They also criticized the incumbents for failing to show up for hearings that were held to gather public input on the issue this year.
Garganio and O'Brien, who are each seeking a second three-year term on the board, said the decision was made to keep taxes from rising over the long term.
The 200-bed nursing home and psychiatric facility in Pemberton Township had been operating at a $4 million deficit because of lower Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements.
Belgard, a lawyer and Edgewater Park committeewoman, said it was the freeholders' job to "listen to the residents of the county" and to at least "look them in the eye and hear what they have to say" before casting a vote. She ran for freeholder in 2010.
O'Brien, also a lawyer and a former Medford councilwoman, said the board designated Joe Donnelly, the sole freeholder who attended the hearings, "to be there to hear all the comments." As a lawyer, she said, she routinely reads trial transcripts, and in the Buttonwood matter, she said, "I read every single word" of the transcript of the hearings at which 87 people testified.
Garganio, a union carpenter from Florence, said the freeholders "divvy up the work" and have different responsibilities. "We did not mean any disrespect to anyone."
He said selling Buttonwood actually saved it because the county could not afford the losses and would have had to cut back on it. The new owners, he said, "are now going to expand it" by adding more beds.
The Republicans are running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, saying they cut spending by more than $25 million in the last three years and reduced overall taxation by $15 million. They say they need to make "tough decisions" to keep taxes from rising.
The Democrats say the freeholders have simply "put projects on a credit card" by floating bonds that future generations will have to pay.
Schwartz, a semiretired licensed nursing home administrator from Southampton and a newcomer to politics, also said Buttonwood could have been "saved" had the freeholders managed it better.
"I would have looked into hiring a management company. It was there for people who had no other place to go," she said.
The contract with the buyer, Ocean Health Care, allows the company to gradually replace beds for the indigent at Buttonwood with beds for people who have private insurance or who are on Medicare.
The Democratic Party wants to regain two seats that it captured four years ago, after more than two decades of Republican exclusivity on the board. Those seats were lost when Chris Brown, now an assemblyman, switched parties, and his running mate, Maryanne Reinhart, lost her bid for reelection.
Schwartz and Belgard also have accused their opponents of voting to pay for $16 million in cost overruns on projects such as an addition to the county library and a new county fairgrounds. The Republicans, Belgard said, are "rubber-stamping them - there's no dissent or discussion whatsoever."
Republican donors, she alleged, received $6 million of these dollars.
Garganio acknowledged that the board paid $1.2 million above the bid price for the library, and said that he "does have some concerns" about the architectural designs and that the board is looking into disputing the costs.
As for the fairgrounds, he said the cost was higher than expected because of unanticipated problems with the roads. "We had to stabilize the soils," he said.
But he added that other projects have come in lower than the bid price due to savings that were realized as the work was done. For example, he said, the freeholders saved $876,000 in a $7.2 million road overlay project.
The county's $375 million debt, Garganio said, is within the guidelines set by Moody's and similar economic experts. "Our capacity for borrowing is $1 billion," he said, and the county is "going in the right direction."
Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz .