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TRENTON, N.J. - Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes introduced his administration’s annual proposed budget tonight, a $287 million plan that does not raise the County tax rate.

Hughes told the freeholder board during the February 8 presentation that within the last two years, the County has been hit by the steepest drop in revenue in history, a 5.2 percent decline. But Mercer has actually improved its fiscal strength in that time through successful negotiations with several employee unions that froze wages, the sale of the County’s Geriatric Center, and the replenishment of the County’s surplus.

“First and foremost, my budget calls for no increase in the County tax rate. That is what I pledge to you tonight,” Hughes told the freeholder board and an audience of about 50 residents and County employees who gathered at the McDade Administration Building in Trenton. “I believe my administration has done what it takes to stabilize County government, and we will not burden our residents with a new raise in taxes this year.”

The proposed budget, which will now be reviewed by the Board of Chosen Freeholders for its approval and adoption, seeks to maintain the County tax rate of 48 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That rate is well below the 54-cent tax rate Hughes inherited when he first took office in 2004.

A resident’s tax rate will rise or fall depending on his or her municipality once the tax rate is equalized. County taxes are equalized to reflect the difference between municipal property assessments and property market values, meaning the actual rate many property owners are charged will increase.

Hughes said the County surplus has been built back up to $22 million, or about 7 percent of the total budget. He said the County’s Open Space Tax, which was scaled back last year from 3 cents to 2 cents, will remain at 2 cents to save taxpayers about $4.8 million.

In his remarks, Hughes stressed that serious budget challenges remain. He said pension costs for County employees are up 25 percent from last year, while healthcare costs are up 12 percent. In addition, non-tax revenue fell about $4.1 million in 2010, putting further strain on the County’s finances.