Should government stop at nothing to cut taxes during tough economic times, even if it means laying off dozens of employees and cutting important programs?

That is the heart of a debate among Burlington County freeholders trying to come to an agreement on a $224.1 million proposed budget that officials say would lower the amount of taxes needed to support county operations by $500,000. If adopted, the budget would result in a yearly savings of $18 for the owner of a home assessed at the county's average value of $192,000, according to Freeholder Director Joseph Donnelly.

During their regular meeting last night in the county building in Mount Holly, none of the four other freeholders was satisfied with the budget put forth by Donnelly, nor did they agree on alternatives. They made suggestions at length and offered criticisms.

For his part, Donnelly has been firm about the need to shrink the size of government. In a May 27 letter to colleagues, he wrote: "I have resolved to stand my ground in that I will not support a county budget that increases property taxes."

And he has scheduled a news conference for this afternoon outside county GOP headquarters with a cadre of legislators, including Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce, who are expected to praise what they describe as his leadership in making tough decisions.

Those decisions have come with some trade-offs.

Freeholders Bill Haines and Jim Wujcik yesterday questioned whether the proposal to have a surplus at 3.5 percent of the total budget was too low. They also took issue with the idea of not awarding raises to nonunion managerial and confidential employees making over $50,000.

Haines predicted that the decision would come back to bite the county in the form of poor morale, among other issues. He has suggested not changing the tax rate, and instead putting more money into the surplus and restoring funds for other programs.

Freeholder Chris Brown, who has also vowed not to increase taxes, proposed shaving off money from professional contracts and cutting salaries in certain departments.

"I just think it's unfair," Wujcik said of the salary cuts.

And Freeholder Mary Anne Reinhart is not happy about the proposed layoffs of 50 employees who hold positions deemed nonessential.

Last month, about 75 members of Communications Workers of America Local 1034, which covers those employees, showed up to protest, questioning whether $18 in saving was worth throwing people out of work.

"It's my opinion that the county freeholders did not look hard and deep enough to cut," the union's local office administrator, Anthony Tallarico, said in an interview.

The budget calls for some restructuring of county government, including the shift of the county's economic-development functions to the Burlington County Bridge Commission. The commission has improvement authority powers and already works with towns on efforts to save money through sharing more services.

Donnelly said he worked out a deal to have the commission - an independent entity whose commissioners are appointed by the freeholders - pay the county $1.2 million for the budget. The money would go toward maintenance and repair of local bridges that the agency does not oversee.

Reinhart and Brown, the board's two Democrats, want to tap the commission for more money. Some freeholders are skeptical that the agency would agree to a proposal by Brown that would involve getting millions more from the agency.

Brown, a vocal critic of the budget, wants a broader restructuring of government that would transfer more operations to the Bridge Commission and merge functions such as purchasing and human resources among county entities. That would take far more time than the amount at hand.

The freeholder board will hold a public hearing next Wednesday on the budget. If there aren't enough votes to approve the adoption of the budget afterward, freeholders can suggest amendments, a process that requires additional public hearings

Contact staff writer Maya Rao

at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com.