NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On October 2, Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald Rios gave the annual "State of the County" address.
Among the highlights are two plans for housing in Edison, the county's largest municipality.
The first is a plan for 30 units of veteran's housing in a project that is already under construction in Edison, known as the Kilmer Homes.
Also on the table is a proposal to "transform" Edison's Roosevelt Care Center into Senior Citizen housing. That project would include partners Middlesex County Improvement Authority and JFK Hospital.
"The historic building will help us answer the need for affordable housing for our seniors, including our veterans, who may not need the level of care offered at a long-term-care facility," said Rios, who has been Freeholder Director for nearly two years.
"We anticipate the Roosevelt campus in Edison will soon house other healthcare amenities, such as doctors’ offices and a dialysis center to better serve our residents… We expect to share more news with you as the project moves forward," said Rios, who hails from Carteret.
"Safety, quality education and state-of-the-art recreational facilities are the hallmarks of a great community," Rios said. "Middlesex County prides itself on these three areas for good reason."
Rios also spoke of county new efforts to help get out the vote, an "extremely successful" program to preserve farmland and open space, and help the homeless. But one promise was already broken.
"It is my pleasure to announce that Middlesex County’s state-of-the-art and interactive website will debut later this month," Rios said on October 2.
But as of November 1, the new site has not launched. County spokeswoman Stacey Bersani confirmed it is set to launch in November, having been in the works for a long time.
The two Freeholders running for re-election this Tuesday, Charles Tomaro of Edison, and Carol Barrett of South Brunswick, were credited for a few items during Rios' speech.
Tomaro and Barrett are facing challenges from Republicans Richard Greene and Stephanie Bartfalvi.
Barrett was credited with involvement in the continued growth of the county college by Rios.
"Middlesex County College continues to expand its programs in a time when most other education institutions are pulling back," said Rios.
"Deputy Director Barrett Bellante… broke ground on the Center for Student Services, which will provide a revolutionary process for enrolling students, who will be able to conduct their enrollment process at one counter instead of making multiple stops."
The all-Democrat Freeholder board approved $3.4 million in capital funds for a new science building project and $6 million for the Student Services center.
Rios credited Tomaro with opening and expanding a new hiking path connecting Edison, Metuchen, and Woodbridge.
"Freeholder Charles Tomaro has been a very vocal and strong advocate for the Middlesex Greenway, a 3.5 mile hiking and biking path that runs through Edison, Metuchen and Woodbridge," said Rios.
"In 2014, the County acquired an additional piece of land from Consolidated Rail Corporation that will allow us to connect the eastern end of the Greenway to East William Street Park in the Fords section of Woodbridge Township. Conceptual design will begin next year."
Tomaro was also credited the county government's purchase of 5.87 acres of property across from the County Perth Amboy Vocational-Technical High School, and a deal in the works to buy another 2.9 acres at the site for "a brand new active recreation park."
"When complete, the park will include a waterfront walkway, 3 multi-purpose fields and a playground, increasing the quality of life for the residents of Perth Amboy and all of Middlesex County."
But it's not the first time promises about a new park were attributed to Tomaro.
Rios had said in a January speech that "Under the guidance of Freeholder Charlie Tomaro, the County will create its first-ever 'pocket park' in the City of New Brunswick."
Rios said the park would "offer New Brunswick residents and those who work in the City a beautiful spot to congregate, enjoy musical entertainment and relax."
"I don't know exactly what's going to happen there right now," New Brunswick Parking Authority Chairman Kevin McTernan told New Brunswick Today in July. "I know we want to go ahead and… as soon as a decision has been made about what the best use is, we'll be here to talk about it."
Rios also discussed the county's $7 million investment in repairing a waterfront park in Old Bridge, which was damaged in Hurricane Sandy, and other efforts to repair damage and prepare for future storms.
"The County is providing inflatable boats to three designated municipalities to facilitate evacuations during any flood or water related emergency. The boats will be fully equipped with trained staff and supplies," Rios said.
Rios also said the county will form a “water rescue and recovery team” to conduct water rescues, searches, and evacuations. The team would include "high water rescue vehicles the County anticipates receiving later this calendar year," Rios said.
