Lawmakers Aim to Help County Governments Raise More Money, Spend Less

John Reitmeyer | September 28, 2015 | Politics
Package of bills would open up new revenue streams, ease regulations on the spending side of the ledger

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and other lawmakers offer first look at package of bills to help county governments to earn more money and spend less.
Earlier this year a Republican lawmaker from Bergen County who said he was frustrated with New Jersey’s sky-high property-tax bills proposed legislation to do away the state’s 21 county governments. But instead of shutting them down altogether, a bipartisan group of lawmakers says the counties just need more help from the state.

So after meeting with county officials for much of the summer, the lawmakers say they’re now moving forward with a package of legislation that seeks to open up new revenue streams for county governments that aren’t tied to property taxes. Other proposed bills also aim to change regulations to ease pressure on the spending side of the ledger.

The new revenue streams would come from bills authorizing county governments to levy a 1 percent tax on hotel rooms and to establish a special $5 Superior Court security fee. A bill extending a 2 percent cap on property tax increases to independent entities and offices that rely on funding from county taxpayers is among those that seek to cut costs for the county governments.

The lawmakers, led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), are putting the bill package forward at a time when government spending at all levels has come under the microscope in New Jersey, thanks to property-tax bills that are at an all-time high despite the 2 percent cap, which went into effect in 2011.

For example, the average property tax bill in New Jersey last year went up by more than $170 to $8,161, with school boards, municipalities, and county governments all taking a share. And in some counties the burden is much higher, including $10,896 in Essex County and $10,826 in Bergen County, according to data compiled by the state Department of Community Affairs.

In February, freshman Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) proposed a measure that took out his frustration on those high property-tax bills by calling for county governments to eventually be dissolved. The bill got a lot of attention at the time, but it has yet to advance in the Legislature.

But Sweeney, a former county freeholder himself, said he fully understands the predicament the county officials are in when it comes to property taxes. Even as the 2 percent cap has taken hold, county governments are assuming more costly responsibilities — sometimes because the state has forced them to.

“These are bills that we actually think will make a difference,” Sweeney said during a news conference held in the State House to unveil the bill package late last week. “This is about county government and obviously I have a soft spot for county government, coming from it.”

All six bills have the blessing of the New Jersey Association of Counties, a group that advocates for county governments at the state level. John Donnadio, the organization’s executive director, stressed that work on the bills was done over the summer “in a nonpartisan capacity.” And the goal for all six, he said, is “saving taxpayer dollars.”

The problem for counties, he explained, is they are dealing not only with the 2 percent cap, but also a depressed ratable base as a result of the recent recession. Specific mandates from the state are also a big factor, Donnadio said.

In Essex County, where property tax bills are the highest in the state, longtime county Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said the mandates dictate a full 65 percent of his county government’s budget.

“It’s about recurring revenue,” DiVincenzo said. “These (bills) will have a major impact.”

One of those mandates is a new requirement that courtrooms in all 21 county courthouses in New Jersey, for the Superior Court’s criminal and civil divisions, be protected by trained county sheriff’s officers. The bill seeking the new $5 court fee would direct revenue raised from the fee into a dedicated “Court Security Enhancement Fund.” Another bill in the package would also seek to address the court security issue by allowing county sheriff’s departments to use trained part-time officers to bolster their court-security forces.

Middlesex County Sheriff Mildred Scott praised the two proposals, saying they are much-needed in light of the state’s requirements.

“We have a mandate by the state that we must have security in all the civil courtrooms,” she said. “I don’t have the manpower to do that.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the sponsor of the other bill that would raise revenue for county governments by allowing them to levy a new 1 percent tax on hotel rooms, recognized some might be less than happy at the thought of a new tax. But she defended it by saying the revenue would most likely come only from “out-of-state residents,” which would further ease the burden on county property owners, said Weinberg (D-Bergen).

On the spending side, a bill sponsored by Sweeney and Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) that seeks to extend the 2 percent cap to independent agencies that are funded by the counties but right now don’t have abide by the cap when it comes to their spending was pitched as a matter of fairness.

Another measure, sponsored by Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), seeks to address a specific issue that occurred in Passaic County earlier this year when annual raises were recently given out by the county’s independent superintendent of elections that were as high as 13 percent.

The county Board of Freeholders sued to block the increases, but failed in court. The bill makes clear that superintendent of elections offices in New Jersey have to follow county administrative code requirements for budgeting, accounting and purchasing, among other items.

“I’m extremely thankful for this entire package of legislation,” Passaic County Freeholder Theodore Best said.

Another bill sponsored by O’Toole and Sweeney seeks to give counties more information about tax abatements known as “payments in lieu of taxes.” Municipalities can strike such deals with developers in an effort to generate economic activity, giving them certainty when it comes to future property tax bills. But the agreements are often negotiated by just the developer and municipal officials, leaving county administrators in the dark about their impact.

Under the O’Toole-Sweeney bill, municipal officials would be forced to file a tax-abatement agreement with county government finance officers and counsel’s offices.

Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said his organization has some technical concerns with the bill, but they would likely be worked out. And the others, he said, should get support from local officials.

Sweeney, meanwhile, is looked at by many to be in the midst of gathering support from other Democrats for a likely run for governor since current Gov. Chris Christie’s second term is expiring in early 2018. But Robert Singer, a veteran Republican senator from Ocean County — where the GOP is firmly in control of county government — gave Sweeney credit for taking input from officials there as well.

“He listened,” Singer said. “It is a bold move what he’s doing.”

Auth, the Bergen County lawmaker who’s seeking to abolish county government, did not return a phone call on Friday.