County Executive Benson Reveals Budget, Tax Increase

Mercer County Executive Dan Benson presented his first budget to the Mercer County Board of Commissioners last week, which includes a 1.3 cent tax hike per every $100 of assessed value, which will come to $42 for the average Mercer County household.

Benson said the tax hike is a direct result, per a press release, of “financial mismanagement” under the prior administration of Brian Hughes.

“From the moment I took office, our Chief Financial Officer and his team began working day and night to sort through disorganized financial records and an outdated computer system,” Benson said. “And what we found was over $10 million in deferred charges that must now be paid for in the 2024 budget.”

Benson broke down the deferred charges, and other examples of the “financial mismanagement” under the Hughes Administration, including: Department salaries and operating expenses were under-budgeted by $6.4 million; 2023 revenue projections were overestimated by $2.1 million; capital and grant accounts were over-expended by $1.8 million; failure to budget for close to $1 million in unfunded county debt, that was due to be paid in 2022; the 2022 Annual Financial Statement had significant errors that needed correction; and the 2022 audit was incomplete, threatening Mercer County’s credit rating.

“The great news here is that, despite the challenges, we were able to maintain our bond rating – not because we’re hiding from problems but because the financial institutions and rating agencies see that we are committed to the ‘financial fundamentals’ that will allow Mercer to remain strong for years to come,” Benson said.

Additionally, Benson was saddled with $4.5 million in fines and interest levied by the state comptroller’s office last year prior to his taking office.

Benson said that the current financial challenges were compounded by other cost increases, including a $12 million increase in debt service payments and $4 million in increased expenses for inmate medical services and the youth detention center contract.

“Unfortunately, this budget proposes a tax increase of 1.3 cents for every 100 dollars of assessed property value, which will be about 42 dollars annually for an average Mercer County household,” said Benson. “I don’t take any tax increase lightly, but this is the only way to avoid drastic and unacceptable cuts to essential services.

“I want to be clear,” Benson continued, “This budget does require some serious sacrifices. Despite these difficult decisions this budget isn’t all bad news. It makes down payments on many of the innovative ideas that came from our transition team.”

The county executive went on to highlight some important new initiatives contained in the budget proposal, including: Establishing an Office of Travel and Tourism; drafting a detailed funding plan for completion of the Trenton-Mercer Airport Terminal Replacement Project; creating an office of LGBTQIA+ services to assist the community with their needs and connect them with key services, and conducting a full audit of Mercer County’s IT systems and capabilities.

“Budgets reflect values. And as you can see in this budget, we value transparency, accountability, and responsibility. It’s time to stop playing games with taxpayer money,” Benson said. “Despite the challenges we face, I remain genuinely optimistic. We will face a difficult year or two, but we will emerge stronger and with valuable lessons learned. We will make the investments we need in our infrastructure, our economy, and our people. Mercer County’s best days are ahead of us, and together we will make this a county government with leadership that works for everyone, and one we can all be proud of.”