Curiously, the county seat of New Brunswick was not mentioned in the speech, nor was a $7 million county-funded construction project that recently commenced here: a downtown bikeway connecting the College Avenue and Cook/Douglass campuses of Rutgers Unviersity.
Another plan from the past that was not addressed in the speech was that of a minor league baseball stadium to be built in "the southern part of the county," plans first announced in 2013 by Rios' predecessor, Chris Rafano, who left the Freeholder Director spot when Gov. Chris Christie appointed him to a Superior Court judgeship.
For the benefit of our readers, below is the full text of Rios' speech:
Good evening. I am pleased to share with you tonight the State of the County Address for 2014.
Middlesex County has experienced great progress in 2014 in many different areas. From expanding our programming for those most in need to keeping our expenses in check so that our taxpayers get the quality programs they deserve at costs they can afford, this Freeholder Board with our administration and staff have held fast to our commitment to serve our residents.
We have done this by building on our solid financial foundation, by deploying new technologies throughout our business processes to streamline government and by focusing on our residents and their needs so that we remain responsive.
Now, I can continue to discuss progress in the abstract, but I believe our projects, our services and our business decisions deserve to be recognized with concrete examples, for as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.”
Our commitment to end homelessness in Middlesex County – including homelessness among our veterans – advanced this year as the Board helped break ground on Kilmer Homes. The County allocated $2.1 million from its Housing First Capital Fund toward the construction of 30 units in the 120-unit complex being constructed in Edison.
The project is just one way this Board, especially Freeholder Blanquita Valenti, a staunch advocate for ending homelessness, is looking to improve the lives of those affected by poverty. It is here that we and our community partners are creating a safe and productive community for homeless veterans, families who may be in danger of becoming homeless, and all those needing a place of their own.
I am also proud to announce that our initiatives to support our veterans have been recognized on a federal level. Our Veterans Service Program was the sole recipient of the 2014 Meritorious Service Award from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. The program brings together federal, state, local and non-profit groups to provide different forms of aid to our veterans, including housing assistance.
When we consider these brave men and women, we must remember that they have served and sometimes died to protect all of us. The least we can do to repay their sacrifices is to make sure that life in the US remains worth fighting for and protect them in return.
About 18 months ago, under my direction and with the support of this Freeholder Board and our County Human Services staff and community partners, we expanded the program to form the Veterans Housing Assistance Program (VHAP). So far, this program, the only one of its kind in the State, has helped over 65 veterans and their families with housing assistance, employment, and follow-up case management. Assistance ranges from helping veterans put down security deposits, pay rental arrears or advance rental payments when needed.
It is my hope that these programs will continue to grow, and that our educational outreach, along with our residents’ support will create a safe environment for America’s heroes, and truly make our County a better place to be.
In addition to creating housing for the neediest among us, the County, in collaboration with the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, Edison Township and the JFK Health System, has furthered its plans to transform the historic Roosevelt Care Center into independent, affordable apartments for our senior citizens. The project, one that I have been deeply involved with and have been working with our partners since taking my seat on this Freeholder Board, answers the growing and changing health care and housing needs of our senior residents.
Our two state-of-the-art facilities – one in Edison; the second in Old Bridge – are meeting the need for skilled care. The historic building will help us answer the need for affordable housing for our seniors, including our veterans, who may not need the level of care offered at a long-term-care facility. We anticipate the Roosevelt campus in Edison will soon house other healthcare amenities, such as doctors’ offices and a dialysis center to better serve our residents.
We expect to share more news with you as the project moves forward.
As we consider the welfare of the entire County, and as the County continues to face cutbacks from the State in critical areas, such as healthcare and education, my Freeholder colleagues and I turned our attention to ways we could expand healthcare initiatives, especially for women.
So, under the guidance of Freeholder Deputy Director Carol Barrett Bellante, a question has been placed on the November ballot asking Middlesex County voters to authorize, but not bind, the governing body of the County of Middlesex to increase funding to be used exclusively for women’s health programs. The programs are designed specifically to enhance the early detection and screening for diseases uniquely affecting women. Such programs include mammograms, cancer screenings, PAP Tests, cervical exams and similar disease screening and detection programs. No new tax dollars would be used to pay for these programs, instead the County would allocate existing funds if the voters pass this referendum.
