Today, I am here to present the 2004 budget for Mercer County. I look forward to a collaborative process, for I know that each of you takes great care in understanding what Mercer County needs. Each of you comes to this process with ideas on how to make our county better.
While no budget has room for every wish, every budget has room for input from all who are elected to represent the people of Mercer County.
As you consider this budget, I ask that you keep one word in mind: Balance.
In Mercer County, we are fortunate to have a growing ratable base, yet we know there are needs on the horizon. We hear loud and clear the cry to contain property taxes. We know, however, that being good stewards of the public dollar means making investments that will save money in the long run.
A good budget requires us to set priorities and bring them to life without asking the taxpayers for too much. This budget achieves that balance. As I outline my priorities, please know that I want to hear yours as well. I ask only that you work with me to identify ways to pare spending to balance the cost of any new items.
Citizens do not ask for extras. They ask government to keep them safe, to create paths to meaningful work, to lift them up in times of trouble. They want a good quality of life for themselves, and the promise of a better life for their children. They want good services at a fair price.
The budget I present to you today reflects those desires. Last month, I promised a modest reduction in the county’s equalized tax rate. Today, I am pleased to report the rate will drop 2.09 cents, making this the second-largest rate cut in 14 years.
We are instituting new programs in two major areas: to protect public safety and to search for areas where conflicts of interest, fraud or mismanagement lead to excessive public spending. I recognize this is not the total solution to New Jersey’s reliance on property taxes. That can only come through a Citizen’s Convention to overhaul our system of paying for education. I support such a convention.
Mercer County can afford a tax cut because of phenomenal growth in our ratable base – once again ratables increased $3 billion. This is the single greatest reason I am able to propose a tax cut at this time. Clearly, Mercer County residents have a right to share in this good fortune.
Revenue from a record number of home mortgage refinancings also grew in 2003. While we welcome the additional revenue, we realize that record federal borrowing will eventually have an adverse effect on interest rates, and that revenue from this source will start declining in 2004.
The balance I speak of, therefore, calls for us to craft a tax cut that reflects today’s good news, but allows us to plan for the future.
Citizens want to protect open space, and so do I. The question we must ask, however, is how much our efforts to halt sprawl will affect the ratable growth we have enjoyed. That’s why I have talked about looking for the right kind of growth, in places where both citizens and the environment can support it.
As we protect open space, we must make sure the taxpayers who have saved the land can enjoy it. This budget funds the launch of our “Mercer Is Beautiful” initiative, which will make our parks easier to find and easier to use.
We want to ensure that senior citizens can find good meals, good medical care, and the fellowship of friends no matter where they live. We are working each day to improve the quality of care at the Mercer County Geriatric Center, and this budget keeps us on that path. It calls for essential investments in staff and computer systems. The Geriatric Center must capture the Medicaid and Medicare dollars it now misses, and it must go after grants and revenue now beyond its grasp.
In addition, this budget keeps us on our path of making senior center grants available to all towns that qualify. Like many of you, I have seen the superb new center in East Windsor, the terrific renovations in Hamilton and in Princeton. I know that these grants are making a real difference in the lives of Mercers’ seniors and you should all be applauded for that.
We must bring new jobs – and the right kinds of jobs – to the people of this county. The economy is improving, yet many still suffer. To meet their needs, this budget calls for bringing a new look and new leadership to the Office of Economic Opportunity. We will increase marketing funds so that small businesses – especially those run by minorities and women – are aware of the vast array of assistance available through Mercer County and our partners like the Regional Business Assistance Corporation. Small businesses are the engines of future job growth and we must promote them with vigor.
This budget starts the process of reorganizing county government in ways that make sense – and in ways that make it easier for you, the freeholders, to connect the public dollars with positions and services. During our transition and the month we’ve been in office, we have found several instances of people working out of title or being paid by one office and working in another. The budget you will see reflects reality.
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I will empower my new directors to continue this desk audit as they take the reins in their departments. Many of my prospective directors are here today, and I give them this charge: Ask questions. Embrace change. And don’t assume that the way you find things on Day One is the way they should be.
The time has arrived for Mercer County to tackle the deferred maintenance that is the wild card of county government. We will start this year with the criminal courthouse, but we will not stop there. This budget sets aside $100,000 to create a facilities master plan, a blueprint that will end the days of guesswork and crossed fingers by laying out what projects are coming and what they will cost.
