ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. presented his 14th annual State of the County Address on Monday, Feb. 27, in the Essex County Hospital Center in Cedar Grove. The multimedia presentation outlined county achievements and improvement projects completed in 2016, highlighted the services and programs offered by Essex County and announced plans for 2017.
This year’s address was created with an adventure theme to share the events and accomplishments of the last year, according to a press release from the county. The address started with a short video that included timelapse video of construction projects and an array of photographs from press conferences and programs, all set to the music of the “Indiana Jones” movies.
“Scaling mountains, searching for lost treasure and mapping uncharted territories are all adventures, but an adventure can take many forms,” DiVincenzo began, according to the release. “Our Essex adventure began when we first took office over 14 years ago.”
He quickly moved to discuss the county budget.
“Heart pounding and hair raising. These phrases are not usually associated with government budgets. But when you inherit a $64 million deficit like we did in 2003 or you’re confronted with the economic storm of the Great Recession in 2007, there’s no other way to describe it,” he said, promising to continue strengthening the county’s financial footing and obtaining a AAA bond rating.
In his address, DiVincenzo highlighted the array of county services and programs that assist the young and old, and all ages in between. The Office of the Special Child helps children with developmental delays while the Division of Senior Services expanded on its nationally-recognized Cafes in the Parks to include its sixth location. Youth-related services were consolidated in one location in the Youth Resource Center, where customers can participate in education and employment-directed programs to help them return to school or join the workforce. For youthful offenders who end up at the Juvenile Detention Facility, a full school day and mentoring activities provide direction for when they are released.
DiVincenzo lauded the accomplishments of the Essex County Vocational Technical School District. Last year, the Bloomfield Tech campus earned its second National Blue Ribbon Award and the Newark Tech campus earned its first, giving the district four national awards in the last six years. Construction of the new Essex County Donald M. Payne School started in the spring of 2016 and the school is on track to welcome its first class in 2018. Also announced were plans to expand and modernize the building at the West Caldwell campus.
To assist residents in need, the Division of Welfare “received a makeover,” DiVincenzo said, which included a larger waiting room, information stations to streamline the application process and the continued refinement of case banking. “The office was also rebranded as the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits to better reflect its role and the people it serves,” he said.
In the area of public safety, DiVincenzo noted that the Correctional Facility earned ACA accreditation for the second time and an innovative re-entry program was started to prepare inmates for reintegration into society before their release. In addition, a new patrol headquarters for the Sheriff’s Office will be built.
The ongoing initiative to revitalize the Essex County Parks System continued with five playgrounds being modernized in 2016 and another four planned for 2017. Other notable upgrades completed last year were the football, track, softball and baseball fields in Weequahic Park; the basketball court, sidewalk and running track in Watsessing Park; and the community centers in Irvington Park and Vailsburg Park. In addition, the 77-acre Essex County Cedar Grove Park on Fairview Avenue — the fifth largest in the parks system — was opened and includes walking paths, a gazebo, bocce courts, a farm-themed playground and a community center, which is named after former Cedar Grove Mayor Robert J. O’Toole. Projects scheduled to be completed this year include basketball courts and a soccer field in Independence Park; the walking track, basketball courts and ornamental lighting in Irvington Park; rink No. 1 in Codey Arena; fencing around Watsessing Park; the football field and running track in West Side Park; and the parking lot and facilities for The First Tee youth golf program at Weequahic Golf Course.
New exhibits and amenities completed at Turtle Back Zoo include the African Adventure featuring giraffes, the two-story Savanna Cafe, the Sea Turtle Recovery Center, enhanced public viewing areas at the prairie dog and bison exhibits, and the covered walking trail for the pony rides. Scheduled to be completed this year are a lion and hyena exhibit, improved public viewing stations at the wolf exhibit and at the giant anteater and maned wolf exhibit; and new exhibits for condors, penguins and flamingoes. “These improvements help fulfill the educational and conservation goals of our zoo, which earned AZA accreditation for the third straight time,” DiVincenzo said.
Public works projects highlighted included the $30 million of upgrades to the ess-curves along South Orange Avenue and $6 million to modernize 14 intersections in Irvington — both projects funded with grants from the federal government. Projects under way include the rehabilitation of the Berkeley Avenue and Hoover Avenue bridges in Bloomfield, both expected to reopen in the spring.
Several memorials were held to recognize individuals who have had a tremendous impact in Essex County. A plaque honoring World War II veteran and Hobbies Deli owner Samuel Brummer was placed in Essex County Veterans Memorial Park; plaques honoring Baseball Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, Star-Ledger Columnist Emeritus Jerry Izenberg, former Surrogate Adrian Foley and Essex County’s first Youth Services Director John Clancy were placed along Legends Way next to the Hall of Records; the Watsessing Park Walking Track was named in honor of Glen Ridge resident and 1952 Olympic gold medalist Horace Ashenfelter; the Weequahic Park recreation complex was named for the late Rev. Ronald Christian; a Weequahic Park baseball field was named for the late Bill Hicks, a high school and Little League baseball coach in Newark; the Weequahic Park Community Center was named for Newark entrepreneur Feldman “Mootsie” Middleton; the Weequahic Park Playground was named for activist Carl Sharif; and the Irvington Park Community Center was named for Freeholder and Irvington Councilman D. Bilal Beasley. In addition, a bronze rescue dog statue was dedicated at the Essex County Eagle Rock Sept. 11 Memorial to recognize the role canine responders had in the aftermath of the terror attacks and a bronze statue of Monte Irvin was dedicated at Monte Irvin Orange Park.
“Each of these dedications immortalizes the contributions of individuals who served as role models and motivated our youth, strengthened our communities and inspired generations,” DiVincenzo said. “We hope that when people today and in the future see these monuments, they will understand the deep history of Essex, follow a positive path and pursue their dreams.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct an error in Feldman “Mootsie” Middleton’s name, which was erroneously listed first as Felix Middleton.