My Freeholder colleagues and I, recognizing the importance of the arts in our lives, placed a second question on the Middlesex County ballot to establish the “Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund.” The fund would be used exclusively for the development, restoration, improvement to and maintenance of cultural and arts facilities, theaters and other arts venues within Middlesex County and to encourage and support arts education for County residents through support of quality arts educations programs, including those sponsored and conducted through qualified nonprofit arts organizations.
The “Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund” would also provide general support to projects and programs whose purpose is to recognize and preserve the history and heritage of Middlesex County, including recognizing and honoring our veterans.
My Freeholder colleagues and I believe that now is the time to step up and fill the gaps the State has created especially in health and education funding. If voters agree with us, the County will assess its current programming and take the appropriate steps to fund these critical women’s health programs and arts education and services projects.
Speaking of voting, the County has embraced a “Get Out The Vote” initiative to make it easier for our citizens to participate in the democratic process. Every town has polling places where we can vote, but there are many citizens who, due to disabilities, work, school or family commitments, or for other reasons, cannot get out to the polling place on Election Day. Our Vote-By-Mail program, which many of you have already taken advantage of, seeks to ease voting and enable citizens to still make a difference at election time, even if they can’t get to the polling places.
Improving access to voting and to all our services has been a constant goal of this Freeholder Board. And in the 21st century, access to information is most easily delivered via the Internet. So it is my pleasure, to announce that Middlesex County’s state-of-the-art and interactive website will debut later this month. Through the site, the Board of Chosen Freeholders will be able to offer individuals and businesses the ability to engage and interact with County government more efficiently. Users will be able to complete online payment and registration for programs; fill-out grant and program applications; reserve picnic groves; contact elected officials and view Freeholder meetings.
One component of the new site is the Middlesex County Economic Development Business Portal, which provides business investors with financing information and incentives and other opportunities using interactive maps. Businesses will be able to analyze the County’s assets through relevant demographic, economic and quality of life information that will serve to attract or retain investments.
Freeholder Kenneth Armwood has helped to usher in this new technology to help boost economic development, increase job opportunities and help our business community to continue to thrive.
Recognizing that strong businesses need a skilled and educated workforce, the County has focused on continuing our tradition of offering quality education. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the Middlesex County Vocational-Technical School district. The district has grown and changed with the times, offering our students the education they need to thrive in today’s business climate. As a result of our efforts, and the efforts of the Board, Administration and staff of the district, three of our schools – over the last three years – have been awarded National Blue Ribbon designations. In fact, we received word this past Tuesday that the County’s Academy for Allied Health and Biomedical Sciences in Woodbridge joined the Academy for Mathematics & Engineering Technologies in Edison and the Perth Amboy campus in earning this distinction.
I am also proud to announce that Middlesex County College continues to expand its programs in a time when most other education institutions are pulling back. Deputy Director Barrett Bellante, Freeholder Charles Kenny and a host of dignitaries broke ground on the Center for Student Services, which will provide a revolutionary process for enrolling students, who will be able to conduct their enrollment process at one counter instead of making multiple stops.
The College also will be building an Academic Science building that will house additional instructional and lab space for science programs (especially chemistry and biology) to enable the College to expand its health-related and biotech programs.
My fellow Freeholders and I allocated $3.4 million dollars in capital funds for the science building project and $6 million dollars for the Student Services center, underscoring our commitment to the education of our residents.
The programs and services I’ve mentioned could not be a reality without master planning and a methodical approach to our budget process. Under the direction of Freeholder Charles Kenny, and with the support of our Administration and Finance Department, Middlesex County has accomplished the County’s goal of keeping our financial house in order over the past six years. This has been attained even in the face of federal and state cuts to programming. In short, we are doing more with less. I thank my colleagues here on the Board and the entire County staff for ensuring our citizens will continue to receive quality services.
The 2014 budget is $783,968 less than the statutory 2 percent CAP. This was made possible by the continued strategy of restructuring County government and by harnessing new technology to replace labor-intensive and manual processes. New technology has been introduced in the Surrogate’s and Purchasing Offices, leading to more efficient service and more access to our programs.
