Fisher Administrative Complex

The Charles “Chuck” Fisher Administrative Complex houses Cumberland County government offices.

County officials say they’re selling the building for financial reasons: A $250 million decrease in ratables during the past year is being blamed for almost half a nearly 6-cent increase in the county tax rate.

Cumberland County leaders have a good idea: Sell properties the government can do without. If they remember this in the hopefully not-to-distant future, they could follow it with a great idea.

And not just any property. The freeholders are selling their own headquarters, the Charles "Chuck" Fisher Administrative Complex on East Commerce Street in Bridgeton.

That's a bold statement and an example to many other local governments facing a similar fiscal squeeze.

In Cumberland County, the squeeze is taking the familiar form of a decrease in property values that has dropped the tax ratable base by $250 million in the past year alone. That accounts for nearly half of the six-cent increase in the county tax rate this year. Since 2009, ratables are down $1.2 billion, to $8.7 billion.

The administrative complex, whose sale is being handled by the county Improvement Authority, is assessed at $2.1 million. Government operations are moving to the former prosecutor's office on West Broad Street in town, which is being renovated for $400,000.

Besides the savings generated by the sale price, the county will also avoid about $21,000 annually on utility costs for the Commerce Street building. And putting it in private hands and back on the tax rolls could generate about $40,000 a year in county and local taxes.

There is also a benefit to having the county administrative offices in town rather than out on the highway. Workers will be in a walkable neighborhood with a short drive to the heart of the city, a plus for them and the downtown.

Bigger savings are expected from another property: the closing of the county juvenile detention center in Hopewell Township. Juveniles will be sent to a Burlington County facility - at a cost of about $830,000 a year, with overall savings estimated at $1.2 million annually.

This kind of consolidation is akin to the smart-sizing that businesses routinely do. Even better would be anticipating the changes to government services and funding from the economic cycle.

The South Jersey economy will rise again, and when it does, local governments will be tempted to hire, buy and build with the additional tax revenue that brings.

Instead, county officials could remember this time of downsizing and grow government in ways that allow it to be efficiently trimmed when the inevitable slowdown recurs. That might mean leasing instead of buying, contracting out instead of permanent hiring.

Willingness to be thrifty in tough times should be matched by care with increased spending in good times. And that way, excess buildings wouldn't have to be sold in a slumped property market.

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