In a move that sets the tone for the upcoming year, the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders named Jose Munoz as its chairman at the Jan. 6 reorganization meeting.
Elevated from his position as vice chairman last year, Munoz has a reputation for fiscal accountability, and said in his acceptance speech that he would focus on keeping the budget stable.
While the appointment was heavy with political overtones because Munoz has been a staunch critic of West New York Mayor Felix Roque and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, he was named to the post with only Union City Freeholder Tilo Rivas abstaining.
The freeholder board votes on the county budget (which affects county taxes), as well as policy related to county institutions such as the county jail.
Although it’s not set in stone, the nine freeholders have over the last few years rotated leadership yearly.
Munoz represents a district including all of West New York, Guttenberg, and Weehawken.
The swearing-in ceremony was conducted in a room filled with elected officials from throughout the county, including State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, Sacco’s chief of staff Anthony Vainieri Jr., and numerous others.
Focus on the budget
Munoz refrained from political rhetoric when accepting the nomination and said he intended to get ahead of the budget process and had already met with County Executive Tom DeGise and County Administrator Abe Antun to tell them that he wanted the freeholders to begin reviewing the budget details early for a possible early introduction.
Munoz asked Freeholder Bill O’Dea to lend expertise to the budget-cutting process, someone he said knew the landscape from having been a staunch fiscal watchdog for years. But Munoz said he would rely on the help of all of the freeholders in helping to keep down the costs of running county government.
O’Dea and Munoz both pointed out that a large part of the burden of last year’s increase had fallen on a few towns such as Secaucus, Weehawken, and Hoboken, something that they are concerned about in the upcoming budget.
O’Dea said projections for this year suggested that the county faced an even heftier tax hike, making the process of early intervention even more important.
Munoz joked briefly about the concept of having big shoes to fill in becoming the new chairman.
“I don’t think anyone on this freeholder board has bigger feet than me,” he said. “But it’s not the shoe size that’s important. As an elected official, it’s the respect and admiration given to that person for making difficult and at times unpopular decisions.”
He said it will be his job as chairman to bring together people – on the board and those who attend meetings – with differing opinions.
“I will have big shoes to fill as they say, and I will do all that is expected of me to continue on the positive road my predecessor, chairman, freeholder, friend, Anthony Romano has entrusted to me.”
He said in the upcoming weeks and months, he will be working closely with the county executive, the county administrator, his colleagues, and the county staff to provide a workable budget.
“As chairman, I will work with all our public officials in an effort to at the very least stabilize taxes...” – Jose Munoz
County taxes differ from municipal taxes in a number of ways. First they are based on the full assessed value of a property. Secondly – because of a state-imposed formula – those communities that see the most new development in a prior year pay the larger percent of the overall county taxes. The formula and the increase in ratables determine which towns get hit hardest. Some county officials call this being punished for successful development plans, but freeholders are tied to the state formula and must cut overall taxes in order to reduce the impact on these communities.
Working together for a common goal
Although each freeholder represents a different part of the county, Munoz said as a unified board they represent the entire population.
“I pledge to work with everyone and to provide reliable information to the public as we work through the budgeting process,” he said, noting also that he would hold as many meetings with county officials as possible to discuss the budget and its impact on the community.
“Equally important to a stabilized county-wide tax rate is working diligently to achieve greater employment opportunities for those individuals presently unemployed and to make certain county services are not only accessible, but professionally accommodating to those in need,” Munoz said.
Funding from the county’s Open Space Trust Fund will be a priority this year, Munoz said.
This is funded by a penny additional tax imposed on county taxpayers per thousand of dollars of assessed value, and then applied to projects that create or maintain parks, preserve historic sites and other related projects. Municipalities and other government entities apply for funds and a county committee evaluates each and issues funds.
Freeholder Thomas Liggio, who represents all of North Bergen and parts of Secaucus, was elected vice-chairperson of the board. Freeholder E. Junior Maldonado, who represents parts of Jersey City, was elected chairperson pro-tempore.
Freeholder Jeffrey Dublin, who represents parts of Jersey City, was designated as a voting member for the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders to attend all meetings and conferences of the New Jersey Association of Counties for the year 2014. Also Freeholder Doreen DiDomenico, who represents Bayonne and parts of Jersey City, was designated as Alternate Voting Member to the New Jersey Association of Counties for the year 2014.
Outgoing chairman Freeholder Anthony Romano, during a later interview, said he faced a number of significant challenges during his term in office, not the least of which, he said, was trying to modify the impact of taxes on Hoboken and Jersey City, which he represents.
His term began as the county recovered from Superstorm Sandy, which meant arranging funding to fix a lot of the damage as well as pre-plan for future possible environmental disasters.
“This has not been an easy year,” he said, saying that the county was hit with the need to rebuild its own facilities, as well as help local communities recover, while at the same time trying to control tax increases.
Under his watch, the county opened its new Juno Center, a home for the County Office of Emergency Management in Kearny. The county also continued to consolidate its resources, moving away from rental space into buildings owned by the county.
As chairman, Romano said he had worked closely with a number of key legislators, from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires (D-8th Dist.) on the federal level to state officials such as Sacco, state Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, and state Sen. Sandra Cunningham to draw on resources that would allow the county and its municipalities to rebuild and advance.
Romano said he worked closely with a number of mayors throughout the county, listening to their concerns in an attempt to provide them with the resources they needed.
“It turned out to be a good year over all,” he said. “But I could not have done any of it without the help of the administration, my fellow freeholders and those I worked with.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.