The structure and role of county government in New Jersey

Michael Hill, Correspondent | February 25, 2019 | Politics

New Jersey is the only state with county freeholders — in other states they’re county commissioners. In New Jersey, all 21 counties have boards of freeholders. It’s a centuries-old English term for someone who owned land without debt. In the American colonies, only freeholders could hold public office.

“The number one question we get asked is ‘what is a freeholder?’ And I always say a freehold is — as a municipality has a town council, a county has a county council, and that’s what the board of freeholders are,” said Amy Gatto, chairwoman of the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders.

In Atlantic County, voters elect a nine-member board of freeholders to staggered three-year terms. Five of them from equally populated districts and four of them from across the county.

Freeholders are the legislative branch of county government. They make laws, vote on resolutions, approve or reject the spending, budget and other proposals of the executive branch or the county executive.

“We work hand in hand on issues. Of course, there’s going to be things that we don’t always agree on, but the key is working together. Usually, we all have the same goal, the place we want to be at the end. It’s just a matter of how do we get there,” said Gatto.

“What they have is negative power. They can say no. Basically, we propose, they dispose,” said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson.

Levinson is sort of the ‘president’ of the county.

“We run the county from soup to nuts. We have 375 miles of roads, 175 bridges, we have our community college, we have the county’s utilities authority, we run day to day activities. Things are getting better right now because of our frugality through the years. We were able to finance Stockton University coming to Atlantic City. Now, Stockton University is a state university. The state was in no position to finance it. We wanted them here, we knew that this is something that is extremely important for the county and for Atlantic City so we put the full faith and credit of the county behind it. And the state of New Jersey couldn’t finance it because during the Christie years the bond rating was downgraded 11 times — which by the way is a United States record,” Levinson said.

New Jersey counties have three forms of government:

  • Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Mercer Counties have the freeholder-executive form.
  • Union County’s freeholders select a manager who can veto some of their actions.
  • The other 15 counties have freeholders — 3 to 9 members depending on population. They appoint a chair or president, and the freeholders themselves take on the executive branch duties, such as running different departments.

“There’s a movement away from that model of management because it diffuses responsibility. The public likes to have an executive — good, bad or indifferent. There’s a body they can yell at, they can applaud, someone accountable,” said Alan Zalkind, executive director of the Center for Government Services at Rutgers University. “And also, generally, that executive tends to know a lot more about government as a whole than a freeholder who knows something about a department but may not know a whole lot more about another department.”

The state constitution mandates county voters elect surrogates, sheriffs, clerks, and registers of deeds and mortgages. Counties — not municipalities — handle applications for public assistance and much more.

“We, as a county government, provide services to those who can’t help themselves. That’s what we’re here for — to help them. And we have so many services that people aren’t aware of, that they don’t take advantage of and we’re here to help. That’s the message I’m always trying to get out to people when I’m talking to them about what exactly do we do,” Gatto said.

But some critics have urged eliminating county governments altogether because they believe cities and the state can deliver services at a savings to taxpayers. The New Jersey Association of Counties says just the opposite.

“County governments are playing a growing role in the everyday lives of New Jersey residents. So, to me, I think we’re at a critical point where county government is strong because of legislation 50 years ago, because of the 2 percent cap restriction that was imposed back in 2010 on all local governments which is making it difficult for municipalities and school districts, more so than counties, to manage their affairs. And then in 2017, another law that placed a cap within the cap on these independent, autonomous agencies, whether it’s our constitutional officers, prosecutors, some of these independent boards of which are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. So I think county government is very well positioned to move forward as a regional form of government to deliver these service in a more effective and efficient manner,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties.

County governments are taking on more municipal duties — from tax assessing in Gloucester, to 911 services across the state, to policing in Camden.