Mercer County, New Jersey
Before the Greater Mercer County Chamber of Commerce
January 22, 2004
Madam Freeholder Chair Muoio and Members of the Freeholder Board, Chairman Losch and members of the Chamber Board, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen:
It is my privilege today to report to you and the people of Mercer County on the state of our great county.
At the outset, let me express my appreciation to the Greater Mercer County Chamber of Commerce for extending this invitation to continue the tradition of having the annual state of the county address be delivered as part of the January meeting of the Chamber.
This Chamber has played a central role in the economic health and vitality of our county since its inception in 1868. I know that under the new leadership of Chairman Losch, your organization’s effectiveness will continue to grow. Congratulations on your election.
Before I begin, let me also take a moment to acknowledge Bob Prunetti. Bob was able to accomplish many projects during his twelve years as County Executive, including the Waterfront Stadium and the Sovereign Bank Arena. His commitment helped create a sense of regional identity for Mercer County. Let us take a moment to express our thanks.
I also want to acknowledge Cathy DiCostanzo, my opponent in the race for County Executive and our County Clerk. Cathy was certainly a very worthy opponent during the campaign, and – now that the election is over – she continues her respected role within Mercer County government.
As I said in my Inaugural Address, we in Mercer County are at a crossroads.
In talking to residents of Mercer County over the past year, I clearly heard their priorities: People want government to be the hand extended in crisis, the bridge to achieving their dreams. They want efficient public services. And they want leaders who listen.
I also clearly heard what Mercer residents do NOT want. They do not want government to be a burden. They do not want more bureaucracy. And they abhor government when it becomes a vehicle for personal enrichment.
More than ever, the public wants government to understand its limits, but to do its job well. And the public absolutely demands that we in the public sector live by a credo that demands integrity, openness and fair dealing.
That is what I heard, and that is what you can expect of me as your County Executive.
There was some apprehension after the election in November about what the new Hughes administration might mean for County government and its programs. This was certainly understandable. After all, it had been a long time without much change within the county administration.
But change can be good. Change encourages innovation and brings out the best in us. It forces us to rethink our assumptions and prevents us from becoming stale. Change encourages excellence.
I am committed to using this period of change and transition to encourage excellence in our county government.
After my election, I asked over a hundred leaders and experts from Mercer County and beyond to assist me in this transition. I charged them to look carefully at every aspect of County government and to find ways to improve it.
Eight working committees spent an intense holiday season completing their work. While the members of the committees knew that they were working to assist my administration, they also knew that they had the latitude to make independent judgments about the matters they were considering. I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank transition team members for their dedication and sacrifice.
As part of my commitment to openness and transparency in county government, I have taken the unprecedented step of making summaries of these transition reports available on our website. Access to these reports is just a couple of clicks away, and they are also available through my office for those without Internet access.
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Let me say that these are not official documents and do not necessarily reflect the views of my administration. I agree with some recommendations and disagree with others. But that is part of their value to me – they reflect the independent analysis and recommendations of leaders and experts of how we can use this process of change for the benefit of the people of Mercer County.
I intend to make this kind of openness and transparency a hallmark of my administration. Another way is through the creation of a new Inspector General position within my administration. This position will have the authority to review every aspect of county government, including the various contracts we award. I hope this will send a very clear message that I will adhere to only the highest ethical standards. The transition reports offer some important findings. They found that Mercer County government has done some things very well. Our county library system and Mercer County Community College stood out in these reports as centers of excellence.
The reports also raised some red flags. One practice of county government that was singled out for its negative impact was the failure to address maintenance needs in the County’s numerous facilities. We have not been doing enough preventative maintenance and we have not dealt with the serious and costly problems we have with some of our buildings.
But most of all, the transition teams found that many opportunities exist to improve services, improve efficiency, and improve performance. We see opportunities to get a better deal for the taxpayers and new ways to pursue our vision for a better Mercer County, including protecting open space and making it accessible, offering better services for seniors, and strengthening our efforts in creating economic opportunity.
We have several immediate tasks before us.
One of my top priorities is to restore or replace our criminal courthouse. The condition of the courthouse is a disgrace, as is our failure to have not addressed this problem earlier.
Courthouse renovations have been discussed for nearly 10 years. Estimates of the total cost for this project have ranged from $36 million to upwards of $60 million or more. I am hopeful that we can accomplish what needs to be done at a cost of closer to $45 million. But the more we delay, the more expensive this project will be.
One of the first conversations I had after taking office was with Judge Linda Feinberg, our Assignment Judge, who is very anxious to get the project going before someone is seriously hurt. I share her concern and her sense of urgency.
Pursuing this project will require the County to be in the best possible fiscal condition over the next several years. Therefore, I will be presenting to our Freeholder Board a very carefully crafted budget for the year that we have just begun. This budget will include a prudent and sizeable reserve for unanticipated expenses, given what we have learned about the condition of county facilities.
Based on our current projections, I am pleased to announce that I will present to the Board a budget that will include a modest reduction in the county tax rate for 2004.
This decision, and the budget we will forge with the Freeholders, reflect the need for balance: Tax relief is desired, but fiscal responsibility is required. We can no longer allow our county facilities to deteriorate to the point of danger. In the long run, the taxpayers are not well-served.
The surplus in our budget should aid our discussions with the bond rating agencies, so that when we finance the courthouse and other county projects, the taxpayers will get the best deal possible.
