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County Manager Unveils $276.5 Million Budget With Zero Tax Increase Over 196 Spending Plan

by Paul Peyton for The Westfield Leader, 01/23/97

Union County Manager Ann M. Baran unveiled the county's executive budget of $276.5 million last week which shows no increase in the county tax levy. Last year's executive budget of $274.1 million contained an increase of 1 percent (which was reduced to no tax hike in the budget adopted by the Republican majority).

Control of the board reverted to the Democrats on January 1 for the first time in six years. During the campaign, Democratic Freeholder candidates said the board should have actually delivered a tax cut last year.

Democratic Freeholder Finance Committee Chairman Walter D. McNeil, Jr. said last week that he would like the Freeholders to adopt the 1997 budget by the end of March. The budget will now go to the committee, which will make any changes it foresees before presenting it to the full board for introduction. A public hearing will then be set for public comments and a vote by the board.

In her report dated January 15 to the board, Mrs. Baran noted that since 1990, when she was appointed County Manager, the county's reliance on property taxes to pay for its budget has been reduced 17.9 percent. In fact, she estimates that by 1999, the county may actually witness a 2 percent tax reduction, based on current projections. The reliance on property taxes has dropped by 5 percent of the total budget over the past six years. The tax levy was 3.50 percent in 1994 and 2.99 percent in 1995.

A total of $152.5 million, or 55 percent of this year's proposed budget, would be supported by taxes. Other county revenue sources would chip in an additional $80.2 million (29 percent of the budget), with state and federal aid accounting for $23.7 million, or 9 percent of the total spending plan.

The largest percentage of the budget, $87.7 million, or 32 percent, is for health and welfare followed by general government, which accounts for $51.6 million, or 19 percent of the total budget.

A total of $22.3 million, 8 percent, is slated for maintenance and repair of roads and bridges, while $13.7 million is destined for education and recreation costs.

In an effort to save dollars, Mrs. Baran said the county has encouraged department managers to keep positions vacant "when immediate replacements are not critical" to the daily operation of their offices. Also, programs are now funded based on a careful analysis of program requirements and its level of priority." In the past, funding was based on the previous year's expenditures.

One area the county has seen a reduction in costs is the courts. Under the Judicial Unification Act, which became law in January of 1995, this cost has been reduced over the past three years. Funding for the county courts this year is slated at $8.6 million, a reduction of $2.2 million from last year's budget. This is the last year the courts will be included in the county budget, as the state will assume the complete costs in 1998 following approval of a referendum by voters state-wide several years ago.

Among the major capital projects which the Freeholders need to make final decisions on this year are the proposed Juvenile Detention Center, improvements to the Trap and Skeet facility in Cranford, construction of a new clubhouse at the Oak Ridge Golf Course in Clark, development of a driving range on the Galloping Hill Golf Course in Union, and a Magnet High School in Scotch Plains.

Last year the Democrats, which held four seats on the Freeholder board, managed to defeat the juvenile detention center project. They stated at the time that the estimated $45 million cost was too steep. They wanted the project scaled down with the proposed parking garage and cogeneration plant eliminated.

The existing detention facility was built in 1968 over a parking garage in Elizabeth and designed for 27 juveniles. The current population is 55 detainees. The county was directed last year by the State Department of Community Affairs to retrofit the existing facility to meet safety codes and other requirements.

Under the Republican majority in 1994, the board decided to build a new facility. The county purchased an existing building on Rahway Avenue in Elizabeth for the site of the new complex. The plan, developed with recommendations from various county departments, called for a facility with 72 beds.

The Public Safety Building, estimated at $10 million, has been proposed at the county's complex on North Avenue in Westfield. The new facility would house the county police headquarters, the Prosecutor's forensic crime laboratory, and the communications network for the county's 911 emergency system, along with the Office of Emergency Management.

The Magnet High School, for intense study of science, mathematics and technology, is proposed to open this fall, although action will be required by the Freeholder board. The school, to be located within the Vocational-Technical Schools in Scotch Plains, would accept up to 240 students. The initial freshman class would include 60 students.

In terms of the Oak Ridge clubhouse, Mrs. Baran has recommended that the board approve the final design and specifications for a new clubhouse. An architect was retained last year to develop conceptual plans for the facility. The board decided to "mothball" the existing clubhouse due to its historic significance.

She also has recommended that the board reach an accord on remediation plans for the Trap and Skeet facility at Lenape Park in Cranford. The renovation project calls for reconstruction of the existing field house with a large deck for field observation, nature study and other non-shooting recreational activities. Four existing fields will also be reconstructed in their current location.

The board will be asked to make a final decision on the selection of a conceptual design for the driving range at Galloping Hill. The proposed facility would feature a year round area consisting of 40 stalls with a new facility.

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TheWestfield Leader.
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