It is my great pleasure to once again present our annual Atlantic County budget and to provide you with a brief report on the state of Atlantic County government.
Atlantic County remains in extraordinarily good financial condition. The facts speak for themselves. Our spending is under control. Our increases in the amount raised by taxation are well below the state average. We are one of the top counties in the state in this regard. Our indebtedness is far below what one would expect for a growing county of our size. Our tax rate continues to decline to record lows.
We have had a perfect audit for seven years in a row. Three different auditing firms have reviewed our finances in depth. Each reported no material weaknesses or findings. Not many other local governments can make this claim. In their final report, our outgoing auditor praised our practices of maintaining low debt, proactive financial controls and prudent budgetary policies. Atlantic County's fiscal practices are so sound that we are often used as a model for other local governments.
Compiling a 2007 budget is a challenging task. All levels of government, state, county and municipal, confront the same pressures from rising costs and the need to provide essential services. One only has to look at the major fiscal crisis the state of New Jersey has confronted annually to glimpse the magnitude of this problem.
However, Atlantic County is in a much better position to deal with such challenges. We benefit from the proactive fiscal and personnel policies we have implemented over the years. We benefit from an experienced and capable management staff. Their ability assisted us greatly last year as we integrated Atlantic City's General Assistance Welfare Program and Weights and Measures responsibilities into county government. County government now provides these services for all our 23 municipalities.
The 2007 Atlantic County Budget that I present today is for $169,005,955.15, an increase of only 3.58% and less than the rate of inflation. The amount we will raise by taxation is less than the 4% cap on property taxes sought by Governor Corzine for future years. However, in Atlantic County we are doing it now. Overall, property taxes increase an average of 7% a year in New Jersey.
We project the Equalized County Tax Rate for the coming year to be 24.19 cents, a decrease of .05 cents from last year. This, incidentally, is the lowest tax rate on record. When I assumed office in 2000, our County Tax Rate was 43.5 cents. It is now 24 cents, a decrease of 45%. I am proud of what we have accomplished for our citizens by working together.
This year, for the sake of illustration, a home in Atlantic County assessed at $100,000, with an equalized tax rate of .2419 cents, will pay $50 less in county taxes than last year.
Of the $5.8 million dollar increase in this year's total budget, $2.9 million will be offset by increased revenues and not paid by taxation. Nearly 75% of the increase, $4,325,029 is directly related to Public Safety. This includes the salaries and operational expenses for the Sheriff, Prosecutor, Jail, Medical Examiner, Emergency Management and the Animal Shelter.
Three factors drive this increase. The state has reduced the amount of homeland security funds Atlantic County receives, forcing us to make up the difference. The number of inmates in the county justice facility has increased by 250 to 300 inmates daily. The Administrative Office of the Courts has mandated additional court security measures.
Nearly $1 million is attributable to increases in major accounts such as utilities, health benefits, fuel, and pension costs over which we have little control.
Our county college, special services and vocational schools, public works, the nursing home, senior citizen and youth programs, accounted for less than $1.5 million of the increase.
Atlantic County is one of the most rapidly growing counties in the state. We have added nearly 30,000 new residents over the past years, most of who have located in our growth communities of Galloway, Egg Harbor and Hamilton Townships. Since I became County Executive, we expended more than $54 million on improvements to our roads, intersections, and bridges. Anyone who looks at the problem of traffic congestion honestly knows that there is no magic solution to this complicated problem. Yet we are making significant progress with the roadways under county jurisdiction.
We have ambitious plans for the year ahead. Among our major objectives will be continuation of our aggressive highway improvement plan. In 2007 we plan $19 million worth of improvements to our county roads and bridges. This includes intersection improvements, road reconstruction, road resurfacing and bridge repairs.
In cooperation with our municipal governments, we will continue our initiatives to develop and implement shared services programs. These programs are intended to improve the efficiency of services while reducing costs to the taxpayers. Centralized Dispatch is one project which we hope to bring to fruition as part of this effort.
We will increase our initiatives to protect the environment and our natural resources. In 2006 we were recognized by the National Association of Counties as the winner of its prestigious Sustainable Communities Award. This award is given to the most effective and innovative counties in developing environmentally safe communities. Kean University recently cited Atlantic County as the "greenest county in New Jersey." We are proud of these designations.
We are in the process of converting our fleet to hybrid vehicles and bio diesel fuels wherever possible. We will be increasing the use of green energies such as solar and wind into county buildings. We will also support, adopt and encourage energy and water conservation measures.
Our county wind farm has successfully completed its first year of operation and has received international recognition. The five 380 foot wind turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, generate enough electricity for 2,500 homes. It is estimated that the energy this wind farm saves is equal to nearly 24,000 barrels of oil.
This fall we will host an Environmental Summit with the ACUA to discuss in detail Atlantic County's environmental concerns and energy future and encourage greater public awareness of these issues.
During my tenure as County Executive we have tripled the amount of our open space. This is a reflection of my strong commitment, and this Board's strong commitment, to protecting our environment. We want to ensure that pristine land is protected and preserved for both present and future generations.
In early 2007, the County plans to acquire hundreds of additional acres of open space. The targeted properties will protect criticalhabitats for a broad mixture of flora and fauna, including some threatened and endangered species. In addition, the County anticipates settling on development rights to 230acres through our Farmland Preservation Program.
Plans to develop a state of the art Aviation Research and Technology Park at the FAA Tech Center are on schedule. Atlantic County government, along with Richard Stockton College, the FAA, the New Jersey EDA and several other agencies, is playing a leading role to make this project happen. The Research Park is intended to assist in the development of Next Generation Air Transportation Systems and be the premier aviation technology research facility in the world. It will help diversify our local economy and help create high tech employment opportunities. You can expect some important announcements about this project shortly.
We will break ground on the expansion of our Veterans Cemetery at the Estell Manor Park. With the current rate of interments, the present cemetery is expected to reach capacity by 2010. The 15 acre expansion will provide us with 10,000 more gravesites and meet our needs well into the future. We also plan to honor our veterans this year with an Atlantic County Service medal.
In cooperation with the Center for Civic Responsibility, we are working to ensure the highest levels of integrity and public trust in county government as well as citizen participation.
As I have said before, good budgeting is intelligent spending. It is realistically assessing what our citizens need and expect from county government and balancing those needs with what we can afford. It is about acknowledging needs, not ignoring them. It is my belief that this budget does just that.
In the year ahead we look forward to doing great things for the people of Atlantic County. Our success is due, in large part, to the dedication of our County Staff and the cooperation and support we receive from this Board of Freeholders. I would specifically like to thank the members of the Freeholder Budget Task Force, Joe Silipena, Joe Kelly, and Jim Curcio.
They have reviewed every line item in this budget and have given us invaluable advice and recommendations on where we could save. I look forward to working with all of you to achieve this year's goals and objectives. All of you have my deepest appreciation and gratitude. – less–ZoomInfo