Conscious of the need to balance austerity with quality, Monmouth County Freeholders approve the county's 2017 budget. Following the March 23 vote at the County Library Eastern Branch in Shrewsbury, Freeholder Gary Rich said they'll get to work on the next spending plan in just a few months.

2017 Monmouth County Budget vote (Chris Scali, Townsquare Media)

Attendees at the public hearings in both libraries during the month got visual impressions of the spending plan, including pie charts, graphs and hard numbers, explaining the destination of each dollar.

“This is not something that we just do at the end of the year," Rich said. "We’re very careful to do good planning; we identify areas that we can do better. In some instances they get consolidated. That’s really the whole idea, that County Government is probably the most efficient.”

Parks & Recreation, and roads, are two priorities in 2017..

“Were very particular that those roads, a certain number of miles of those roads get paved every year.”

I asked Freeholder Gary Rich if Rumson Road would be paved this year. Rumson Road does have noticeable potholes that need to be looked at.

“Rumson Road, I believe, is [County Route] 520," he said. "We have over thousand lane miles of road. So we try to do about twenty miles every year. I am not sure if Rumson Road will be on that list this year.”

2017 Monmouth County Budget (Chris Scali, Townsquare Media)

Park maintenance occupies a $6,000,000 section of the spending plan, this year, the first in a five-year upgrade plan.

“The director of the park system came to us a few years ago. With the size of the parks, we have a lot of buildings; they haven’t been maintained on a regular basis," Rich said. "So the Freeholder Board agreed to provided $30 million over five years. That’s $6 million a year, to upkeep all of the buildings, especially because we have so many visitors."

It’s important that these buildings are in good shape, whether it's paving, fencing, all ancillaries that need upkeep.

The Board's Deputy Director, John Curley, said that the average household of today, just like the county, has an increasingly difficult struggle to keep finances balanced, a far cry from past years and decades when revenues flowed more easily.

“Basically a family of four today to even squeeze by, if you want to call it that,is over $74,000," Curley said. "That would be two young school aged children and parents”

As the Board's liaison to Human Services, Curley said he’s located he has over 18,000 food stamp cases in Monmouth County. He's instituting a food drive for the month of April. It will support the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, which Curley credited with doing a "phenomenal job" in taking care of those in need. He said they’re now able to meet with a lot of those needs, such as the housing area.

“We have a consortium of not-for-profits coming in, and they are developing almost four million dollars in federal funding. We’re going to be able to go out through their efforts also to lease and rent apartments to take care of the homeless.”

2017 Monmouth County Budget (Chris Scali, Townsquare Media) )

Curley also pointed out the attention that veterans receive in the 2017 plan. They have brought over $35 million dollars back to veterans. Some of them wouldn’t be able to get back a penny. I asked Curley how they budget to help our veterans. He succeeded in a mission he began six years ago - to divest Monmouth County of its nursing home ownerships, and sell the facilities.

“They were $55 million in the red, over budget," Curley remarked. "Now, the one analogy I can draw, is a Type 2 diabetic person who is overweight. They have high triglycerides and high cholesterol level.  They have trouble breathing. Once we sold those nursing homes that Type 2 diabetes cleared up.”

The cut that was made with the nursing homes gave Monmouth County officials plenty of wiggle room across the board, Curley said. They’re now generating more money than they’re actually utilizing, which potentially keeps surplus at the healthy level needed for its highly-favorable bond rating.

“So, even though we're taking money out of our savings account, we’re able to regenerate that and get it back in, so we have it," Curley said. "We’re working our way now to continue to cut, this year, $24.6 million in spending. Those spending cuts have brought is down to a flat budget.”

Curley says they did it without cutting services at all, spreading downsizing in full-time, seasonal and part-time workforce through all 63 departments.

“Probably in the last eight to nine years we’ve reduced the size of our workforce by 1,000 and that’s huge,” Curley said, adding that outsourcing is a valuable tool in this plan..

“When you outsource, obviously, you’re not paying the salaries, you’re not paying the pensions and you’re not paying the healthcare cost," Curley said. "That’s huge, and you saw that in the figures tonight, where those fixed costs have been reduced overall or, at least, kept very flat.”

At the same time, Curley said, the Board doesn't want to see its workers suddenly jobless. When a department undergoes downsizing or outsourcing, they move remaining employees other Monmouth County jobs.

“It’s a transformation that works out very well for them because they end up in other jobs that were still on the books that needed to be filled, but we just didn’t fill them from the outside. We filled them from the inside,” Curley said.

2017 Monmouth County Budget. (Photo Credit: Chris Scali)

The additional advantage, Curley said, is a lighter responsibility for the county in meeting its share of unemployment support for severed workers.

“Those unemployment costs become overwhelming," he said, "and there, again, part of those fixed costs that just naturally go up when you lay people off.”

Curley said that the Board tries to helpcitizens maintain county paychecks and, hopefully, pensions.

In order to keep the bond rating high, take advantage of shifting interest rates and minimize loan payback amounts, Curley said, the Finance Department recasts County bonds constantly. He said it saves county school districts and municipalities "mega-millions" each year.

When municipalities need to issue bonds to pay for projects, they are permitted to bond through the Monmouth County Improvement Authority, and get the MCIA's AAA bond rating behind them.

“That’s the main role of the Freeholders in any county, is to maintain that AAA bond rating," Curley said. "So the municipalities who don’t have that bond rating, and cannot borrow money at the extreme low interests rates, can utilize that improvement authority and save a ton of money.”

The Board's first meeting under the new spending plan is April 13, in the Hall of Records in Freehold.

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