Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. delivered his annual State of the County Address Tuesday in Cedar Grove, where he touted accomplishments from his previous two terms and spoke of the work that lies ahead.
A crowd of hundreds that included mayors, state legislators, division directors, county employees and freeholders gathered in the auditorium of the $58 million Essex County Hospital Center, which, completed in 2006, was an early feather in DiVincenzo's cap.
In front of a towering projection screen that illustrated his words with images, DiVincenzo outlined a series of measures his administration has undertaken which have resulted in an improved financial picture for the county, a more robust and profitable parks system, and improvements to the Essex County Courthouse, the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center and the Essex County Hospital Center despite the rocky economic picture of the past year.
"At a moment when the signs of the times are the words 'for sale' and 'foreclosure' on the front lawns of our neighbors' homes, our Essex County government has felt these challenges too," he said.
DiVincenzo said one of his administration's first tasks was to clean house of wasteful spending, which included eliminating unnecessary contracts, cutting expenses and reducing manpower. In 2008, DiVincenzo and 125 non-union county employees began paying 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, and did not take a raise in 2009 and 2010.
The county executive was also successful in seeking out alternative revenue streams. Since he took office, the Essex County Correctional Facility took in $22 million to house federal prisoners and immigration detainees, the Essex County Hospital Center received $10 million from admitting out-of-county patients, and the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center brought in $5.2 million by accepting detainees from Passaic County. All the while, revenue from the county's recreation facilities ballooned to $9 million.
DiVincenzo said investments in county buildings and facilities, and finding outside-the-box revenue generators has paid off so far, and has allowed the county to withstand the economic downturn without a single layoff.
"This prudent fiscal planning and aggressive development of recurring revenue has put us in a better position than many other counties," he said. "Our bond status has improved six times and our [bond] rating is the highest in a generation. We also have the third lowest average percentage tax increase of the 21 counties in New Jersey."
An investment in structures and parks has been in tandem with an investment in people. The Essex County Vocational Technical School had a 100 percent graduation rate last June, coupled with significant improvements in the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency in math and language arts since 2003. The addition of a school program at the Juvenile Detention Center makes it the only facility in the state that offers detainees a full school day and access to college coursework.
DiVincenzo said his administration will continue to make improving parks a priority. Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the county has resurfaced several major county roads and filled 17,000 potholes. A grant from the Tree Foundation has resulted in planting 150 trees on Broad Street in Bloomfield, and 48 on Irvington Avenue in Maplewood.
DiVincenzo said additional federal money has been used to convert traffic lights to energy-sipping LEDs at 275 intersections county-wide, which he says consume 88 percent less energy and are more visible in bad weather than traditional traffic light bulbs.
A crowning achievement in DiVincenzo's tenure has been the turnaround of Turtle Back Zoo and the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange.
In 2010, Turtle Back Zoo was named the number one zoo in the state by New Jersey Magazine. A record 500,000 guests visited the zoo's newly-improved Tropical Currents Aquarium, which houses over 75 species of aquatic wildlife. During the holidays, hundreds of thousands of guests visited the park's annual Holiday Light Spectacular, which was free to all for the first time this year. In lieu of paying, guests were asked to bring a nonperishable food item, a toy or a winter coat. This enabled the county to collect almost six tons of food, 1,500 toys and hundreds of winter coats for the Community FoodBank, Toys for Tots and the Make a Wish Foundation.
Also added to the complex this year was the Mini-Golf Safari, which promises players an African safari adventure across the whole continent. The safari brought in $86,000 in revenue in the first 61 days in business, and the zoo as a whole brought in $3.6 million in revenue for the year, $1 million of which was profit.
DiVincenzo said a number of improvements to infrastructure and recreation facilities are next on his agenda, including stabilizing the waterway in Grover Cleveland Park in Caldwell, and improving access and athletic fields at Newark's Branch Brook, Becker, Weequahic, Irvington and Independence Parks, and Watsessing Park in Bloomfield.
Some of the larger projects on the horizon include a 12.3 acre park on the banks of the Passaic River in Newark, a new consolidated vocational-technical school on the site of the old United Hospital in Newark, developing a 90-acre park on the old hospital center site in Cedar Grove, and creating a "Big Cat" exhibit, an aerial obstacle course and a boathouse restaurant at Turtle Back Zoo.
However, DiVincenzo noted that although the county has made great strides, the economic forecast remains murky as the county continues to grapple with rising healthcare and pension costs.
"The bank is broken and the time has come to put everything on the table," he said. "Change is necessary to ensure that our investments in the pension system will be there for the retirements of all public servants. However, this will not be easy to accomplish unless there is compromise."
Despite his accomplishments as county executive, and no shortage of ambitious projects going forward, DiVincenzo says now is not the time for his administration to rest on their laurels.
"Challenging times are ahead. A great team is in place and 22 diverse communities will be served. We have accomplished great things under very difficult circumstances and built a strong foundation, but we cannot rely on the work of the past. We must and we will continue putting Essex County first."