By Freeholder Lillian G. Burry
Anyone living in Monmouth County is likely to be aware of the many good things County government provides including our roads, parks and library system. One of the most important and valuable things the County provides, however, is known to relatively few residents. That’s the role the County plays in enhancing the financial resources of others and it’s a role that’s played quietly, sometimes indirectly, and always with unwavering expertise.
Sometimes it takes the form of a direct payment, providing the County share of the price for preserving farmland that brings far larger amounts of state dollars to a deal. At other times it’s providing a mix of funding and in-kind staff resources as a match for Green Acres dollars used to acquire or develop additional open space or some other worthy grant funded project. And sometimes it’s taking advantage of the AAA bond rating of the County – a rating held by fewer than two dozen of the more than three thousand American counties – to help others borrow money through the Monmouth County Improvement Authority (MCIA) at interest rates that can save significant amounts of dollars in interest payments over the life of a loan.
Perhaps the greatest example of this tool place recently when the MCIA assisted FMERA in taking a truly transformational step. I have had the privilege of representing the Board of Chosen Freeholders from the beginning of the very long transition of Fort Monmouth from active military base to its new role as an economic engine for Monmouth County. This has always been a constructive, yet sometimes challenging partnership with multiple towns, the County, state, and the U.S. Army all participating, with each pursuing its own legitimate ends.
From the very beginning the intent has been for the Army to gradually exit the process as its responsibilities were fulfilled. As FMERA moved closer to that point and properties were beginning to be sold, the economic argument for facilitating that exit grew stronger. Under the FMERA agreement, the Army received 60% of the revenues from property sales. With properties appraised collectively at over $90 million, a great deal of money was at stake and the role of the County became vital.
As FMERA moved into Phase II of the redevelopment process, the MCIA agreed to act as guarantor for $35 million in bonds and notes, the money from which will be used to buy out the interest of the Army and leave Monmouth County in the lead role. The magnitude of this is easy enough to understand when you realize that 60% of more than $90 million would be $55 million or more that would have gone to the Army, and that buying that interest out for $35 million will leave at least $20 million more here in Monmouth County. That’s over $20 million that will be available to revitalize our local economy that otherwise would have been shipped to Washington under the original agreement. And it’s all being done at no net cost to Monmouth County taxpayers.
When we think of the role of government, we tend to think in concrete terms like land, buildings and people. It’s easy to overlook the enormous added value that effective financial management can bring. In times of economic constraint it’s double important to have our financial assets work harder to grow our resources, not only to provide for County government, but for all of our various partners as well. This step with FMERA is just the latest and arguably greatest example yet, of this kind of smart financial management. It’s not something that has happened overnight. It’s something that has been built up over time through careful and consistent leadership by the Freeholders in support of talented and dedicated professionals. The result has been a level of confidence in the financial markets that preserved our AAA bond rating even through the depths of the Great Recession. This confidence is an intangible yet very real asset based on the strength of County Finances along with that of the 53 municipalities that make up the county and are able to utilize resources like the MCIA. This use in turn, helps to increase values and expand the financial base of the entire county and it’s this ongoing synergistic process that makes Monmouth County a financial force multiplier adding value without adding taxpayer cost.