Tuesday, December 5, 2023

A Spout Off Concern With the County Budget

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By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – Recently a Spout Off from Avalon raised a concern about what the writer indicated was $80 million in “other expenses” in the county’s budget. The comment went on to argue that without itemization of that much money, there can be no true transparency in the budget process.

Spout Off Graphic

We took a look at the Cape May County 2023 budget and found what probably led to the spouter’s concern. On page 53 of that budget, Sheet 17 of the form, the county lists the summary of its operating appropriations. This is the money that is used on a daily basis to run county departments.

The totals at the bottom of the page are: $62,645,674 for salaries and wages and $80,100,327 for “other expenses,” for a total operating budget of $142,746,001. The $80,100,327 item apparently was what the spouter referenced.

To explain it, let’s step back and look at the budget as a whole first. We will use rounded amounts for ease of reading.

County appropriations for 2023 amount to $215 million. That is the total budgeted expense for 2023. That total falls into four categories:

  1. The amount allocated to operate the county government for the year – $142 million
  2. The funds set aside for capital improvements that are not from bonds and notes – $17 million
  3. The monies to pay the county’s current debt service – $25 million
  4. Appropriations for deferred charges and statutory expenses (pensions, Social Security, etc.) – $31 million

These four categories total the $215 million bottom line.

The largest category by far is for operating the county government for the year. It has two parts, as listed above, the total of all salaries and wages expected to be paid for the year and the seemingly opaque $80 million for “other expenses.”

The term “other expenses” is commonly used in an operating budget to reference those expenses that are not salaries and wages. It can include the buying of pencils at one end to providing matching funds for grants on the other.

There are some large items in this category, including the $2.4 million that the county allocates as its share of county support for Atlantic Cape Community College and the $3.1 million allocated for all the nonsalary expenses associated with running the county jail.

The budget pages before the summary on page 53 list the other expenses allocated to each county department or function. They also show that $5.5 million of the total does not come from the tax levy but rather from public and private grants and contracts that support very specific services. These may include federal and state funds for special social service programs.

The point here is not to justify how the county allocates its nonsalary-related expense, but to show that the large summary number of $80 million in “other expenses” does not represent some dark money reserve in the budget.

The budget document shows the breakdown of the other expense category for each department or service. What it does not do and cannot do is provide the details of how each department spends its nonsalary funds.

For that the interested citizen would need to see the department-level budget. That is public information available through the department.

The format of the county budget — what it shows and what it does not — is not unique to Cape May County. It is used by all 564 municipalities in the state and all 21 counties.

Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.



Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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