In 2014 Middlesex County, with the guidance of Freeholder Kenny, paved the way in advancing new fiscal policies which are in line with our continued long-term fiscal strategies. We were the first County in New Jersey to officially adopt by Freeholder resolution a “Fund Balance Policy” and a “Debt Policy.” Freeholder Kenny, you have been on this Board for less than a year and you have really hit the ground running. Thank you.
This strong debt service strategy is reflected in the decrease in debt service of 11 percent over last year and our continued work to increase our surplus funds by $6.5 million dollars or 31 percent since 2013. We have done this in order to ensure that we have the proper reserves to absorb any emergent situation, such as Super Storm Sandy in 2012. Middlesex County is the only County in the State that has NOT used surplus funds in 2014 to close any budget gaps.
As a result of our financial acumen, Standard and Poor’s had two opportunities to rate our condition and continues to award us a Triple A bond rating, the highest rating obtainable. In its summary of findings, Standard and Poors’ stated: “Middlesex County's management is strong, in our view, supported by good financial management policies and practices. (The County has) adequate budgetary flexibility with projections of improvement to levels we consider strong within the next two to four years. The stable outlook reflects our view that Middlesex County is on a positive fiscal trajectory and in a strong position to build on reserves through positive operations.” Neither the State nor Federal governments hold Triple A ratings. Maybe they can learn from us.
A Triple A rating means that we can invest in our roads, buildings and bridges to ensure a strong, safe infrastructure and that we can build and maintain state-of-the-art educational facilities and communications networks at lower costs to our taxpayers.
These investments are made through our Capital Budget, which in 2014 includes $27 million for infrastructure improvements, $9 million to enhance emergency response capabilities, and $8.4 million for improvements to the infrastructure and educational facilities at the County College and Vocational-Technical Schools. Another $4.8 million dollars has been allocated for Community Services projects, including efforts to end homelessness.
Middlesex County, unlike the State and many other government entities, has worked hard to lower our operating expenses so that we do not increase the burden on our taxpayers. One example is our success as keeping our healthcare costs in check. Middlesex County is self-insured, meaning it is not enrolled in the State’s health care plan for its employees. By being self-insured, the County has been able to keep annual increases down to between 3 percent and 5 percent. The State’s health care costs are rising by double digits every year.
To further reduce costs, Middlesex County has initiated a Wellness Program for our employees. The Wellness program, overseen by a Wellness Coach, includes blood pressure and other screenings, a lunch-time walking group, help with weight loss and smoking cessation and building healthy habits among our employees.
By being proactive, we are helping our employees prevent chronic medical issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, before they begin, increasing their productivity and lowering our health costs.
By lowering costs in certain areas, my Freeholder colleagues and I are able to allocate funds to programs that improve the quality of life of all our residents, especially in the area of safety.
During Super Storm Sandy and other water related situations, the County recognized a need for resources to specifically address these problems.
At the recommendation of Freeholder Jim Polos, the County is providing inflatable boats to three designated municipalities to facilitate evacuations during any flood or water related emergency. The boats will be fully equipped with trained staff and supplies. The County will also form a “water rescue and recovery team” that would consist of fully trained staff and equipment to conduct water rescues, searches, and evacuations. This team will work in concert with the high water rescue vehicles the County anticipates receiving later this calendar year.
On June 20, Freeholder Polos facilitated the “Heroin and Opiates a Matter of Public Safety and Health” brainstorming session. This event, attended by over 100 individuals from law enforcement, the courts, clergy, treatment and counseling groups and various civic and professional organizations, was called to identify and formulate strategies to address this ever growing epidemic.
The attendees identified six “focus areas” to further design plans and programs specifically geared to reduce and treat opiate abuse. Subsequent meetings for each of these groups are on-going and recommendations concerning these targeted areas are forthcoming.
The popular Traffic Safety is Elementary: Don’t Clown Around video, created in 2012 for kindergarten to third graders, won the “Children & Youth Programming” award and best “Instructional and Training Video in the 2013 JAM Video Award Festival. It has been presented to 23 schools and over 6,000 enthusiastic children in Middlesex County, and will continue to offer the program to additional schools in the fall and spring.
Safety, quality education and state-of-the-art recreational facilities are the hallmarks of a great community. Middlesex County prides itself on these three areas for good reason. In addition to our award-winning schools and comprehensive human service and safety programs, the County offers a multitude of passive and active recreational facilities.
