Society has costs.
In this post-recession Presidential election year, how, or even whether, to pay those costs is at the heart of the debate to come.
What will be on display is the vision of the country each political party wants to sell, and in that vision is their choice of winners and losers based on where each party want to allocate resources.
A local version of that will play out in June when the Morris County Republicans choose freeholder candidates.
There are two distinct camps emerging, and the choice will set the direction of the county for the next three years and beyond
There is the cut taxes at all costs crowd versus the trim and manage the county crowd, and government is not the solution but the problem crowd versus the government services to people matter crowd.
These are hard choices for some freeholders because these are services they have developed and managed for years at the behest of taxpayers, who have spoken favorably for such services through referendum votes, statements at public meetings, surveys and yes, through elections, where the slow turnover of incumbents suggests that voters overall favor the approach the Republican board has taken.
But based on the recent discussion about the 2013 county budget and how to close a projected $5-6 million gap, some on the board seem willing to eliminate programs and services just to eliminate them while kneeling at the altar of privatization.
Here are some of the choices:
What’s the Morris County library worth?
Or the Morris View healthcare center?
Or a golf course? Road repair? Meals on wheels?
Or these: Homeless services, shelter for battered women, funds to keep developmentally disabled works housed independently, flood control efforts, repairs to public water and sewer systems, medical services to the indigent, case workers for the poor, seniors and troubled.
Those were some of the services the county will support this year with $2.3 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That’s the department that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he would study for elimination.
Yeah, I know, there are some out there, including some freeholders, who believe there is no cost in making those budget cuts because the people receiving them are just drags on society anyway.
Tell that to your grandmother who lives alone and relies on the driver from the county nutrition program to deliver a supply of food to get her through the weekend and provides a smidgen of companionship and care.
Are you going to deliver those meals, and why haven’t you visited her lately? Will you take her in when the home floods and the power goes out again?
Fortunately for the tax cutters in need of guidance, someone did measure some of these costs.
In its 2007 report on the working poor in Morris County – equal to about 25 percent of the county’s population – the United Way of Northern New Jersey, determined that the cost of “unmet needs’ for this population was $315 million annually.
About the size of the 2012 Morris County budget.
The reason this discussion is taking place is that in June four freeholder seats are up for election. That is more than half the board, an unusual circumstance.
Two of the seats are open: John Murphy is retiring and Gene Feyl has been elected director of the Highlands Council and will resign his seat. A third is held by director Bill Chegwidden, and the fourth by newly elected freeholder Hank Lyon.
Lyon would most likely have a free walk to retaining his seat. He was the only Republican candidate to file expressly for the remainder of his three-year term.
The other nine Republicans and the four Democrats on the ballot are all running for the other three seats because they did not declare for the unexpired seat.
The challengers have already rolled out the election-year chestnuts: We will cut taxes and make government smaller.
Admirable goals, especially in a state like New Jersey, where the perception is that we are the most over-taxed people in the United States.
But the largest portion of this tax bill is school taxes, and despite four decades of political debate, the fundamental issues with school taxes – that they are based on property taxes – has never been resolved in New Jersey.
That, and a failure to adequately address the poverty of inner cities and older suburbs whose property tax base had collapsed, produced the stalemate that exists now with suburban Republicans and urban Democrats lodged safely behind their piles of rhetoric lobbing charter schools at one another.
Added to that history is the 2 percent tax levy cap, which officials are learning to apply.
In Massachusetts where there has been a tax cap for 30 years, some smaller, middle class towns have been forced to end or close some of the facilities and services that one official said defined the town and were the reason people moved there.
A few numbers: The 2012 county budget is $317 million, of which roughly one-third is in play annually; the rest is fixed costs that generally can not be manipulated annually.
The county plans this year to collect $217 million in property taxes from the total taxable value of 39 towns of about $98 billion.
An average Morris County home assessed at $421,492, pays about $940 in county taxes.
That total value has dropped about $3.5 billion in the past three years. And the county work force has dropped 18 percent over five years.
The county also collects an open space tax that in 2012 is 1.25 cents per $100 of assessed value, or roughly $53 a home.
In 2010 and again this year, some challenges have insisted that this open space tax is “not a real tax.” Well, when the freeholders were collecting 4.5 cents per $100, each homeowners was paying $203 annually. This year they will pay $150 less. That’s a real tax.
That is also a real tax cut.
The budget has increased over that past five years, from $298 million in 2008 to this year’s $317 million. Some of that increase comes from the assumption by the county of some municipal functions, such as emergency dispatch, the addition of shared services with other counties and state services passed without funding from the state to the county, and health and pension cost hikes.
Shared services add more income than cost, county administrator John Bonnani said, so that the impact on the county tax rate is reduced through the additional service.
As they do annually, the freeholders ask each member to provide guidance to the budget subcommittee.
That guidance includes a potential range of tax increases, starting with zero, opinions on which services are the core services the county should provide, which ones can not be avoided, and which ones might best be provided.
Governing in hard times is never easy.
It requires careful analysis and response.
So consider this: Since 2008, when the U.S. began to fall into the worst economy in 80 years, when in Morris County, the unemployment rate rose from a nearly magical 3.8 percent in February 2008 to a high of 8 percent in February 2010, Morris County’s tax rate rose 4 cents, and the owner of the county’s average home paid about $170 more in county taxes over that period.
The county library stayed open, the nursing home gained residents and lowered costs, personnel responded to floods and snowstorms, history was preserved, trails were hiked, and the poor and needy were served.
Since 2010, the county unemployment rate dropped, new companies are moving in, existing companies are investing in their sites, and towns like Morristown are seeing a resurgence.
The companies are responding to the pitch in part from the Chamber of Commerce which sells the good life of Morris County. The companies did not create that good life by themselves; it was built on the actions of public governments carefully spending tax dollars.
And it is a good life.
Morris is the eighth richest county in the U.S. Its leaders for the past 40 years have chosen to directly confront the issues that society presents because doing so enhances that quality of life that draws residents and businesses.
It is not a mistake that the joint action of public and private leaders created institutions that sought answers to affordable housing, transportation management and watershed protection.
Those leaders said it was their responsibility to question, to plan and to act.
The time to question the next generation of county leaders is now.
Question vigorously. Choose carefully.