up 4.97 percent, but it’s also comparable to 2014 and 2015, when taxes went up by 3 percent and 2.51 percent, respectively. Since 2001, in comparison, annual budgets in Union County have increased taxes by an average of 7.76 percent, making the past few years a low point.

One of the benefits of these reigned in budgets, Faella said at the meeting, is how they allow the county to keep a surplus handy, which supports the government’s bond rating. The 2016 budget anticipates adding to the existing surplus by $22.5 million.

“As our county financial position has improved over the past few years, we’ve continued to build surplus. Over the past year alone, we’ve boosted our surplus by 77 percent, from $31 to $55 million,” said Faella. “This increase is vital in maintaining our bond rating, which is among the highest available.”

The county has been able to support a relatively high bond rating, said Faella, during a time when there has been “fiscal turbulence in the state of New Jersey, which has experienced a record 9 credit downgrades since 2009.” Part of that is because of increased revenues, he added, and the success of several profitable agencies run by Union County.

Last year, a strong real estate market led to more than $1 million in transfer fees going to the county; the Union County regional dispatch unit took in more than $386,000 in revenue; the county’s Parks Department garnered more than $6.4 million in revenues — an increase of $183,000, thanks to profits which Faella said were the result of a golfing initiative — and the Union County Emergency Medical Services group brought in more than $1 million, an increase of 46.8 percent, year over year.

Other prominent sources of revenue listed in the budget included a $35 million grant from the New Jersey Division of Economic Assistance, about $4.5 million in open space debt service, and $38 million in medical costs which will be assumed by the state, according to the 366-page budget, which is available on the county’s website.

Funds from these sources, and others, are being funneled back into several major community health initiatives this year, which will bolster the parks and educational institutions which make “Union County’s quality of life one of the most highly regarded in the nation,” said Faella.

“With all of these exciting plans in place,” said Faella, “I look forward to once again working with the Freeholder Board and our county employees in achieving another success year in 2016.”

In order to discuss the proposed budget, the fiscal committee has scheduled three public hearings around Union County, all of which will be held at 5:30 p.m. One will be held at Galloping Hill Golf Course in Union, on March 7; another, on March 8, will take place at the Union County Vo-tech School in Scotch Plains; and there will be a final hearing at the Elizabeth Courthouse on Thursday, March 17.