This year, we completed more than $7 million dollars in Superstorm Sandy repairs at three of our parks, Old Bridge Waterfront Park, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park and Alvin Williams Park.
In addition, we paid tribute to one of our most dedicated public servants and my good friend with the dedication of the James T. Phillips Boardwalk at Old Bridge Waterfront Park. It was Jim, in his time as Middlesex County Freeholder and Old Bridge Mayor, who championed the establishment and growth of Old Bridge Waterfront Park. The boardwalk, which lies along the Raritan Bay offers some of the most beautiful views in the County. It is next to a brand new pirate-themed playground that was also installed at the park.
Freeholder Charles Tomaro has been a very vocal and strong advocate for the Middlesex Greenway, a 3.5 mile hiking and biking path that runs through Edison, Metuchen and Woodbridge. I am happy to announce that in 2014, the County acquired an additional piece of land from Consolidated Rail Corporation that will allow us to connect the eastern end of the Greenway to East William Street Park in the Fords section of Woodbridge Township. Conceptual design will begin next year.
Under Freeholder Tomaro’s supervision, the County also purchased 5.87 acres of property across from the County Perth Amboy Vocational-Technical High School and is negotiating the purchase of an additional 2.9 acres at the site for a brand new active recreation park. When complete, the park will include a waterfront walkway, 3 multi-purpose fields and a playground, increasing the quality of life for the residents of Perth Amboy and all of Middlesex County.
To improve our passive recreation and conservation areas, the County partnered with the non-profit Green Trust Alliance, a regional conservation organization, applied and was granted final approval for more than $3.8 million dollars to fund wetland restoration projects on four County properties:
- The Pin-Oak Forest in Woodbridge Township
- The Thompson Park Conservation Area in Monroe Township
- The Jamesburg Park Conservation Area in the Borough of Helmetta
- Deep Run Preserve in Old Bridge Township.
The restoration will be implemented by Green Trust Alliance with oversight from the County. The project funding covers design and permitting, construction, planting and monitoring, as well as the cost of County personnel time for review and administration. This funding will allow us to further restore and enhance wetlands on open spaces, provide improved habitat for wildlife and protect and improve water quality, all at no cost to the County.
This furthers our commitment to not only preserve open space throughout the County, but to be effective stewards of this important investment. We will continue to pursue creative avenues to acquire funding to support our ongoing commitment to County Parks and Open Space.
Middlesex County’s agricultural history is safeguarded by the extremely successful Farmland Preservation Program. In 2014, a 37.7-acre farm became the 52nd farm in Middlesex County preserved forever since it entered the County’s preservation program. With the addition of this farm, more than 5,400 acres of farmland, have been preserved throughout the County. That number includes preservation easements purchased through the County Farmland Preservation Program funds, as well as purchases made directly by the State, the municipalities, non-profit organizations and land donated to the County.
We have made great strides in protecting our environment, preserving our precious lands and offering great opportunities to spend quality time at state-of-the-art facilities. We have kept our expenses in check, build and improve our infrastructure and enhance our residents’ safety. And, under the leadership of Freeholder Blanquita Valenti, I am very happy to say that we have been able to further our mission to care for all the residents of the County.
In addition to our efforts to end homelessness and meet our seniors’ health care needs, we offer comprehensive mental health care at the George J. Otlowski Sr. Mental Health Center. In 2014, staff increased services provided to residents by 15 percent and increased the size of its group program by 20 percent. The center now offers 16 different groups for children, adults and families in English and Spanish. Even with the increase in service, the center’s operating budget decreased by 20 percent, and its revenues have increased 15 percent, speaking to the operational efficiencies achieved throughout the year.
As I said at the opening, Middlesex County has made great progress this past year. In no way could this have happened without the dedication and diligence of our administration and staff, and for that my fellow Freeholders and I are grateful.
Middlesex County is a business in the strictest sense of the word because we are in the business of serving the more than 815,000 people who call this County home. It is our responsibility to ensure that their needs are met, and that they have the best opportunities for quality education and recreation. We must do all of this at costs our citizens can afford. I believe our ability to carry out our duties is strong and that, in 2014, Middlesex County continues to be the Greatest County in the Land!
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.