Contact: Julie Willmot
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PROPOSED $278.4 MILLION BUDGET INCLUDES NO INCREASE IN TAX RATE

TRENTON, N.J. -Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes delivered his Administration's annual proposed budget last night, a $278.4 million spending plan that seeks to check non-essential spending as the County tightens its belt.

The proposed budget, which will now be delivered to the Board of Chosen Freeholders for its review, does not raise the County tax rate.

"More than any other year since I took office, this budget is a reflection of what every New Jersey taxpayer feels nearly every day-that the cost of living has outpaced our incomes," said Hughes as he opened his address to the freeholder board and a sizable crowd Feb. 13 at the County's McDade Administration Building.

The County tax rate is expected to hold steady at .43 per $100 of assessed property value, the same rate as last year, but most residents will face a tax increase once equalization takes place. A resident's tax rate will rise or fall depending on his or her municipality once the tax rate is equalized. County taxes are equalized to reflect the difference between municipal property assessments and property market values, meaning the actual rate many property owners are charged will increase.

The fiscal year 2008-2009 budget introduced by Hughes last night is approximately $9 million more than last year's budget. The bulk of the increase is due to costs that are beyond the County's control, Hughes said, such as a $4 million increase in pension costs.

Other items, such as rising fuel costs and contractual payments, are expenditures regional governments are grappling with across the country. Approximately 88 percent of the total increase from the $267.5 million budget approved in 2006 is represented by increases in basic wages, and pension and health benefits.

Hughes said in order to combat these costs, the County must look inward and make tough decisions. Among them, he said, are deciding whether to fill positions vacated by retirements and combining services to save money.

"We have to do everything we can to run a tight ship," Hughes told the freeholders. "We must look for ways to streamline services and take a hard look at some of these positions."

Hughes called the proposed budget responsible and fiscally sound, although he acknowledged there may be criticism for limited funding for new programs. Still, the County Executive said he was pleased with the progress that had been made in Mercer during the past several years.

He cited improvements to County parks, the creation of Mercer EYES, a job and mentoring program for County teens, and the establishment of the Mercer Police Academy as signs of progress in 2007. Funding for new initiatives is not a reality in 2008, Hughes said, a trend that may continue into 2009 and 2010 as costs continue to rise in a struggling economy. To offset the limited funding, the County is seeking more than $8 million in grants this year, the same amount it successfully obtained in 2007, Hughes said.

Hughes warned the 2008-2009 proposed budget is likely the first of several tight budgets. For example, the 2009-2010 budget is expected to include an additional $12 million in costs that are inescapable, such as debt service, inflation, health care benefits, and energy.

These expenses, combined with Mercer County's mandated construction of a new courthouse building in Trenton, are a storm on the horizon, Hughes said.

"Because of our fiscally responsible way of living in years prior, we will be able to weather this storm. But we've got to be aware that it will not only be 2008 that brings us challenges, but well beyond," he said.