By Joseph Sapia
In this year’s race for two seats on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, spending is the big issue.
Republican incumbents Thomas “Tom” Arnone, 54, of Neptune City and Serena DiMaso, 52, of Holmdel point to how they have maintained a steady tax levy over the years, one now supporting a $470 million budget. Democrat challengers Matt Doherty, 43, of Belmar and Sue Fulton, 57, of Asbury Park questioned applying $4.5 million to the 2016 budget from the $32.4 million sale of two county-owned nursing homes – John L. Montgomery in Freehold Township and Geraldine L. Thompson in Wall – in 2015 to keep taxes down.
Doherty, a financial advisor with the Creative Financial Group, said the county had a tax increase of $4.5 million in 2015. Applying the $4.5 million in 2016 brings the county back to where it had been two years earlier. Doherty, Belmar’s mayor since 2011, said his town has had no tax increase during his tenure.
“Our priority is to keep taxes under control,” said Fulton, a consumer marketer for Pfizer pharmaceuticals. “You can’t count on liquidating assets to keep taxes down. That’s not sustainable.”
But DiMaso, who has been a freeholder for five years, said the nursing home sales generated about $18 million more than was expected. Some of this found money was used to bring the tax levy back to $302.5 million, where it had been from 2010 to 2014. Also, the freeholders paid down county debt by $4 million. The overall budget is lower by about $20 million.
“It’s always taxes, which I think we’ve done a good job with,” said DiMaso, when asked about issues in this year’s race. “That’s probably the biggest issue, to make sure Monmouth County is affordable.”
DiMaso said the county has been able to maintain services, despite keeping a budget in check. The freeholders have done that by selling one of the county’s two helicopters and merging the medical examiner’s office with Middlesex County’s, said DiMaso, a non-practicing lawyer.
“Simple things like that allowed us to save money in the budget, not cut services,” DiMaso said.
Additionally, the county built a leachate treatment system at the Monmouth County Reclamation Center on the boundary of Tinton Falls, Wall and Colts Neck. Landfill runoff is treated on-site and reused, resulting in savings of $4 million to $6 million a year, DiMaso said.
“I’m honored to be part of a group that works so hard to save money,” DiMaso said.
Arnone noted the tax levy of $302.5 million is the same as when he became a freeholder six years ago. The only increase was the $307 million in 2015 which the board corrected this year by applying $4.5 million of the nursing home sale money, he said.
He created the Grow Monmouth economic program, which includes “Made in Monmouth,” a free showcase for county vendors to sell their locally produced goods, and this year’s Grown in Monmouth, a free marketing program for county-grown farm and fishing business products.
Two years ago, the freeholders began the Façade Program, distributing $1,800 in federal money to qualifying businesses for façade, sign, lighting, awnings and paint improvements to their buildings, Arnone said.
The county has expanded shared-service agreements with municipalities, Arnone said. Now, the county shares some kind of service “in some scope or another” with all of its 53 municipalities.
Arnone looked to his past – seven years as Neptune City’s mayor, eight years on the Neptune City Council and president of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors – as the key to understanding how to work with municipalities. DiMaso previously served on the Holmdel Township Committee for 12 years, five of them as mayor.
The Democrats seek to break the five-member lock the Republicans have on the freeholder board, said Fulton, a former Army captain. The aim is transparency, more independent voices, “more views represented,” said Fulton, who serves on the board of the U.S. Military Academy, from which she graduated in 1980.
“I think we have an opportunity to put two people on that board that will be independent,” Doherty said.
In the aftermath of 2012’s Super Storm Sandy, which heavily hit Belmar, the only way to recover was “to do that in a bi-partisan way,” Doherty said. “While I am a Democrat, I worked with a Republican governor, worked well.”
But Arnone, vice president of the PRC property management group in West Long Branch, said, “I tout my bipartisan relationship with all the mayors. I’m very proud of the transparency we have. I’m a big, big believer in transparency in government.”
Some controversy arose when the Democrats noted DiMaso receives health benefits through the county, despite the freeholders having agreed not to take health benefits. However, DiMaso fully reimburses the county for her coverage.
The General Election is Nov. 8. Polls are open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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