Local, county and state officials attend 24th annual Legislative Breakfast

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UNION, NJ — Union Township Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Masterson welcomed all to the 24th annual Legislative Breakfast early in the morning on Friday, June 26. Guests at the virtual event were able to hear from state Sen. Joseph Cryan, Union Mayor Michele Delisfort, Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage and others for the latest updates locally and statewide concerning the coronavirus outbreak, the practiced safety measures, the reopening of the area, the recent Black Lives Matter cause and more. Guests had access to the virtual event via the Zoom platform.

Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Costa introduced the speakers. First up was Cryan, who spoke about a plethora of topics.

“We want to be supportive and be there for anything we can do particularly during this crisis,” Cryan said. “The state budget has extended. What occurs now is the legislature needs to pass a spending plan that takes the budget from June to Sept. 30, which is its new expiration date. As you know, tax filings have been extended. So, what is before both houses and legislators is an extended spending plan that reflects about $7.6 billion. That’s obviously a lot of money. It leaves the state a surplus of a $494 million. There’s been a whole lot of discussion about it.”

Cryan touched more upon the state budget.

“Here’s what I think you all should know,” he said. “The governor originally proposed a budget in February, as it is his constitutional requirement pre-COVID. The numbers came in so well that the governor’s original number — and then the forecast from the economy being so strong at the time — the governor’s budget actually, when you included his representation from tax increases, went from $39 billion to $41 billion. That’s all gone. There’s been $2 billion of cuts. There are, in particular, the homestead rebate and property tax freeze, which are extremely popular, as well as another 15 to 20 items, all of which have been cut out of this budget.

“In addition, payments have been delayed,” he continued. “That K–12 school payment has been delayed until October, which will impact our schools a little bit. Those increases in aid are now gone. We’re looking at flat funding. With the balance of the current year budget, which has now been extended from its June 30 deadline to Sept. 30, the discussion will be about a spending plan to get the state through that. The plan reflects the fact that we will have deferred payments, cuts and a different scope of budget than in a pre-COVID world.”

Cryan then talked about borrowing money and rising numbers of unemployment.

“There will be some number in between,” Cryan said. “The way it works is the federal government has offered up to $10 billion that the state will be obligated to pay back between bonding mechanisms and the rest, over 30 years. So, in essence, the state government will take on an obligation of, based on current interest rates, $3.5 million to $400 million a year in payments. There will be a lot of discussions before they get to a final number. As for unemployment, our office has over 200 open cases and we continue to work through them. Employees, please reach out to sencryan@njleg.org if you’re having trouble.”

Cryan voiced his approval for revising law enforcement practices.

“I myself have focused on the hiring of police officers and the changes that go with that in an area that hopefully can help revise people who do such a wonderful job and can always look for improvement,” Cryan said. “One is in the area of psychological evaluations, adding more and one at the end of the probationary period with psychological evaluations every five years. Two, when folks are hired, they’re hired via test, to include and be reflective of a dynamic that can chart racist tendencies. I think there’s actually three levels of justice in New Jersey as well as the United States. There’s a system of justice for minorities, there’s a system of justice for the powerful and rich, and then there’s a system of justice for the rest of us. I think we need to look at how we can make sure there’s only one justice system overall.”

Union County Freeholder Chairperson Alexander Mirabella was then introduced. He spoke about the county’s coronavirus testing site.

“The county of Union became the first county to open a COVID-19 testing center, in mid-March, and so far we’ve tested over 28,000 residents, first responders, medical workers across the state of New Jersey,” Mirabella said on June 26. “The testing center is open for three days a week to county residents whether or not you have symptoms. Encourage everyone to get tested. Call 908-214-7107 or visit the website ucnj.org to schedule an appointment. We want to increase the amount of testing. The county right now leads the state in what they call the transfer rate. That’s no surprise or coincidence to the amount of testing we’ve done and work we’ve done. The county manager led daily calls with each municipality. The mayors and administrators were well-informed and up to date with what was happening from the governor’s office, through the county manager’s office, then down to the municipalities. Communication is key in our county.”

Mirabella also discussed the budget and food drives in the county.

“The budget was another thing we’ve decided we should really take head-on. We introduced a zero county budget for our residents this year,” Mirabella said, highlighting that Union County’s budget did not increase. We have a triple-A bonding rating, which is unheard of in government. Less than 12 percent of municipalities and counties have achieved that kind of rating. It’s amazing that we’ve achieved it and maintained it. Union County received $97 million in CARES funds. We’ve begun the process of working with our municipalities for reimbursement and these CARES dollars are coming in, through the county, distributed to the municipalities and to reimburse for COVID-related expenses. If you misspend these dollars, people are required to pay them back. We’re on top of that.

