SPARTA, NJ - Sparta Township Council members were dealt a surprise at their last meeting on Tuesday, April 25 from the Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders. In a press release distributed late Tuesday, Freeholders announced they intended to restructure the county taxes, eliminating the Sussex County Health Tax, folding it into the general County Tax.
The shuffling of budget categories appears to be an effort to thwart Sparta's withdrawal from the county health plan.
The Sparta Township Council, township manager and others have been working on the initiative to withdraw from the Sussex County Health department for more than a year. According to Sparta Township Manager William Close, Sparta had extended the deadline of the township’s withdrawal from the County Health Department to the end of May.
"This action was confirmed with the new [Sussex] County Administrator to ensure that there was no interruption in service to the residents and businesses of the township," Close said.
"The township has made multiple attempts to get a meeting together with the county over the past seven weeks, but for whatever reason it never occurred," Close said. Sparta expected the freeholders to "gather information to present to the municipality" explaining the services Sparta received and the costs Sparta incurred.
According to the freeholders’ statement they initially planned to eliminate the County Health Tax over two years. They anticipated taking that extended time to implement the change that would incorporate the revenue as well as the expenses into the general County Tax Levy. The state, however, required the change be done in one year, according to the freeholders.
Therein lies the problem for Sparta. The change by the freeholders potentially eliminates the savings derived from withdrawing from the county health department. Rather, if Sparta township went ahead with the planned divorce from the County Health Services, the taxpayers of Sparta would face additional taxes to cover the plan to reinstate an autonomous Sparta Health Services department.
The county’s Introduced 2017 Budget "contemplated the partial dissolution of the Heath Tax accounting for mandated services... under the County Environmental Health Act."
The freeholders said they had been advised by the New Jersey State Division of Local Government Services that they would be required to make the change in one year, not two. What was anticipated to be dealt with in the 2017 and 2018 budgets was pushed ahead by the freeholders to take effect within a matter of days.
The freeholders said the dissolution of the County Health Tax would "result in no net change to the tax payer as the general County Tax and the County Health Tax [previously] billed separately would now be billed as one."
Mayor Gil Gibbs presented a statement at the Freeholders Budget Hearing on April 26 on behalf of the Township Council. He said the notification of abolishing the Health Tax was not in keeping with the notification sent by acting county administrator Ron Tappan dated March 17 that read, in part, in an effort to better serve all municipalities they would be isolating the cost of Title 26 services.
Gibbs said, “Now you are seeking to eliminate an identifiable, quantifiable budget expense item. This would further obscure how the health tax is being reported relative to the services received for each municipality.”
He wanted to know “what changed in the past four weeks that led to this significant change.”
Gibbs said Sparta had met with the freeholders to get an understanding of the health services costs so they could understand the options for their residents.
“You are unilaterally changing the budget without meeting with Sparta or providing information previously requested,” to allow for a thoughtful decision.
Sparta had been working on a hybrid solution to provide health services according to the township Chief Financial Officer Sam Rome in a previous interview. Some of the services were due to be contracted out while others were to be handled by Sparta employees.
Seeking to gain more oversight of the services, Sparta anticipated having better control of costs as well as the number and quality of services provided Rome explained.
“Sparta started looking at performance and the cost of health services,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs asked to have the proposal tabled and have the freeholders meet with each municipality before the change is implemented. “These actions seem to be preemptive in nature,” Gibbs said. He said this change “precludes accountability and competition,”
Deputy Mayor Josh Hertzberg commented at the end of the meeting. He began by saying he took exception to a statement made by Freeholder Phil Crabb that Sparta’s resolution [to withdraw] was a shot across the bow. “That’s not fair.”
Crabb said it was “an extraordinary action.”
Hertzberg said it was not extraordinary because Sparta was working with the county for two years. “Frankly, the only reason we waited [to withdraw] was because Mr. Graham and Mrs. Petillo implored us to give them four weeks to present a proposal to get us to stay. It’s been seven weeks,” and Sparta had not gotten the response promised.
Graham said that was “not true that calls had been made to Manager Close and he was away and then there were other things.” He went on to say he felt Sparta’s resolution was a good thing because it made them take a look at what was going on with the County Health Services. He said he did not know and “would not have put up with it either.”
Both men admitted things had gotten better with regard to health services in Sparta. Hertzberg said it had gotten better because of the potential competition. “The free market allowed for you to say we better get a better product.”
“If you had gotten back to us with the information it would have been better,” than the notification of the budget change. It would have allowed Sparta to make a choice and not be forced to stay, Hertzberg said.
There was additional back and forth about the timing of the county’s announcement of the “single tier” tax system. They also discussed the lack of adequate communication having led to a misunderstanding of the services that were in fact being delivered.
Petillo said, “You can still leave.”
Graham said, “Even if you’re all in [the county health services] we know what the numbers are now.”
"We have reached out to the County Administrator looking to schedule another meeting between representatives of the Freeholder Board and the Council to discuss the situation, including the new proposal and anticipate it occurring within the next 10 days," Close said. "Hopefully, this discussion will provide the information necessary for the Council to make a decision on whether to remain with the County as its health services provider or choose another provider."
The video of Sussex County Freeholder April 26 meeting: Gibbs’ comments begin at 29:54, Hertzberg’s comments begin at 2:20:00