Mercer County, New Jersey
Before the Greater Mercer County Chamber of Commerce
January 25, 2005
Madam Freeholder Chair Cannon 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.
Let me begin by thanking the Greater Mercer County Chamber of Commerce for once again hosting this event. I greatly appreciate the Chamber’s efforts on behalf of businesses in our county. Your new slogan -- “Get Connected. Get Results.” – says it all. I look forward to working with Chairman Losch and Executive Director Siekerka to get great results to benefit everyone in our county.
Also it is wonderful to see so many of our elected officials here today. Thank you all for being here.
My recent surgery reminded me once again of the tremendous warmth and caring that exists here in our great county.
I was overwhelmed that so many people took time to offer their hope, encouragement and prayers. It is something my wife Pamela and I will never forget. This experience has inspired me in many ways On January 2nd, 2004 it was my great privilege to be sworn in as Mercer County Executive.
When I took office, I promised that certain bedrock principles would guide my administration.
I said that leadership must be synonymous with integrity, and we would be committed to the highest ethical standards.
I said we would be good stewards of the public trust, and our budgets would balance the needs of our county with the resources of our taxpayers.
I said we would work to promote economic growth and opportunity.
I said we would create a government that reflects the many faces and many views of this county.
And I said we would protect our open space as a legacy for future generations.
During this first year in office, these principles have guided my actions.
With your help, we have shown that we can achieve our goals and serve the county with excellence while we also adhere to the highest ethical standards. I am proud of what we have accomplished and proud to report that the state of the county is vibrant and growing more vibrant every day.
Let me share just a few highlights.
First, we have come a long way in renewing the faith of our citizens in county government.
One of my first actions after taking office last January was the creation of the Office of Inspector General. My appointment of former Assistant United States Attorney Robert A. Farkas to this position underscored my commitment to open, efficient and honest government. This appointment has already proven to be an important investment in integrity.
But even more needed to be done. That is why we became the first County in the state – and quite possibly the nation – to ban the practice of pay to play.
I appreciate the leadership of Freeholder Elizabeth Muoio and the entire Freeholder Board for their important partnership in making this reform a reality.
Clearly, leadership matters. Together, we are showing that good, clean and open government can thrive in Mercer County.
Second, we have come a long way in our ambitious agenda to promote economic growth and opportunity.
Thanks to the efforts of many in this room, we have been successful over this past year in strengthening economic opportunities all across our county.
This has been a year of extraordinary growth for our local economy. I am pleased to announce that we have added a total of 7,700 new jobs within Mercer County over the past year. This is a remarkable achievement.
We have also reduced the unemployment rate in our county. The state Department of Labor’s most recent figures show that the unemployment rate has dropped from 4.7% to 3.2% over the past year.
Two recent studies have also proven objectively what those of us in the room already knew. Mercer County is among the top tier of places in the nation to start and grow a business.
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I am committed to supporting economic growth and opportunity. We have a great team in place to do so, and a multi-faceted strategy that is showing strong results.
We continue to offer support for new businesses through the Small Business Development Center, located at the College of New Jersey.
We incubate new businesses through the Trenton Business and Technology Center, which is hosted by Mercer County Community College.
We encourage entrepreneurship through a variety of programs, including the Minding Our Business program at Rider University.
We find ways- through Princeton University and other large institutions- to encourage small and minority-owned businesses to become vendors and take advantage of business opportunities.
We seek out regional tourism and promote our history and culture through the newly-created Capital Region Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is chaired by Dr. George Pruitt of Thomas Edison State College, and is currently hosted by this Chamber.
Our thanks to all of these educational partners for their vital contributions to our economic growth and future prosperity.
Our Foreign Trade Zone program is also promoting economic growth. This program has grown from 71 acres to over 1,600 acres. We expect that this asset will help us to attract new businesses to the county and further strengthen our economic base.
Already, Mercedes Benz has opened a state of the art facility in Washington Township, partially due to the new Foreign Trade Zone designation. We are confident that others will follow.
We are proud to be partners with all of you in building a strong economy in our County, and we ask for your help in finding new ways to make Mercer County a center for opportunity and growth.
To encourage interest in these opportunities, we will be hosting an Economic Summit during this coming year to focus attention on investment opportunities across the county. Through this summit, we hope that investors will discover the many ways in which all of us are working together to provide financial and technical services to attract, retain and expand businesses. I hope many of you will participate.
Third, in addition to our focus on government ethics and economic growth, we have come a long way in our efforts to strengthen our county government’s performance in several areas. Most of our work in these areas is not the stuff of headlines. You might not be very excited to learn about our efforts to control the county’s motor pool, or improve purchasing practices, or cut down on our use of county cell phones. In all of these areas and in many others, we have maintained a commitment to fiscal discipline and stewardship.
When all is said, one clear indication of our success in these areas can be seen in the County budget. And it can be seen in our tax rate.
