HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders have called for restoring the $2.6 million in state education funding that 20 Hunterdon County districts are scheduled to lose as outlined in the State of New Jersey’s budget – and these concerns were recently amplified by other issues the county’s governing body takes with this year’s New Jersey State budget of $32.7 billion signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy Sept. 29.
Over the past seven weeks, Freeholder John Lanza has lambasted Murphy and state-level representatives because of the dramatic school aid cuts, coming for a second straight year, and despite current financial pitfalls he and the other freeholders have pointed to with the state budget this year.
Lanza updated his critique of state budgeting to reflect the $4.5 billion in debt created by issuing bonds. He directed residents’ attention to the online advocacy tool for parents and community members to push back against this state budget and lobby the governor to restore the funding.
In September, the county organized a webpage dedicated to the “Emergency Lobbying Action Plan,” with resources available with one click online, and residents swiftly directed their message to legislators representing Hunterdon County to restore education aid for local school districts. The website contains the email addresses and twitter accounts of the state legislators representing Hunterdon County.
Lanza continued the dissection of the state’s budget at the Oct. 6 meeting.
“The State Legislature’s leaders and the governor ignored the pleas of Hunterdon County’s residents, teachers, parents and taxpayers as we begged them not to cut local schools’ aid by $2.6 million,” he said. “We just really need to understand Trenton’s priorities here. They did come up with $4 million, 150 percent of what was cut from 20 Hunterdon County school districts, for Essex County’s ‘First Tee’ program, which teaches children to play golf. They’ve allocated $15 million to clean up debris in Camden. There’s money for people who do not pick up their trash in Camden, but there’s less money for your schools.”
Lanza thanked four Republicans – State Sen. Kip Bateman and Mike Doherty as well as Assemblymen John DiMaio and Erik Peterson who all represent portions of the county, “for voting against the state budget on Hunterdon County’s behalf and supporting our county’s schools.”
Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren called the state budget a stark contrast to what the county has accomplished with the board’s stern fiscal management and budgeting. The county’s recent capital improvement budget was approved, while maintaining zero-debt as the standard in Hunterdon for the sixth straight year.
“Debt service has been eliminated as a budget appropriation in the Hunterdon County budget, and Hunterdon’s taxpayers continue to benefit from that,” Van Doren said.
“The governor wanted to borrow $4 billion to make ends meet in the budget, and the state legislature's answer was to borrow $4.5 billion and they based that on the pandemic,” he said. “Then they approved $700 million in tax increases, now it turns out the additional borrowed funds are going to repay state costs, not COVID-19 response and related costs. Again there’s no funds allocated to Hunterdon County schools and there is the state’s failure to provide the 911 center funding that’s rightfully due.”
Freeholder J. Matthew Holt spoke at length about this key dedicated tax line missing for an allocation from the State of New Jersey’s budget to rural Hunterdon, where 911 call centers play a key role in public safety and emergency response. The County Call Center has handled 105,794 emergency calls through the first nine months of this year and stats from calls received and responded to during Isaias were presented.
“With the activity surrounding the tropical storm at the beginning of August, within a 24-hour period our county call center received 1,225 calls, about 1 percent of the yearly total right then,” he said. “In one peak hour of between noon and 1 p.m. on Aug. 4, they received 285 calls, or basically six 911 calls per minute.”
Holt explained that this operation should be receiving state funding, but there’s a void for this dedicated call center support in the state budget and its tax line item, "911 Telephone Tax,” which is accounted for as revenue. In the recently-signed budget, no tax money – $120 million per year – goes to 911 call centers.
Holt said he’s not a fan of taxes, but the understanding of every taxpayer is that paying taxes is a necessary function of society when there are services – including critical, emergency service such as a 911 call center operations – that come with the expense. He said Hunterdon County will continue to commit to its 911 call centers and ensure that operations are funded.
Holt berated the “audacity” of the State Legislature’s choice to add the $500 million to the $4 billion in borrowing, as well as the $700 million tax hike “in the midst of this economy and a shutdown by the state.”
“In this county, our taxpayers continue to pay and supply the state with funds, and here in the county, we’re asked to continue funding our 911 call center as it is critical to the operation of our county and the safety of our people,” he said. “Despite the fact the state reels in $120 million annually for this, it is supposed to be dedicated to all 911 call centers throughout New Jersey. NJAC has helped us in the fight for this funding and through successful lobbying, this year Gov. Murphy included $5 million in his proposed budget for 911 centers of the $120 collected in taxpayer funds. But when the legislature passed the state budget, they decided to take the $5 million out. It doesn’t make sense, it’s illogical and this isn’t what taxpayers agreed to, nor what the State of New Jersey agreed to when it decided to accept that money in the Telephone Tax.”