NEWARK, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. presented his 16th annual State of the County Address on Monday, Feb. 25, in the Essex County Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark. The multimedia presentation outlined county achievements and improvement projects completed in 2018, highlighted the services and programs offered by Essex County, and announced plans for 2019.
Before DiVincenzo delivered his address, a four-and-a-half-minute video used the symbol of a butterfly to explain the transformation that has occurred throughout Essex County during the last 16 years. The video highlighted the development of the Payne School, the creation of the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange and Riverfront Park in Newark, the implementation of the Cafe in the Park program for senior citizens and the educational programs at the Juvenile Detention Center.
“I take great pride in what we have accomplished in Essex County,” DiVincenzo said. “Because of the work of our dedicated 3,500 employees, we can say Essex tells a different story.
“We have connected families to critical resources, listened to our neighbors to reshape our priorities and mission and kept people working during the worst recession in modern times. Reform. Change. Transform. These are words that are not usually associated with government, but in Essex County, that’s what we are about,” he continued.
He said the county’s finances have never been stronger, pointing out that an Aaa bond rating was earned in 2018, the 2019 budget was introduced with just a 0.5-percent tax increase and with conservative financial planning “by 2022, our debt at the Utilities Authority will be zero and we will have reduced our debt at the Improvement Authority by 70 percent. And in seven years, our annual debt service will drop from $116 million to just $41 million a year. That’s unprecedented,” DiVincenzo said.
He also touted the Payne School, which opened in June, and announced that the West Caldwell School of Technology will undergo a comprehensive expansion and renovation starting in July.
Among the year’s social service accomplishments that were mentioned were a prisoner re-entry program in which less than 1 percent of the graduates have been re-arrested; a new rapid re-housing program created by the county’s Comprehensive Emergency Assistance System to address homelessness; and a 97 percent timeliness rating to process SNAP applications. DiVincenzo also announced plans to purchase an office building at 320-321 University Ave. in Newark to become the new headquarters for the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits and the construction of a new parking deck and county building for courts and Constitutional Offices at the Hall of Records Complex.
There were many projects to update basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds and park buildings. Planned for 2019 is the county’s first “all access playground” in Watsessing Park that will have equipment for children of all physical abilities and the construction of a dog park in Branch Brook Park, the county’s fifth. Turtle Back Zoo saw additions, including the Shores of Africa Exhibit featuring penguins and the Drill Family Flamingo Exhibit.
“With a new entrance that will be completed next month and the construction of a 500-car parking deck, we will be able to handle large crowds more efficiently and enhance safety in the lot,” DiVincenzo said. “In line with making our operations run more smoothly and seamlessly, we are building a new maintenance house to service our trains on site and reduce any downtime that a repair may cause.”
DiVincenzo also discussed how Essex is involved in combating the opioid crisis. The county diverts eligible inmates into treatment programs; helps train law enforcement officers to properly use Narcan, a lifesaving drug that can stop the fatal effects of an overdose; and partners with ADAPT and local police departments to collect old and unwanted prescription drugs. Essex’s Municipal Alliance touch more than half a million residents from preschoolers to senior citizens, the Office of Alcohol and Addiction Services helped more than 2,200 clients get into detox or outpatient programs, and the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center has helped residents arrested for DUI offenses receive appropriate treatment and learn and understand the dangers of their actions.
“A cocoon is not the most beautiful of things, but with vision and nurturing can lead to some of the most amazing opportunities in time. Government can and should be that for people. Transformative. Innovative. Metamorphic. That’s who we are and how we are ‘Putting Essex County First,’” he said.