“The county is assisting those in need with food drives. Everyone’s pitching in,” he continued. “I’d like to compliment United Way and New Jersey FoodBank for helping out. The county was able to secure over 100,000 surgical masks. They were brought into the county and distributed out to all 21 municipalities.”

Mirabella then touched upon the census and job seekers.

“The census is important,” Mirabella said. “That’s the key to funding. We’re ahead of the pace in Union County. Job seekers can use the new Union County works website at ucajc.org to find job openings, job trainings and education opportunities to help with creating resumes and filling spots. If you would like to join and sign up for that email blast, email Dina at dmesaros@ucnj.org.”

Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi was then introduced. She discussed the upcoming primary election on Tuesday, July 7.

“Elections is now a public health issue, and it never had been,” Rajoppi said on June 26. “This is an historic first for New Jersey. We have never had an all vote-by-mail election. Many people are unfamiliar with how to vote by mail. … Every registered voter in Union County received a vote-by-mail ballot by June 16. That was 205,000 people. In addition to that, we had to send out 130,000 vote-by-mail applications, because the state said we must ask unaffiliated voters whether or not they wanted to affiliate with a party and vote in the primary. I’ve gotten 6,000 back. The state is going to reimburse us. To date, I’ve spent over $1 million on this election.”

Rajoppi answered some frequently asked questions, as well.

“Many have asked, ‘Will we have an all vote-by-mail in November?’ My best guess is yes,” Rajoppi said. “There will be voting machines and consolidated polling places. However, the only people that can vote on those machines are the disabled. It is imperative that we do an education program for voters. I look forward to Election Day.”

Bollwage discussed the future of living with coronavirus.

“No one’s happy about the way things are opening up,” Bollwage said on June 26. “This virus is not going away, and if anyone thinks just because we can go to restaurants and we can do a lot of things now that things are going to be fine in November, they’re not. We really have to be diligent moving forward. We really need to be cognizant of wearing masks and washing our hands. Businesses have to enforce that. In November while voting, people need to be wearing face masks.

“Collectively, I know Mayor Delisfort has similar challenges as I do and that all mayors do,” he continued. “Communication is key. Help is the key. People are desperate, and they really don’t understand the severity of it until they get it. All I can say is, if you don’t like wearing a mask, you’re really not going to like being on a ventilator.”

Discussing coronavirus as well, Delisfort updated her residents about recent events.

“It’s been a very interesting six months,” Delisfort said on June 26. “We became experts at calculating 6-feet distances, we all have a newfound appreciation for teachers and, unfortunately, we all know someone who’s passed from COVID-19. I want to thank all the township employees for their dedication and hard work. Many delivered food to seniors, put up lawn signs for high school graduates, worked food pantry sites, made calls to our most vulnerable residents, gave away thousands of free face masks, hosted Zoom meetings, established weekly Facebook Lives.

“Union County has managed the most successful testing site in New Jersey,” she continued. “We’ve established a daily video, emails and text messages for all of our code-red emergency-contact subscribers. Together, we’ve launched a two-month gift card promotion which saved shoppers money and encouraged people to purchase food from Union restaurants and cafes. We’ve also launched a GoFundMe account to help businesses in Union. To date, that account about has $2,850. We’ve also secured CDBG funds. As things continue to open, we’re hoping visitors shop and play in Union.”

Delisfort discussed some ongoing investments in town.

“We took advantage of the reduced traffic and we continued our aggressive road work. Fifty roads will be milled and paved by the end of the summer; six roads will be reconstructed,” Delisfort said. “Our next phase includes 30 more reconstructed roads and parking lot improvements. Redevelopment of Garden State Motel on Route 22, the acquisition and occupation of the former parcel by the Children’s Specialized Hospital, the American Landmark Project, Tighten Union, 1206 Stuyvesant Ave. Project, focusing redevelopment on Union Center, focusing on areas around the train station — when complete, these and other projects represent a total investment of more than $1 billion.”

Delisfort then discussed the latest events centered on race.

“As you all know, Union is a racially and ethnically diverse community where residents live together peacefully,” Delisfort said. “This unification was never more evident than last month, when residents joined millions around the world in peaceful marches and gatherings to fight racism and demand social justice everywhere. I can assure you that the Union Police Department continues to follow all New Jersey attorney general guidelines and is a fully accredited police department that adheres to the highest standard of policing in the state. They work on ensuring that everyone is safe.

“In Union, Black Lives Matter,” she added. “The world has changed in 178 days. We all must be caring of one another and we prioritize helping people navigate through these uncertain times.”