County Executive Introduces Budget, Talks About Waning Casino Industry
The tax rate should remain steady at about 34 cents.
In a year in which the county was caught off guard by a derecho and hit head-on by a storm that left much of the Jersey Shore decimated, it was another catastrophe that was the center of discussion during Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson’s 2013 Budget Presentation before the Board of Chosen Freeholders in Atlantic City Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 15.
“Atlantic County’s main industry, casino gaming, continues to lose revenue to other gaming jurisdictions,” Levinson said during his presentation. “From 2007 to the end of 2012, the industry’s gross revenues have declined from approximately $5.2 billion to $3 billion. That means there is approximately $2.5 billion less circulating in the local economy than a few years ago.”
Levinson went on to introduce a $194,009,057.54 budget with $155,770,109.58 to be raised by taxes. Last year’s amount raised by taxes was $152,745,743.75. Last year’s budget was $194,091,546.75.
The amount of taxation is about $3,708,306.29 less than permitted under the state budget cap, Levinson said, noting that most jurisdictions are fighting to stay below the cap.
“Based on the best information we currently have available, we conservatively predict the County equalized tax rate will remain fairly stable at .3442, and is still much lower than the 44 cents in 2000, when I became county executive,” Levinson said.
According to Levinson, the county’s total operational expenses are up less than one percent, and the county is appropriating $7,155,000, 50 percent of the year-end surplus, in the budget.
“Some from the public might say we should dip into our surplus, but that would be a mistake,” Freeholder John Risley said. “From what we’ve seen, next year will not be a bowl of cherries, and we’re prudent in maintaining that level.”
“Atlantic County does not have to worry about increasing its debt ceiling,” Levinson said. “Our total net debt at the end of the 2012 fiscal year is less than three tenths of one percent of our total bonding capacity.”
Levinson noted that both the derecho and Superstorm Sandy hit the area hard, with Sandy hitting ground in Atlantic City.
“We responded well to both emergencies,” Levinson said. “Yet in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we still have much to clean up, repair and rebuild. More than 60 days later, we still have residents who are unable to return to their homes and resume a normal life.”
During its meeting, the Freeholder Board passed a resolution accepting an additional $495,516 in grant money from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development to help those impacted by Sandy. That brings the total grant amount to $815,443.
It was the casino industry that Levinson spent the most time talking about, noting that the industry’s decline has helped contribute to an unemployment rate of 14.5 percent, and stating that there are about 25,000 less casino workers than there were a few years ago. The county now has 41,293 residents on food stamps, up from 17,917 in 2007, and Levinson expects those numbers to rise.
“Many of those who remain in our workforce have had to accept significant wage and benefit reductions,” Levinson said.
He credited the casino industry’s previous growth with helping the county reach an equalized valuation peak of $58,266,396,436 in 2008, but said that number is down to $1.86 billion.
“The effects of this are felt countywide,” Levinson said. “To make sure county services continue to be offered to those who are most vulnerable, and the surrounding towns are the ones who must pay.”
Levinson credited the county’s conservative practices as the reason there’s not a bigger increase in this year’s budget.
“Times are tough in the county, and the increase is about as minimal as they could be,” said Freeholder Board Vice Chairman Joseph McDevitt, the Chair of the Budget Committee. “Other municipalities have fired hundreds of people. In five years, we’ve reduced 100 people. We haven’t fired them.
“We have less of a problem with our economy, and I’m proud of our work. I’m as satisfied as I could be with the process.”
“I’m going to examine it carefully and see if there’s anything we can do to reduce the tax increase proposed,” said Freeholder Colin Bell, one of two Democratic Freeholders on the Board. “It’s 10 cents less than in 2000, but everyone’s taxes are going up.”
He recognized that an increase was unavoidable given the decline in ratables in the county.
On Tuesday, the freeholders approved a resolution to enter into a contract with Gateway Outdoor Advertising, out of Hackettstown, to provide advertising on county buses, with the county collecting 55 percent of the revenues. Gateway was the only bidder.
Board Chairman Frank Formica would like to see more revenue generating ideas like this.
“Everybody’s adopting a sign,” Formica said. “I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing signs that were not lit up or anything from commercial entities on our roads. … Maybe we should think about forming a committee to focus on finding ways to generate revenue.”