DiVincenzo presents 15th annual State of the County Address

Photo Courtesy of Glen Frieson
At Essex County’s 15th annual State of the County Address on Feb. 26 are, from left, Essex County Surrogate Ted Stephens, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Pastor Joe Carter from New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos and Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura.

CEDAR GROVE, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. presented his 15th annual State of the County Address on Monday, Feb. 26, in the Essex County Hospital Center in Cedar Grove. The multimedia presentation outlined county achievements and improvement projects completed in 2017, highlighted the services and programs offered by Essex County and announced plans for 2018.

Before the county executive took to the podium, a three-and-a-half-minute video delved into some perceptions the general public may have about Essex County government. In the vocational school district, students may learn traditional building trades, but the programs of study have been expanded to include agricultural science, law and public safety, computer programming and other emerging professional fields. High unemployment rates are combated with job training and readiness programs. In addition to providing family-friendly fun, Turtle Back Zoo is engaged in a variety of education, conservation and endangered species protection programs. According to the video, the Correctional Facility offers a model re-entry program to help inmates prepare for their release.

DiVincenzo began his address by discussing the Aa rating the county received from Moody’s Investors Services, which is one step away from the highest financial rating. He described his administration as “a corporation whose conservative budget practices and sound fiscal policies grew its fund balance from a deficit to a surplus. A team that believes in leaving the county in better shape than it inherited. A network that strives to bridge the gap for families in times of need. A steward that preserves our open spaces. And an advocate that continually enhances our quality of life.

“Our web of support services goes beyond the young and old, and a variety of programs are available to anyone regardless of their stage in life. Often our perception of government doesn’t reflect the true reality of the work that our 3,500 employees do,” he continued, explaining that there is compassion in Essex County, with a variety of programs and services that assist special needs children, veterans, those struggling with mental illness, those experiencing financial hardship and vulnerable senior citizens. In the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits, SNAP applications — formerly food stamps — are processed at a 96-percent timeliness rating, making it one of the most effective offices in the country. In the Division of Training and Employment, an innovative partnership with UPS saw 78 residents hired with the shipping corporation providing transportation to and from the worksite.

The county executive said he is proud of the accomplishments of the Vocational Technical School District. Students can enroll in 10 advanced placement courses and, through a collaboration with Essex County College, can graduate high school with their diploma, but also an associate’s degree. On the horizon is the anticipated opening of the new Essex County Donald Payne Sr. School of Technology and the start of construction of the modernization and expansion of the Essex County West Caldwell Campus.

“Residents may not have a clear picture of every role the county fills, but when the lens is focused, they can see that what we do has a profound impact on our 800,000 residents. Every construction project directly affects our quality of life and the value of our homes,” DiVincenzo said.

According to him, this includes the opening of the new Sheriff’s Patrol Headquarters in Newark, which has already become an anchor in Newark’s West Ward community. The reconstruction of the Berkeley Avenue Bridge and Hoover Avenue Bridge in Bloomfield and the Lyons Avenue Bridge in Irvington and intersection improvements on Northfield Avenue in Livingston and West Greenbrook Road in North Caldwell are examples of how county infrastructure is being updated to ensure safe conditions that meet current demands. In 2018, planning will begin to modernize 31 intersections using a $14.8 million grant from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

Turtle Back Zoo continues to be a vibrant attraction, opening new exhibits for lions, hyenas, condors, wolves and anteaters and welcoming a record 907,522 guests in 2017, DiVincenzo announced. It also received certification from the American Humane Association, the third national organization to recognize Turtle Back for its high standard of animal care and conservation. In 2018, a new African penguin exhibit will open and construction will begin to create a new flamingo exhibit and to revamp the leopard exhibit and public entrance. Throughout the Essex County Parks System, improvements were made to playgrounds, basketball and tennis courts, rubberized tracks and the Weequahic Golf Course. In 2018, projects are planned to modernize playgrounds in Vailsburg, Verona, Weequahic, Grover Cleveland and Yanticaw parks; basketball and tennis courts in Grover Cleveland, Irvington, Ivy Hill, Monte Irvin Orange, Vailsburg and Weequahic parks and baseball diamonds in Branch Brook, Yanticaw and Riverbank parks. The Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park will receive an update and a new dog park will be created in Hilltop Reservation.

Environmental initiatives from 2017 included installing 302 solar panels on the roof of the public works building, making the facility energy self-sufficient, and opening the county’s third electric car charging station.

Two monuments lost since the 1970s were restored: a large plaque depicting how ancient Indian trails became the basis for the network of county roads and a granite and bronze bust of German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

DiVincenzo concluded the speech by highlighting three people. West Caldwell Campus senior Estefany Galdamez didn’t speak English when she came to the United States and is graduating at the top of her class and is planning on attending an Ivy League school in the fall. Sheriff’s Detective Abdullah Holmes performs the mundane duties of providing security at the courthouse, but he also witnessed a fatal shooting and made the arrest despite being almost run over by the suspect’s getaway car. Megha Ganne learned to play golf at The First Tee program at Weequahic and this past summer finished second in the National Drive, Chip and Putt Event at Augusta.

“Perception, stereotypes, headlines, labels. They all keep us from truly seeing who we are and what we do,” DiVincenzo said. “Everything isn’t always as it seems or as we expect. Look closer. There are 3,500 people who are transforming lives and always ‘Putting Essex County First.’”