The Sussex County Board of County Commissioners are scheduled to adopt the 2021 budget at their Wednesday, April 28 meeting; and among the budget’s accolades, is a decreased budget of 1.9% or approximately $2 million from 2020, the lowest tax levy increase in six years and one of the lowest tax levy increases over the past 15 years.
“We actually came in 1.91% under our budget from last year, a little over $2 million under, which honestly was quite a feat based upon the circumstances with coronavirus,” Commissioner Director Dawn Fantasia commented during a radio interview with WRNJ that aired on March 29.
The County of Sussex, in spite of the coronavirus funding challenges, which included having been one of the few New Jersey counties that did not receive federal CARES funding, was still able to maintain its debt repayment plan, Fantasia said, with a $500,000 payment in 2020, with the payment plan for $500,000 each year.
Fantasia said when she became a member of the board, she and her then running mate, Joshua Hertzberg, who decided to return to the Sparta Township Council, were “hell bent on reducing debt” and increasing the debt payment. As part of that, the Board was able to migrate from the previous 30-year debt reduction plan.
“When everything happened with the pandemic, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this [the debt repayment plan] is going to go right out the window, there’s no way we are going to be able to do this, this year, and maintain any level of reduction of this crippling debt,’ and we were able to,” Fantasia recalled. “We did not deviate from that plan, so we are on schedule, even this year.”
The budget, Fantasia continued during her interview, was trimmed to $115.1 million, with cost-saving strategies, such as a new union contract for the county’s public employees. “We were able this year to negotiate the CWA contract with our employees, and negotiate a new healthcare plan, that offers the same levels of benefits, but ended up saving the county close to $1 million,” Fantasia said.
One of the most monumental refinancing projects for the commissioners in 2020 was the solar project for $300,000 savings each year, a debt the Commissioners inherited from a past Board.
“Payments went up for pensions this year, as per the state, also our payment to the state for state mental health facilities, they increased drastically, and we had to pay that as well,” Fantasia additionally said during her WRNJ interview.
Among the new spending for 2021, is the county’s hiring of an epidemiologist for its Division of Health and additional staff with the county’s engineering department, to boost the county’s grant application efforts.
During the Commissioners’ March 24 meeting, Fantasia described the budget creation as a “mammoth task,” in the midst of the pandemic, because “there were so many unknowns,” especially with finally receiving the funding in August from the state to take care of COVID expenses. She complimented the county staff for their diligence in working on the budget to reallocate funds, describing the county professionals as individuals who “don’t stop working until they find a solution.”
The Commissioners and Administrator Greg Poff presented the annual budget for its first reading at their meeting on March 24, with Poff thanking the commissioners for their assistance with it. Poff broke down each tax dollar, with 22 cents for capital, debt and statutory expenditures; 20 cents for public safety, such as the Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s Offices; 18 cents for insurance; 12 cents for public works; 11 for education, including Sussex County Community College and Sussex County Technical School; 10 cents for general government expenses; 5 cents for health and welfare; and 2 cents for utilities and common expenses.
“I think the budget’s in a good place,” Commissioner Chris Carney commented, who was recently appointed to the board in Hertzberg’s former seat.
Carney said with the pandemic, costs overall have been elevated, but he complimented the county’s staff in working within these circumstances on their financial planning. “2020 was truly a year of unprecedented occurrences, I don’t even like to reflect on them,” said Commissioner Sylvia Petillo. “But I am so pleased that we have been able, even in the midst of all of that, to deliver a budget increase under 1%; and that budget keeps all of our services and all of our resources in place when our residents and our businesses need them most.” Commissioner Herbert Yardley thanked all of the commissioners working on the budget, as well as the staff in the county’s finance department, during such a tough year, initially without funding to fight COVID.
“I truly don’t believe that any budget is perfect, but this one given the year, the situation and the environment, it’s rooted in financial reality,” said Commissioner Deputy Director Anthony Fasano.
Fasano also thanked the staff and said, “It [the budget] commits ourselves to financial responsibility, while balancing the needs and providing for the needs of Sussex County and our residents.”
To view the presentation of the 2021 budget, visit: www.sussex.nj.us/uppages/2021 BUDGET PRESENTATION.PDF.
To listen to the presentation of Sussex County’s budget for first reading:
To listen to Fantasia’s WRNJ interview pertaining to the 2021 Sussex County Budget, visit: www.facebook.com/FreeholderFantasia/posts/2827853797480864.