Calls for Two Percent Tax Increase Pending Uncertain Federal Grant Money
FEBRUARY 12, 2016: PRESS RELEASE FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes presented his 2016 budget at tonight's meeting of the Mercer County Board of Freeholders. Claiming the budget was one of "austerity and balance" and that it was under the state-mandated two percent cap, Hughes said that the $302 million budget would lead to a two percent property tax increase.
Hughes, who during his presentation announced plans to greatly reduce the staff at the Mercer County Correction Center, attributed half the budget to public safety — particularly the prosecutor's office, the sheriff's office, the police academy and corrections.
Brian Mitchell, the President of the Superior Officers union who was on hand to oppose the proposed plan, which would transfer the bulk of county inmates to a facility in Hudson County, claimed that much of the expense at the corrections facility is due to understaffing.
"These costs were called 'exorbitant' in an article I saw and the biggest reason for this is overtime," said Mitchell. "There have been no new hires in two years and we're 40 officers short. The other day there were 21 officers working on overtime with one call out. We're short eight or nine supervisors."
Ray Peterson of the corrections officers' union, PBA 167, said that the corrections department could actually generate savings if Mercer made better use of the Sheriff's Labor Assistance Program (SLAP) — a program in which low risk offenders provide services in the community while gaining work experience.
While Hughes presented the proposal as something that would reduce costs and provide better services for the inmates, attorney Stuart Alterman, who represents PBA 167, felt that that might not be the case.
"The programs in Hudson County are not the same as claimed by Brian Hughes," Alterman said. "Entire impact needs to be reviewed and make sure we are part of the deliberative process."
Among the positive developments highlighted by Hughes was the announced unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, which he attributed partly to 6,000 seasonal and 4,000 permanent jobs added by the Amazon.com facility in Robbinsville.
He also highlighted the investments in the new terminal at Mercer-Trenton Airport and the fact that the airport handled one million passengers in 2015 though he did not mention any revenue or expense figures.
The budget also benefited from reductions in the cost of health benefits and $648,000 in savings in gasoline. Hughes also called for a $1.9 million increase to combat addiction and provide other human services.
Two areas of concern to the audience on hand were that to keep the budget under cap the administration used $9.9 million of its nearly $20 million surplus and included federal grants which may not available.
Ewing resident Kelly Ottobre inquired as to why, if the budget was under cap, the freeholders were discussing laying off many of the correction employees in the room.
Freeholder Anthony Carabelli informed her that the changes would appear in future budgets.
County administrator Andrew Mair then informed the audience that the county was "not prepared to give specific information tonight."
Ottobre pointed out that federal grants were obligated to be allocated by September 30th.
Freeholder Andrew Koontz asked if it was possible to determine the specific tax assessments per municipality but was told by Hughes that that information was not yet available.
One Hamilton resident voiced his disappointment that the new budget would lead to an increase, and not decrease in taxes.
"A tax cut is sorely needed," he said, who pointed to the inequity of the county budget. "Hamilton pays over $50 million to the county. No arena, no ball field, no golf course and no riding academy."
The freeholders voted unanimously, 6-0, to ratify both the cap proposal and the proposed budget as part of a package of 22 resolutions. Freeholder Samuel Frisby was absent and did not vote.