I am pleased to announce that the County Budget I will soon present to the Freeholder Board for 2005 will have no increase in the County’s equalized tax rate. This will be the second year in a row in which this administration avoided any tax rate increase for Mercer County government.
There will be one separate increase in our overall property tax rates that I proposed and supported. And I hope you will agree that it represents good news.
In 2004, we asked the voters to approve a referendum expanding our commitment to open space. They responded resoundingly in favor. As a result, there will be a one cent increase in our property tax rates to provide new dedicated funding to preserve open space.
Already, taxpayers have protected more than 11,500 acres of county land. This new funding will provide over $55 million to support the purchase and preservation of additional acres across the county.
One of my top priorities over this past year has been our work to replace the old criminal courthouse.
The condition of the courthouse has been a serious problem for many years. Everyone knew that solving the problem would be complex and costly. Unfortunately, that meant the problem went unaddressed for far too many years, despite everyone knowing that it needed to be done.
I am reminded of what the noted educator, David Starr Jordan, said about this type of situation. He said, “Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.”
The time for virtue is here. I am pleased to report that we are well underway on our plans to build a new criminal courthouse and parking garage. Thanks to a commitment by the State to lease 700 spaces in the parking facility, we will be able to build a garage that is large enough to serve as a catalyst for development in downtown Trenton. We are excited about these plans, and we hope to see completion of the Courthouse project by the end of 2008.
When I took office, I also committed my administration to improving the quality of life for the residents of Mercer County. Over this past year, we have sought ways to achieve this goal in efficient and effective ways.
One important focus was improving the County’s Geriatric Center. Through our efforts, the quality of care, staffing, and infrastructure have been improved and state and federal inspections are noting this progress.
We have also strengthened our response to consumer complaints. When a senior citizen was cheated by a contractor and lost her hard-earned savings, County government was there, recovering her investment through our reinvigorated Office of Consumer Affairs.
And we are strengthening the county’s efforts in the area of environmental health with the appointment of our first environmental health officer. This year we joined the ranks of the other 20 counties in New Jersey by opening a County Environmental Health office for the first time.
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This has been a productive first year, but there is so much more ahead.
We know we need to continue to exercise careful fiscal discipline to enable us to invest in projects such as the new courthouse.
We know we must work to support cooperation and cost savings by municipal government, to keep property tax rates down.
One way in which we will do so is by creating a new county police academy to reduce costs and improve skills for county and municipal law enforcement officers across Mercer County. Today I am announcing the creation of this new academy in partnership with Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini and Sheriff Kevin Larkin.
The academy will be located at the West Windsor campus of Mercer County Community College and will complement the existing Trenton Police Academy.
It will enable the Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments to plan for their training entirely in County, instead of paying the higher rates of academies in other counties and travel costs. It will also encourage law enforcement officers to continue their education with associate’s degrees through the Community College and with bachelor’s degrees through Thomas Edison State College.
This training center will offer an opportunity to coordinate law enforcement techniques and best practices on issues such as homeland security in a much more efficient manner.
For developing a coordinated approach, for cutting costs, and for addressing all the other law enforcement issues that face our brave officers every day, developing this Academy is the right move at the right time.
We ask more and more of our law enforcement officers, and I know all of us appreciate their service to our communities. One of the areas of increased concern over this past year has been gang violence. It is certainly clear none of our communities is immune from the threat of this kind of violence.
Our prosecutor’s office has a gang unit that is working with communities throughout the county on this problem. Our Sheriff’s Office is working hard to provide resources needed to confront this problem. All of our municipalities are developing their own plans for addressing the public safety aspect of this issue.
But confronting gang violence is not just about law enforcement.
That is why today I am announcing the formation of the Mercer County Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force. The task force will assess the gang problem from a community-based and human services perspective.
This task force has strong involvement from our Department of Human Services, the Corrections Center, the Youth Detention Center, law enforcement, community leaders, and experts on the issue of gang activity.
At the preliminary meeting of this task force last week, over 100 interested individuals participated and offered their insights.
Gary DiBlasio, executive director of Corner House, and John Duarte, social worker for the Mercer County Youth Detention Center, will serve as co-chairs of the task force. We thank them and all of the members of the task force for their efforts to address this important issue.
So, we have made much progress, but there is much more to be done.
We have shown that we can establish the highest ethical standards for our county government. We can promote economic growth and create new jobs, while investing in the preservation of open space and protection of our environment and public health. We can exercise fiscal discipline and keep our tax rate down, while moving ahead with vital public projects like the new courthouse.
I am proud of all we have been able to accomplish together over this past year. But at moments like this, we must also look ahead with humility to our future challenges.
George Bernard Shaw once said that “we are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for the future.”
I believe passionately in that future, and have deep respect for the responsibility of public service. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as your County Executive, and ask for your support as we work together on behalf of our county.
Thank you very much.