TRENTON, N.J. - The effects of the prolonged recession have forced local government to look inward to determine its true purpose and core services, and Mercer County will refocus its priorities at the start of a new decade, County Executive Brian M. Hughes said today in his annual State of the County address.
Hughes delivered his address to an audience of about 300 business and government leaders Jan. 21 during a luncheon sponsored by the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce and NJM Insurance Group.
He said the variety and scope of challenges faced by government, business leaders, and County residents are so powerful they amount to “crises of the spirit.” More residents have reached out to County government for assistance in the past year than at any other time, he added.
“What does 2010 have in store? No one is sure if the economic freefall has stopped, and a glance at our accounts further reduces our faith in the prognosticators that tell us the recession is over,” Hughes said during his speech, which he delivered at Angeloni’s Cedar Gardens banquet hall in Hamilton. “I cannot predict when the recession will ebb and when we’ll experience a true rebound, but I’m optimistic that the decade before us is filled with promise.”
County government is mandated by the state constitution to provide only a few core functions, among them a court and prison system, collecting taxes, and maintaining roads and infrastructure, Hughes told the crowd. He stated that while County government provides “no frivolous functions,” the County is pursuing ways in which to “derive savings for the taxpayers as we uphold these mandates.”
Prioritizing core County functions has become not only necessary, but a stark reality. Large chunks of state and federal aid money has been dramatically reduced or cut off completely in the last year, and during Governor Chris Christie’s Jan. 19 swearing-in, the governor announced more cuts in state aid to local government were on the horizon. The Mercer County surplus will be utilized again this year in order to minimize any required tax increase, he said.
Mercer will also look toward increased regionalization of services where applicable, while removing itself from functions that are widely recognized as best delivered by the private sector. Hughes said the Mercer County Geriatric Center is one such service. The County has operated the center in Hamilton for decades, when there were just two geriatric centers in Mercer, a number that has climbed to 18 such facilities today.
“The reality is, this is the new reality, and we all will need to ask, what a ‘core’ service is, what a mandate is, and what a luxury is,” Hughes said. “This reality is not driven by preferences, but by economics.”
Despite the pressures on County finances and personnel in the past year, Hughes said Mercer had succeeded in handling an unprecedented number of residents who sought County services. The Mercer County One-Stop Career Center was visited 85,000 times in 2009, compared to 55,000 in all of 2008. The Small Business Development Center taught 747 residents about business planning, financing and operations, and helped small businesses obtain much-needed funding. And nearly 10,000 residents visited the County’s Division of Housing for assistance with energy costs.
The County Executive again urged the public and private sectors to work together to spur the economy with new projects that create new jobs and cited several examples of how the business community, with the help of the Mercer and Princeton Chambers of Commerce, has pushed forward with planned ventures despite difficulties.
Along the Route 130 corridor, businesses such as Hamilton Honda in Hamilton, All Points Communications in Robbinsville, and Chase Bank in East Windsor set up shop, while the Route 95 corridor saw new ventures such as the Element Hotel in Ewing and the massive new hospital being constructed by Capital Health System in Hopewell. Many others were established as well.
Hughes said the business community should be proud that Mercer’s unemployment rate is a full two points lower than the state and national averages. He also credited the education and healthcare sectors for creating a stable employment base in Mercer County, providing financial security to thousands of residents. The County Executive went on to caution, however, that 15,300 County residents remained out of work as of November 2009, and potential layoffs in state government this year could add to that number.
Hughes’ speech was attended by many elected officials, including Mercer County freeholders Ann Cannon, Keith V. Hamilton, Anthony Carabelli, Pasquale Colavita, and John Cimino; Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello; Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr.; Mercer County Sheriff Kevin Larkin; Mercer County Surrogate Diane Gerofsky; N.J. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo and Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein; West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh; Pennington Borough Mayor Anthony Persichilli; Princeton Township Mayor Bernard Miller; Robbinsville Mayor David Fried; Lawrence Mayor Michael Powers; Hamilton Councilman Kevin Meara; and Trenton Councilman Manny Segura.