Mayors from municipalities in southern New Jersey said they were happy to see state aid awards remain fixed Wednesday, as each town received exactly the same dollar figure as last year.

Municipalities seeking financial help from the state to help offset their rising local budgets will receive a total of $1.3 billion next year, which state officials hope will prevent big increases in local property taxes.

"It was exactly the same dollar-figure as last year," said Bob Romano, mayor of Vineland, which received $6,190,788. "Of course, we had feared that they would give us less. Of course we did."

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Towns in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties received $67.8 million of the total aid, according to figures released by the state's Department of Community Affairs on Wednesday.

Gov. Chris Christie had first announced in his Tuesday budget address that the overall figure would remain flat compared to last year. On Wednesday, he called municipal aid a "core priority in this budget."

But town leaders said they waited to celebrate until they heard what slice of that pie they would receive.

DCA Commissioner Lori Grifa announced those figures Wednesday afternoon, representing state awards for aid and also open-space payments and payments in lieu of taxes owed by energy utilities.

Mayors, who facer stricter budget limits this year, said the aid provided some stability.

"I can't imagine what towns would have done under a big cut," said Mayor Chuck Chiarello of Buena Vista Township following the news. His town received $716,567. "Going back to the drawing-board to balance the budget would not have been possible without layoffs and big service cuts."

At the same time, keeping aid flat means towns must bear cost-raises in the price of goods and services, such as gas and insurance, Chiarello said.

The coming year, towns will have to observe a new state-imposed 2-percent cap on any tax-levy increases.

Municipal officials said they felt the odds of keeping with in the cap were improved with their aid confirmed.

"It means we're more likely to be able to meet that cap, so we're very pleased," said James "Sonny" McCullough, mayor of Egg Harbor Township, which received $6,039,065.

Towns will also have to show progress on adopting a group of "best practices," which include centralizing some services like trash pickup, and implementing cost sharing for health benefits of at least 1.5 percent of salary for all employees.

In the future, towns which fail to aim for those best practices are likely to lose aid, while towns which achieve them may be additionally rewarded.

Some towns which operate on a calendar-year budget already saw the state withhold small portions of this year's aid in December. The deadline for towns on fiscal-year budgets to file their checklist is April 1.

"Beginning in July at the start of the fiscal year, state aid withheld from towns that do not implement best practices will be returned as rewards to those towns that excel at adopting innovative, cost-effective ways of doing business," Grifa said.

Contact Juliet Fletcher:

609-292-4935

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