NEWTON, NJ (Sussex County) – Sussex County was faced with pandemic challenges which included having been one of the only New Jersey counties passed over initially for federal funds to fight COVID, yet during the Sussex County Board of County Commissioners’ recent budget workshop meeting, it was revealed that the 2021 estimated budget is lower than the adopted 2020 budget by approximately $2.2 million or 1.91%.
Sussex County Administrator Greg Poff said, the process to prepare for the yearly budget takes about eight months, with every department contributing to the process. Poff said he, Board of County Commissioners Director Dawn Fantasia, Deputy Director Anthony Fasano, the county’s Chief Financial Officer Elke Yetter and Budget Officer Mary Lee Van Hooker, make up the subcommittee that reviews the detailed budget requests, participates in budget hearings and works together on the larger budget document.
Poff said, “the 2021 budget is estimated at $115,128,984, with a 1.91% decrease or $2,242,777 less than the adopted 2020 budget. Some of the savings realized were due to an increase in shared services, a significant decrease in health insurance costs and a $300,000 refund in solar bonds, which the Commissioners unanimously voted to refinance.”
“There is a small increase in the tax levy between 2020 and 2021, from $96 million to $96.9 million, excluding new construction revenue, reflecting a slight increase of $10 per taxpayer,” Poff said.
For each tax dollar, Poff said 22 cents is allocated to the capital budget, 20 cents to public safety, 18 cents to insurance-related costs, 12 cents to public works including roads, 11 cents to education and 10 cents to all other general county operations.
Raymond A. Sarinelli, one of the county’s independent auditors, presented a lookback of 2020 at the workshop on March 11, praising the County for maintaining its financial stability in a very difficult year, which he said is indicated in the fund balance. That balance at the beginning of 2020 was $16,860,000, and at the end was $16,916,000, for a gain of $56,000.
Sarinelli called it “pretty tremendous in a year with a shutdown, a pandemic, so many unprecedented things happening.”
“To be able to maintain your financial stability is a great thing and that’s really attributed to the good planning that’s been done over the years, specifically when it comes to the budget,” Sarinelli said.
Sarinelli described the 2020 budget and all of the preceding county budgets over the past 15 years, as one that stayed “to the middle of the line,” with revenues not overburdened and expenditures prepared for potential adverse conditions.
Sarinelli also said the County of Sussex is currently at an AA+ rating, with a “stable outlook,” in terms of its financials, with the budgetary performance upgraded from “adequate” to “strong.”
“To see an upgrade from an external source like a rating agency through a pandemic year is great to see, it proves that not only are you managing things responsibly, but your administration is keeping a thorough eye on things throughout the year to ensure that not only is this year in good shape, but moving forward, budget projections are being done to ensure the financial stability of the county,” Sarinelli said.
“What I can say is I’m still awestruck, and I’ve always been humbled, ever since – I’m sure a lot of you who sit here with me feel this way – that we have residents who actually entrust these kinds of decisions and put these decisions in our hands, that we are able to serve them, and allocate these funds into so many programs and so many services,” Fantasia said. “The endless miles of roadways and we had all those conversations about guide rail, it’s such a holistic responsibility that we have and I’m so proud of the professionals that we have, and the employees that we have. This is just such a humbling experience I think from start to finish.”
“To see that we were able this year to put forth a budget that’s nearly a 2% decrease from the budget in 2020, and when everything had happened first with COVID, the scrambling and the reallocation when we were not sure if we were going to get any funds of any kind, and waiting months and months to see, this has been a surreal experience,” Fantasia said. “If you ever asked any of us a year ago today, just as the orders were coming out for everybody to quarantine, I don’t think I could have ever told the story of 2020 to 2021, and ever ended up with the result that we’re at tonight.”
“I do want to thank everyone on the team,” Commissioner Sylvia Petillo said. “You have done such a terrific job, this was quite a challenging year with the pandemic, especially on our finances, so I thank all of you very, very much.”
“I want to thank the team as well,” Fasano said. “I know this was a tremendous amount of work, especially given the year. Sylvia made the comment that this year has been hard on finances, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that when looking at this budget on its surface; and that’s a good thing and a testament to all your work.”
At the Commissioners’ regular meeting on March 10, the commissioners adopted a cap bank resolution to take advantage of statutory provisions for cap banking, which Poff said, could be used to address “extraordinary, unanticipated or unexpected budget increases,” including pensions and other expenses.
“This does not mean this board is borrowing 3.5% or raising our budget 3.5% from the prior year,” Fantasia said.
The introduction of the 2021 County Budget for first reading, will take place at the upcoming Board of Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, March 24.