O'Dea described the cuts as the painless elimination of what he referred to as budgetary fat.
O'Dea's amendment to the budget would postpone the filling of some vacant positions and would eliminate certain job titles until next year. This would force departments - such as the county's law department - to cut some of their reliance on outside attorneys and consultants.
"I went line item by line time and reduced those line items that were overbudgeted," he said. "The cuts I have recommended will result in a two to three-month delay in filling most vacancies and new positions."
Even without the cuts, the 2001 budget - if passed as presented - would see a reduction of about 51 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on a home, or about of $82 on a home assessed at $160,000.
O'Dea acknowledged the county's need to have "a rainy day fund" in case some unforeseen expenditures turned up or previously anticipated revenue did not come through.
"But this is more like a fund for Hurricane Andrew," he said.
O'Dea said a study of the budget showed as much as $5 million dollars in unfilled positions. He proposed cutting only $2 million, leaving more than enough, he believed, for a hedge fund against possible future problems.
"This proposal still permits the administration to move forward with its agenda and in no way will adversely impact the delivery of services to the people of Hudson County," he said.
O'Dea said he deliberately avoided making cuts in areas where the county had budgeted salaries in anticipation of salary refunds from other sources, such as in the Health and Human services and welfare departments.
"All the cuts I'm recommending are in areas that are fully funded by the county," he said. "These cuts will result in no layoffs."
He said many of the vacancies in various departments have existed for years.
"Based on an analysis of the prior three years, we have regularly taxed the property owners with these overbudgeted items," he said.
O'Dea said since the year is already half over, most of the money he proposed to cut couldn't be spent even if all the positions were filled this month.
Vega defends budgeting practice
While acknowledging that the cuts could be made, Freeholder Chairman Sal Vega said the move not might be wise for the county's long-term planning.
"We shouldn't just look at this budget," he said, noting that variations in revenues from year to year often requires the county to provide a fund that can fill in those needs if revenues are down.
He said by putting aside money every year, the county avoids large rises in taxes when something goes wrong.
"It would be a mistake to strip this budget," he said. "This budget is part of a long term approach."
Vega said by putting aside money each year in this way, the county does not have to resort to what have been called budget gimmicks to make end meet during the lean times.
"We have been blessed with increasing ratables," he said. "We need to take advantage of these while we can. We shouldn't look at this as a rainy day fund, but something set aside for a rainy season. We're looking out for next year and the year after that."
He said state funding - particularly in the number of prisoners the state pays the county to house in jail - varies sharply from year to year.
O'Dea said he was disturbed by the freeholders' lack of willingness to cut the budget presented by the county administration. He said the board should not act as a rubber stamp.
He said last time the freeholders stood up to the county executive, the county executive came back with a counter-proposal - something O'Dea said he wanted this time as well.
Vega, however, argued that negotiations several years ago involved a tax increase and that both the freeholders and county executive were interested in reducing that. But this year, taxes went down.
O'Dea said this is not true for everyone, and noted that rates varied throughout the county. Whereas the overall budget went down last year, sections of Jersey City actually saw an increase.
Antun said the additional buffer handles more than just changes in revenue. He noted at the PBA contract agreed on this year called for retroactive payments to 1999. The county is also moving into union negotiations with its non-law enforcement employees.
Freeholder Barry Dugan said this was a good budget and said he admired the way it flowed from year to year. He called O'Dea's cuts "nickel and dime" budget-cutting.
O'Dea responded by claiming taxpayers still were being asked to pay more than they should and compared this budget to a T-bone steak.
"All I'm asking is that we cut a little fat off the edge," he said.
Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons seemed to support O'Dea's position, saying that while the $2 million might not seem like a lot to cut, the amount could offset increases in municipal and school taxes.
"This is something and we'd be showing the community that we're making an effort," he said.
In a rare pun, Vega proposed allowing the county's executive's office to look over the proposal and "chew the fat awhile," and possibly come back with a counter proposal.
The budget vote was scheduled to be held at the June 14 freeholder meeting. Results were not available at press time.