It is a great pleasure to be before you tonight to present the 2005 budget. The document we present to you tonight is proof of a transformation going on in Mercer County government.
We are making government more transparent. We are ensuring services are more reliable and efficient. And this budget reflects our renewed commitment to fiscal discipline.
It indicates priorities, eliminates waste and duplication, and plans for the future.
I am proud to report this $242 million budget reflects our values. It sets a proper blueprint for serving our taxpayers this year and into the future. This balanced budget plan maintains a stable tax rate for 2005.
As recent studies and state employment figures show, Mercer County is a great region for investment, and together we are making it stronger. We are successful in that effort due to the exemplary work done by all of you in this room tonight, and all of you who work for County government.
It is the individuals who work in County government every day and dedicate themselves to the well being of Mercer County residents who truly give life to the document we present tonight.
I offer my special thanks to the Freeholders, and our excellent Chair Ann Cannon. I extend my thanks to my Cabinet, and specific to their work on this budget, my thanks go out to County Administrator Andrew Mair, County Chief Financial Officer David Miller, and Chief of Staff Kelly Ganges. To the entire Cabinet, I would like to say that all we have accomplished in this first
year and all that we plan to accomplish in the next several years- would not be possible without your diligence and talent.
I thank the Clerk’s office- impressively led by Jerlene Worthy- for all of their efforts. And I credit the Freeholders staff and all the staff here at Mercer County for all they do every day- in large and small ways- to improve the lives of County residents.
An adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”
This budget reflects that effort to do the best on behalf of our residents. Our surplus- roughly 8 percent of our total 2005 proposed budget- demonstrates our continued financial prudence. This more than $20 million surplus is up from $11 million in fiscal year 2004. Recently an independent audit was conducted of the County’s finances. The clean audit we received is a clear indication of this administration’s commitment to transparency and fiscal discipline. But with our fiscal responsibility comes our social responsibility, and this budget meets that need as well.
This budget recognizes that County government must be more accessible to all residents.
That is why we have held town meetings throughout the County. It is why the Board of Freeholders has taken their meetings on the road to various municipalities. Today we take another major step forward in making government responsive.
For the first time, Mercer County government will offer the Mercer County Store, a satellite location offering County government services. We will begin this project at a single pilot location later this year. If successful, it will be expanded. I will be working with my Cabinet, our Constitutional officers and the County’s autonomous entities to provide many of the services we provide daily to the people of Mercer County.
Citizens should not encounter unnecessary barriers in getting the services they need, including the barrier of location. This County Store may offer passport services, health screenings, workforce training, veteran’s information, licenses, clerk and surrogate services, voter registration, consumer affairs counseling, and other County government services.
As I outlined in my recent State of the County address, we also propose the creation of a Mercer County Police Academy. This $250,000 investment in a new academy on the campus of Mercer County Community College is a wise investment. It will provide a coordinated approach to law enforcement. And in the long run it will result in significant cost savings for the County and its municipalities.
This is just one part of our comprehensive approach to homeland security and law enforcement on the County level. In the coming weeks we will be outlining our entire set of goals, but one important facet of this effort is our new Reverse 911 system. I made this a priority of my first year in office. Now with the approval of our County Board of Freeholders this $180,000 program will move forward. In the event of an emergency we will able to provide critical information immediately to the citizens of Mercer County in a coordinated manner.
Just as our County must work together in the case of an emergency, we must retain a shared commitment to the needs of our seniors. This budget reflects that essential value.
This year the Mercer County Office on Aging will spearhead a new “Caring for the Caregiver” Initiative to provide services to senior caregivers of adult children with disabilities. This program, funded with state money, will offer in home education and support, mental health counseling for caregivers, and trained volunteer assistance.
Our Nutrition Project for the Elderly is providing good meals at little cost to our seniors. Last year our 13 nutrition sites served nearly 140,000 meals. This is a 2,800 increase in the number of meals over the previous year. In addition more than 240 seniors joined the program in 2004.
We are also increasing our commitment to the Transportation Resources To Aid the Disadvantaged and Elderly. This year we have set the goal of exceeding annual ridership of 100,000 and also working to develop expanded TRADE service.
We have also completed long-delayed road projects and made much-needed safety improvements, such as the new traffic light we installed this past fall on Hamilton Avenue. We will continue to work with our municipalities to improve road safety.