The work ahead requires that we retain a healthy surplus to secure good bond ratings, and this budget will do that. We are addressing the needs of today, and we are on the road to addressing the needs of tomorrow.
In looking ahead, I know that Mercer County must spent this year finding ways to achieve savings for the costs that have not yet arrived.
For example, this budget includes a $2.6 million payment for debt service, an increase of 22 percent from last year. With our commitment to the criminal courthouse project, we know that our debt service can only increase in the years ahead.
Additionally, the cost of employee health benefits keeps going up. It is a frightening sign of the times when I report to you that the 20 percent increase we foresee is great news compared to last year. As you know, county employees will make higher co-payments in the next four years, and I commend the leadership of AFSCME for supporting a contract that helps control health care costs.
Employees count not only on health benefits but also on pensions when they retire. The early retirement initiative passed last fall gave employees an additional three years’ credit when calculating their pension payment. Of the 212 employees who were eligible, 67 took advantage of the program.
Pensions will affect our budgeting in two ways: First, we must fund the obligation we took on this year with the early retirement program. Second, an old obligation is about to return.
For many years, a component of Governor Whitman’s changes to the pension systems allowed counties and municipalities to skip payments into the Public Employee Retirement System, based on estimates from years when the stock market was riding high. Payments to PERS will return in 2005. Right now, we don’t know the amount, but we need to be in a position to meet that need.
As we search for savings and plan for the unexpected, this administration also seeks to do more to protect open space, improve public safety and quality of life, and to restore trust in government.
Our county’s commitment to protecting open space continues under this budget. In 2004, we are forecast to spend $11.3 million to acquire property across Mercer County and to assist towns and non-profits when they acquire land.
This budget reflects our plan to form a new Environmental Health Office. We have started talks with the Department of Environmental Protection and will have an office set up by May 1. Federal funds to this office can flow after that.
The Environmental Health Office will be Mercer’s clearinghouse for information and decision-making when health scares demand a regional response. In Mercer County, we know all too well about the threat of a biomedical attack – and we know what was lacking the last time.
Let me be clear that this office is designed to complement local health offices, which play an important role in ensuring cleanliness and safety in our restaurants and neighborhoods.
County government will also work with our 13 municipalities to bring reverse 911 technology to Mercer County. This system, already in use in Hamilton Township, has been explored elsewhere. It’s time for county government to take the lead, so that we can alert neighborhoods when danger strikes. A countywide plan will ensure that warnings reach across municipal borders.
I have spoken frequently about the need to restore faith in government. We also need to restore faith in the electoral process. This year we will elect a president, members of Congress and several local officials. We must ensure that our voting machines meet the standards the public expects. I know that this is bipartisan concern in Mercer County.
Congressman Rush Holt is concerned about this as well. He wrote the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, which calls for all voting machines to produce an actual paper record so that voters can confirm that their choices are properly recorded. I applaud his leadership.
In recent conversations with Sequoia, the supplier of our voting machines, I am working toward negotiating a retrofit of our machines to add this paper-trail feature to Mercer County’s new electronic machines. I will seek $500,000 in the capital budget to add this feature, although it is my hope that the price can come in below that amount. I will seek Freeholder Board involvement, especially through you Madam Chair as we begin those negotiations during this month.
When I took office, I called for creating the Office of the Inspector General, and I am thrilled that we have found Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Farkas, whose experience and integrity are beyond question. Assistant U.S. Attorney Farkas will have broad authority to review county procedures to uncover cases of corruption, fraud or plain bad management.
Each day we see the need for this new office. We are hearing from employees who want more direction, who want advice on how to do the right thing. County employees are slowly coming forward with ideas on better ways to do things. We welcome this.
It’s time for a broad-based approach to ensure that county equipment and resources are not abused. Taxpayers’ interests must be served whenever their money is spent. Yet for this administration to adhere to the highest ethical standards, employees must understand their rights and obligations. You can’t follow the rules if the rulebook is incomplete. The Inspector General will be charged with helping us write that rulebook.
I look forward to working with you as we strive for a budget of balance. The budget before you meets that test: It comes within cap allowances, trims our tax rate, provides a healthy surplus, promotes new ideas and preserves essential programs to help those in need achieve self-sufficiency.
I ask for your consideration and look forward to a fruitful process.