Delivering a “State of the County” address that underscored a continuing commitment to lower taxes and that officially unveiled three new initiatives, including the creation of a new Department of Cultural Affairs, Joe Donnelly, a Cinnaminson resident, was sworn as director of the Burlington Board of Chosen Freeholders for the second time in his five-year tenure.
Pledging to make “county government a stronger player in the economic and social well-being of our constituents,” Donnelly made cultural diversity a theme of his message. He said that the new department would ensure that county government recognized and fostered “a culturally rich, inclusive and inviting climate, whether the issue be education, the arts, or human needs.”
The traditional New Year’s Day organization meeting, held in the Olde Historic Court House, was also marked by the swearing in of two new freeholders, Aimee Belgard of Edgewater Park, and Joanne Schwartz of Southampton, to new three-year terms.
Noting that county taxes have been cut $14.7 million over the past four years, and spending reduced $28 million, Donnelly welcomed the new freeholders, and said he would be open to their ideas on the ways and means of cutting taxes again, despite a projected $5 million loss in revenue in 2013 as a result of declining property ratables.
“This is not the federal government, this is not a national debate,” Donnelly said. “Or to put it another way, we don’t freeze at the sight of a fiscal cliff. We find a way to scale it.”
He said freeholders have expanded core services, despite the tax and spending reductions, adding, “We looked at government the way we look at the family budget. We made sacrifices. We found ways to reduce costs. We even cut freeholders’ part-time salaries in half, and eliminated taxpayer-funded health benefits for all part-timers.”
In addition to cultural affairs, Donnelly drew attention to a second major initiative, namely a newly restructured Human Services Department, which would bring all citizen and human services programs under one umbrella. This would include social services, senior and veterans services, community development and housing, employment and training, and consumer affairs.
“We now are seizing the opportunity to fully evaluate a resident’s pending problem, by treating the underlying issues that created that problem. For example, if you are about to lose your home, we want to know why. We want to treat the entire ‘patient,’” he said, adding that the new department was already opened for business.
Donnelly recognized Anna Payanzo of Willingboro as the Human Services director, stating that she previously had chaired a committee of “two dozen of the most dedicated workers and volunteers in the human services arena,” who had crafted the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.
The third initiative he cited for 2013 was the county’s “Buy Local” campaign which, he said, was “aimed at reinvigorating our downtowns, keeping consumer spending in the county, creating new job opportunities, and bringing new optimism to the community-at-large.”
“We will do everything we can to make the recovery real for our businesses and downtowns, for the unemployed as well as first-time job seekers, and for those whose personal plight requires immediate attention and public assistance,” Donnelly said.
Belgard and Schwartz, both Democrats, won election to the five-member board during the November 2012 general election, defeating former Freeholders Bruce Garganio of Florence and Mary Ann O’Brien of Medford. Other current members of the board include Leah Arter of Moorestown and Joseph Howarth of Evesham.
Noting the county’s outstanding reputation for electing and promoting women and minorities to the freeholder board, Donnelly listed several past members by name, including seven former freeholders in recent years that came from the Republican ranks. Roughly half of the county’s major departments and functions also are administered by women and minorities, he said, and he recognized 20 of them by name.
As director, Donnelly has the responsibility of assigning freeholders as directors of individual departments. He named himself director of administration and natural resources, which includes the land preservation programs; Deputy Director Arter was named director of public safety and education; Freeholder Belgard was assigned hospital & medical services, and elections; Freeholder Howarth was named to public works and solid waste; and, Freeholder Schwartz was appointed director of health and corrections.
Donnelly previously served as director in 2009.
—Submitted by Burlington County