We are identifying additional sources of funding to continue to improve our infrastructure. To date we have recovered more than $15 million in previously unused state grants to improve our county bridges and infrastructure. The recovery of these funds will lessen the burden on our County taxpayers. And it will improve our county’s infrastructure to promote economic growth.
In the upcoming year we will use these increased resources to complete work on the Robbinsville-Edinburg Road Bridge in Washington Township and the Southard Street Bridge in Trenton. As we strengthen our infrastructure, we must also protect our natural resources.
In 2004, Mercer County voters made the decision to invest in open space, approving a one-cent increase in the county open space levy. This support will allow us to continue and expand our commitment to open space throughout the county. Since 1990, we have preserved 13,000 acres through our open space, farmland preservation and municipal or non-profit assistance programs.
In 2005, we expect to move forward with the preservation of 215 acres of open space in Hamilton, East Windsor, and West Windsor. These are just a few of the important open space preservation efforts we will undertake in 2005. We also expect to preserve farms in Hopewell and Washington townships, among other projects. This builds on our record of preserving nearly 550 acres of farmland in 2004.
We are preserving open space, we are retaining working farms, and we are extending open space in urban areas, as evidenced by our purchase of additional land at Hetzel Field in Trenton this year. Our commitment to open space also includes our wonderful parks system. Last May, we opened South River Walk, the County’s first urban park of its kind.
For the first time since 1986, we have a full compliment of Rangers protecting our parks, and they are receiving the vital training they need to protect our visitors. Our goals for our Park System in 2005 are ambitious.
In 2005, we expect to finalize a comprehensive plan for passive recreation at Mercer County Park Northwest. We plan to open two separate parks- one for small dogs and one for large dogs- in the Mercer County Park system. These Bark Parks will provide dog lovers with a place for their favorite canines to run free and play.
Anyone who has played on or visited our athletic fields at Mercer County Park knows they can be hard to find. You can spend 20 minutes looking for Softball Field #2 without realizing you are standing on it. A key priority in 2005 will be renaming all athletic fields, providing better signage, and offering clearer guides to where fields are located.
Additionally, in 2005, we expect to create a premiere outdoor basketball court and beach volleyball courts, and to upgrade the Marina picnic area.
All young people should have access to the joys of recreation and sport. As most of you know, the Hamilton YMCA- in partnership with the Miracle League- is building a baseball “Field of Dreams” which will provide full access for children with disabilities. Today I am proud to announce that Mercer County is contributing $5,000 to the completion of this field.
Protecting space for recreation, relaxation, and sport is vital to our spiritual well being, but we are also mindful of our commitment to protect the mental and physical well being of residents. That is why this budget also invests in social services and education.
In 2004, in partnership with Comcast and Cablevision, we began the process of equipping our library branches with wireless Internet service. In 2005, we will extend that effort to Ewing and Hightstown.
We will also build on he success of our summer reading program. Over 3,100 children registered for this program last year, attending over 460 programs and reading over 54,000 books.
County services are making lives better, not just enriching minds through our library system but by confronting the challenges of addiction and by providing improved mental health services. In 2004, we increased County funding for these services by $48,000, allowing for an additional 222 days of substance abuse rehabilitation and 96 days for detoxification.
In 2005, we plan to make new investments in this division. Mercer County’s mental health initiative for children and families will be increased, allowing us to provide mental health and psychiatric oversight throughout Mercer County.
We are also requesting $50,000 to fund an early intervention program for children in pre-school and of school age to identify behaviors that lead to future mental health issues, and to offer children and families early intervention services in the form of case-management and linkage to services.
So often the issues of mental health and homelessness are related. We are also taking steps to confront this problem.
Recently the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded over $2 million to the City of Trenton and Mercer County's Continuum of Care for the Homeless. And just last week we awarded a grant of $300,000 to HomeFront in Lawrence to provide housing.
In 2004, the County distributed over $385,000 in State and federal funding for emergency assistance with utilities, rent/mortgage and security deposits, food and emergency and short-term shelter. The total funding for these programs in 2005 will increase to more than $405,000.
We will also continue the following commitments: $50,000 for transitional housing to the Mercer County Board of Social Services, $35,000 in additional funds to Homefront, and $11,000 to Central Jersey Legal Services for legal services to the indigent.
As you can see, this budget reflects both our fiscal and social responsibilities.
The document we present tonight is full of numbers, in black and white, that represent an overview of our plans. But more than numbers, this book represents our values, carried out by dedicated public servants. I look forward to working closely with the Freeholders to enact a fiscally sound, progressive, balanced budget.
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