NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The Middlesex County Board of Freeholders adopted a $405.4 million budget while debating an effective future strategy for addressing economic hard times.

A proposal by County Administrator John A. Pulomena calling for priority-based budgeting was challenged by Freeholder H. James Polos, who advocated for zero-based budgeting.

The 2011 budget was approved by a vote of six-one and called for $320 million to be raised by taxes, adding $11 million to the tax levy, or just over 1 cent. Polos cast the lone negative vote.

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Salary and wages are down $7.57 million and operating expenses that the freeholders can control are flat, Pulomena said, but expenses are up over $15.89 million and revenue over the past three years is down over $30 million.

Staff cuts are expected to come from retirements and attrition as well as reorganization of departments.

“In 2011, the gross operating budget compared to 2010 is actually $828,000 less than it was in 2010,” Pulomena said at the board’s April 7 meeting. “Unfortunately, in 2011 and 2010 …, we saw further erosion of those revenues that are so critical to the day-to-day operations of Middlesex County to the tune of $12.2 million.

“Had it not been for the continued erosion of revenues, this year’s budget would have been flat. Because of the erosion of revenues, taxes were increased “a little less than a penny,” he said.

“We need to move to what I call a priority-based budgeting process so that we can lay out to the board of freeholders all the programs and services that we currently offer today,” he said. “They will often make the determination and set the policy on those programs and services that we will continue to provide. “

In a written statement, Freeholder Director Christopher D. Rofano supported the priority-based strategy, which he said, “motivates freeholders to take a critical look at the services and programs offered by the county in order to decide where tax dollars and resources should be allocated to help best serve the residents of Middlesex County.”

However, Polos argued for a zero-based system, by which every program and organization must be critically analyzed to determine its needs, costs and overall importance in order to effectively understand what the county needs to operate.

“You plan ahead, two years, three years, five years ahead,” Polos said. “You develop a long-term attrition plan. You work by it, it becomes your bible …, you figure out ways to reduce and cut without having to do it last minute. To me, it’s just the way to do business.”

Pulomena noted that over the last three years, the state has cut over $3 million in funding to the county’s educational facilities.

“At the end of the day, the driving force in the county budget over the last three years has been the loss in revenues of $30 million and the spiraling increase of mandated costs that the county has very little control over,” he said. “And I think what you see here is the fact that those things we’ve been able to get our hands around, we’ve done so.”

Polos disagreed, saying, “We have not done the right thing over the past three years to effectively combat against the increases that we’ve seen.

“It is true that we are in a very tough economic time,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that it isn’t something that just came across with a gust of wind to slap us in the face. We’ve been in tough economic times since 2008.”

This budget proposal is a result of poor management, he said.

“I can tell you that human resource management is about going beyond the envelop, outside of the borders, and bringing the intelligence to the table to help you make informed decisions, and we are reluctant, again, to do that,” he said.

In his closing remarks before the vote, Freeholder Deputy Director Ronald Rios accused Polos of making attacks against the county finance department as well as personal attacks against Pulomena.

“I take exception to those remarks,” Rios said. “They were disparaging remarks against Mr. Pulomena. I thought they were unprofessional, and to try to destroy his integrity and his character, I think is disrespectful, shameful, and just outright wrong.”