Balancing the county’s budget in the years ahead will require careful planning, given the increasing deficits that need to be covered for three other County facilities – Waterfront Park, the Sovereign Bank Arena and the Mercer County Geriatric Center. The combined annual deficit for Waterfront Park and the Arena is about $5 million, and this deficit is projected to continue to rise because of increasing debt service costs. And the deficit from the Geriatric Center will be almost $4 million this year.
Clearly, the value of these facilities cannot be measured purely in financial terms. Waterfront Park and the Sovereign Bank Arena have raised the profile of the City of Trenton and the county as a center for recreation and entertainment. We continue to expect great things to happen in the areas surrounding both facilities. But because of the ways in which they were financed – such as the non-callable premium bonds issued for the Arena – our options for reducing the debt burden on county taxpayers are limited. The Geriatric Center has its own unique set of problems. Finding ways to improve operations and reduce the financial burden of all three facilities will be an important priority for my administration.
Delayed maintenance and physical deterioration are also major problems at two other county facilities, the Correction Center and the Sypek Center.
All of these problems point to the need for better management. We need to develop a facilities master plan. And we need to run a tighter ship.
Strengthening economic opportunities in Mercer County is another of my immediate priorities. This is an exciting time for our county. There are many economic development projects on the horizon. New businesses are relocating and starting up all across our county.
We have a promising new organization to support heritage tourism that was spearheaded by Thomas Edison State College and Mercer County Community College in partnership with the Mercer Chamber.
Two weeks ago I met representatives from Performa, the developer of the South Broad Street Village. I came away impressed that retail commitments for that project have reached the 50 percent mark. It seems clear that private investment has begun to flow into the Opportunity Triangle.
My administration is committed to working even more closely with the City of Trenton and the State to facilitate economic development in our Capital City. Let me share one example of our new way of working together.
The City of Trenton has long sought to erase the sea of blacktop in the blocks behind the County Courthouse. Mayor Palmer has a vision of bringing market-rate housing and office space to the shadow of the State House, so that young professionals who work in the courts or in state government can live within walking distance.
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For that vision to become a reality, however, the State of New Jersey must replace the hundreds of parking spaces that would be lost.
This need is repeated across our Capital City. As everyone in this room knows, the desire for development must be paired with a strategic plan for parking. We cannot have one without the other.
With that in mind, I will convene a parking summit involving leaders from the city, the county and state government, the city parking authority, the courts, and private sector partners. One of the summit’s priorities will be exploring the development of a large parking garage alongside our new criminal courthouse.
Specifically, the county will explore whether revenue from a new parking complex can help pay for the courthouse construction, thus offering a measure of relief for Mercer taxpayers. Our goal will be results – we need to solve the problem of parking in and around our county facilities, complete our courthouse projects and see whether there are opportunities to stimulate new investment at the same time.
The word “opportunity” will be important in this administration. For years, county government has had separate offices of Economic Development, which handled business development, and Economic Opportunity, which addressed the needs of women- and minority-owned businesses.
These should not be separate concerns. I am merging these two units into one Office of Economic Opportunity. This change will improve the level of service for businesses while reducing overlap. It will also ensure that the concerns of women- and minority-owned businesses are not marginalized in my administration. We will do a better job at a better price for the taxpayer.
As new investment and new businesses create more economic development, the urgency of our transportation challenges becomes even greater. A recent study of Route 1 by the NJ Department of Transportation identified some ways in which that road could be improved, but it is not clear whether there will be sufficient funds in the Transportation Trust Fund to complete many of them. I will work with our legislative delegation to find ways to address these issues at the state level, while working creatively to invest in our own network of county roads.
Encouraging small businesses is at the heart of my economic development strategy. Because so many new jobs are created through small businesses, we will focus much of our effort on providing support for their growth. The Small Business Development Center already offers many services for this purpose, and the Trenton Business and Technology Center is another important partner. The Mercer County Small Business Loan Fund will be more aggressively marketed to potential borrowers, and we will work closely with the Regional Business Assistance Corporation to address micro lending needs. Small businesses are a vital engine of economic growth, and we are committed to supporting them.
I have talked a lot today about our great capital city because that is where many of the current projects are already taking place. I am acutely aware, however, that all thirteen municipalities within our county have particular needs – open space, senior services, road and bridge construction and a host of others – that will not be forgotten or ignored by this administration. I realize that we are all in this together and I will never forget it.
And we should also never forget that our county has an essential role to play for those who have special needs, or who are struggling with poverty, or those who are otherwise at risk of falling through the cracks. Almost 6% of our families have incomes below the poverty line, and our board of social services served more than 8,000 Mercer County families and individuals last year. We can’t neglect the needs of these members of our communities. I pledge to invest our resources to protect our children and support our at-risk families. As we experience the severe cold weather of the past few weeks, we are also reminded of the needs of the homeless. I am committed to ensuring that our social service programs are as effective as possible in making life better for the most vulnerable Mercer County residents. I should note that each County dollar we spend in providing these social services is matched by at least $19 in federal funds, with a total impact on our local economy of $220 million.
Before I conclude, let us all reflect for a moment on how the war in Iraq has touched the lives of so many Mercer County residents.
The sons and daughters of Mercer County, New Jersey and our Country continue to sacrifice on our behalf. Many paying the ultimate sacrifice in lands far away.
Let us have a moment of silence to honor them.
The challenges ahead are many, but our goals are vitally important. The state of our county is strong, but we know it can be even stronger.
If we are to make real progress, we will need to work together effectively, tirelessly and selflessly.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”
Today, we are the ones with the opportunity to make history here in our county.
I ask you to join me in working to create a better Mercer County – for our senior citizens, for the least among us, and for all of us who call Mercer County our home.