CEDAR GROVE, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. presented his 2022 State of the County Address at the Essex County Hospital Center in Cedar Grove on Monday, April 11. Due to the pandemic, this was the first time in two years the State of the County Address was presented. The speech is an opportunity for the county executive to share accomplishments of the past year and initiatives planned for the coming year.
Prior to the speech, a video welcome from Gov. Phil Murphy was played and dignitaries — including U.S. Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Donald Payne Jr., Essex County Commissioner President Wayne Richardson, and New Jersey and Essex County Democratic committees Chairperson LeRoy Jones — shared remarks complementing DiVincenzo on the county’s achievements.
“We were among the first to offer free testing and the first to open vaccination sites,” DiVincenzo said. “Our sites have administered over 580,000 vaccine doses and over 320,000 tests, and our food distribution events gave over three million meals to those in need.
“Not even the largest public health crisis we could ever imagine in our lifetime could keep us from showing resilience and connecting with our 22 municipalities to put the health of our families first. And now that the number of new cases continues to decline, I am glad that we are able to gather together again,” he continued.
DiVincenzo reminded those in attendance that, out of all of New Jersey’s counties, Essex was hit the hardest by the virus, with the highest number of reported COVID-19 cases and the most deaths. He asked for a moment of silence for the 3,300 residents who lost their lives due to the virus.
In addition to its vaccination and testing centers and food distribution program, Essex County made more than $30 million available to reimburse its 22 municipalities for pandemic-related costs, such as overtime, personal protective equipment purchases and retrofitting. Another $20 million in grants was made available to help small businesses and nonprofit organizations meet payroll needs, pay rent and take care of expenses, as well as to keep people in their homes with mortgage, rental and utility assistance.
“Even with all the instability facing our nation, state and county, we constructed a 150,000-square-foot, nationally recognized government structure. The Martin Luther King Jr. Justice Building, the 22-foot MLK statue and the bust of Congressman John Lewis are testaments to who we are and how we get it done,” DiVincenzo said.
Other projects that were completed during the pandemic include the opening of new headquarters for the Division of Family Assistance and Benefits at 320-321 University Ave. in Newark, a 900-car employee parking deck and the reconfiguration of the entrances to the Jurors Parking Lot. There was also the renovation and expansion of the West Caldwell School of Technology, the opening of the new Feldman “Mootsie” Middleton building in Weequahic Park, the preservation of the Ballantine Gates in Branch Brook Park, new exhibits for the otters and bald eagles and a revamped station for the miniature train ride at Turtle Back Zoo, and the makeover of Hendricks Field Golf Course in Belleville.
“Not even a pandemic or supply chain issues prevented us from completing these projects on time and on budget,” DiVincenzo said.
“Today, our parks system has blossomed to over 6,000 acres and remains an important resource for recreation, socialization and community building. This was hugely underscored when our families sought relief from being locked down,” he said. “And while we respect and preserve those elements of centuries past, we have modernized our open spaces so they are more inclusive and reflective of the communities they serve.”
According to DiVincenzo, the county is currently working on an initiative to update the community centers in the county’s parks. New buildings are planned for West Side Park, the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park and the Cherry Blossom Welcome Center in Branch Brook Park.
“In Essex County, we truly understand how a government is supposed to protect and serve all of us. You saw the heroes who, from one day to the next, volunteered to help protect our families at our various COVID initiatives. But these are the same individuals who step in on a daily basis to help with challenging life circumstances that can potentially define the rest of your life,” he said about the county’s workforce.
One example DiVincenzo gave was the Coordinated Assessment System, one of the most unique prevention and rapid rehousing programs in the nation. It provides financial assistance, housing relocation and stabilization services with the intent to quickly transition participants to stable situations. According to the county, this program has resulted in better data collection, a reduction in the street population and shorter times in programs. Of the more than 360 people in the program, 98 percent remain in permanent housing.
Another area of success has been in the Schools of Technology District.
“Our next generation of students are growing and thriving with an ever-evolving curriculum in new buildings. In just six years, we will have rebuilt our entire vocational school system with state-of-the-art facilities. The new Donald Payne School opened in 2017 and the renovated and expanded West Caldwell School of Technology welcomed its first students in 2021. We are doing the same at Newark Tech, where a new addition and complete rehab will engage our students to explore innovation in education to meet tomorrow’s needs,” DiVincenzo said. “And these buildings come at little expense to Essex; 90 percent of the cost is being reimbursed by the state, leaving just about $24 million as the county’s share.”
DiVincenzo also stressed the importance of the county having an Aaa bond rating.
“When Newark was faced with its water crisis, we partnered with them and offered a $120 million low interest loan. Instead of taking a decade to replace 23,000 lead service lines, the city was able to finish the work in just two and a half years. Together we addressed a major public health crisis and preserved our residents’ right for access to clean drinking water,” DiVincenzo said, adding that a county budget with a zero-percent tax increase was introduced earlier in 2022.
“Close to one million people walk into our courts seeking justice, settling disputes and resolving conflicts. In an effort to make what could be difficult trials and hearings better, we are renovating the second floor of the Hall or Records for new Landlord Tenant space,” DiVincenzo said. “And by the end of the year, we will break ground for a new building to house Family Court. We are taking an innovative approach to the design of this facility. All of this is aimed at improving customer service and treating people who come to our buildings with respect.
“As we turned the corner into 2022, COVID cases and deaths surged again. The cost of living is at a historic high. Individuals struggling with mental health are rising. And, of course, Russia invaded Ukraine; each day we see the devastation they experience. We stand with you,” he said. “We have shown our strength and commitment as a government and, no matter what challenges are ahead, we have the resolve to meet them head on. … We will not allow 2022 to be defined by any negative headline. … And we will always put Essex County first!”