HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - The Hunterdon County Freeholder Board introduced the 2020 budget, with its revenues and appropriations totaling $89,348,220.

Hunterdon County CFO Janet Previte noted that the 2020 county tax rate will be 31.5 cents per $100 of assessed value to properties, the rate holding steady for a third straight budget year.

The budget includes over $10.5 million for county capital projects and expenditures, maintaining an allocation equal to the 2019 budget. There is no debt service budgeted in 2020, as Hunterdon County has zero debt, and it funds all capital expenditures “on a pay as we go basis,” Previte said.

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As noted during freeholder meetings in late March, a one-time $100,000 account is dedicated within the freeholder board budget where it can be closely monitored. Due to COVID-19, emergency allocations were also added into budget accounts for the Hunterdon County Office of Emergency Management and the county health department.

The public hearing for the 2020 Hunterdon County budget will be held at the May 19 meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. For now, the board is preparing to hold that meeting remotely via conference call with a call-in feature for the public, as each of its past three meetings have been held this way.

There will be instructions for residents’ participation posted on the county’s website.

According to Previte, the 2020 budget includes $11.33 million from the fund balance as a revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as some fees collected as county revenues will be decreasing as opposed to prior years.

“We projected conservative revenues within this budget, using fund balance to fill that gap,” she said. “I would like to thank the executive team and all the division heads who helped bring the budget together. They will be the true drivers of success in the eight months to come, particularly with the uncertainties that we face at this time.”

Leading budget costs include $12.1 million for group health insurance; $1.626 million for other insurance costs; $8.251 million in deferred capital charges; $4.347 million towards Raritan Valley Community College; $3.4 million for county sheriff staff salaries and wages and $2.275 million for its operating expenses; $4.612 million for salaries and wages in the county prosecutor’s division and $413,825 in its operating expenses; $807,000 for county buildings and maintenance salaries and wages, and $995,400 for its operating expenses; and $3.037 million in the year’s pension payments for Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS).

Freeholder J. Matthew Holt has served on the board since 2007 and on the freeholders’ budget committee for many years. With the new budget’s adoption, he lauded the long-term viability of sound financial planning at the county level.

Holt noted that the 2020 budget is $10 million less than the county’s FY 2006 budget of $100 million, and has dropped lower than the county’s 2011 budget.

“We’ve had many challenges over the years, but I am not sure we have ever faced a year like this, certainly not as we were already three-quarters of the way through the budget process when COVID-19 and its effects expanded into our region,” he said. “If I have one takeaway, it’s that we value our economy and we value our residents and our businesses. Every one of us pays taxes in this county and the tax rate flat at 31.5 cents per $100 is the same as the past two years. That is a remarkable achievement.”

“I have so much respect for CFO Previte, her team and just for the tone she sets on how the county operates,” he added. “Years ago, this board started building a team that bought into the responsibilities we had to taxpayers to try to control the budget. They bought in, we have worked on it for several years and this simply works. It is a policy we put in place about being as tight as we could and as strenuous as we could. If we took the 2006 budget of $100 million and simply went up to the 2 percent tax levy cap that so many counties do, Hunterdon’s budget proposed today would be $130 million instead of $89 million.”

Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren served on the board’s budget committee with Holt, and he called the experience “a baptism,” despite his 21 years of working on the municipal level budgets on his Tewksbury Township Committee. Van Doren thanked Previte for her outstanding work in guiding the budget formulation process through the difficult past six weeks of the many COVID-19 impacts.

He said the root of good fiscal planning is controlling costs, which begins with “knowing where the spending is.”

“Keeping the county tax rate frozen at the 2018 level again this year is a key part of the county’s plans for our economic recovery,” he said. “With all else that’s going on, our business and residential taxpayers need this. Efforts in holding the county tax rate flat over the past two years comes from the conservative, business-like philosophy this freeholder board has been engaged in for many years. We have a dedicated financial control system adhered to by all county units and overseen by the finance department. We also have a framework of how mandated and necessary services of county government can be delivered efficiently. While holding the tax rate flat for the second consecutive year, the budget encompasses increases in costs to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I thank all our department heads for their willingness to reexamine initial budget proposals to find savings within their units in order to accommodate increases needed for emergency response.”

Freeholder John Lanza thanked his two colleagues on the budget committee and said the 2020 budget keeping the tax rate frozen is the result of a long-term approach over the years since he came on the board, in January 2014, when Hunterdon had debt service to pay.

“That year, the board reduced the budget and set the tone for fiscal frugality that has guided us over the past six-plus years,” he said. “Over the years, the freeholders’ budget process has been challenged with stagnant property values, more egregious unfunded state mandates, difficult labor negotiations and now escalated COVID-19 response costs. This budget is still actually lower than the 2011 budget put forward nine years ago, and no other county in New Jersey can make that claim today.”