Rios summarized the County’s accomplishments and initiatives during the 2014 State of the County Address at the Board of Chosen Freeholders’ regular meeting on October 2.
“From expanding our programming for those most in need to keeping our expenses in check so that our taxpayers get the quality programs they deserve at costs they can afford, this Freeholder Board with our administration and staff have held fast to our commitment to serve our residents,” he said.
Rios said the County’s commitment to end homelessness in Middlesex County – including homelessness among our veterans – advanced this year as the Board helped break ground on Kilmer Homes. The County allocated $2.1 million from its Housing First Capital Fund toward the construction of 30 units in the 120-unit complex being constructed in Edison.
In addition to creating housing for the neediest among us, Rios said, the County, in collaboration with the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, Edison Township and the JFK Health System, has furthered its plans to transform the historic Roosevelt Care Center into independent, affordable apartments for senior citizens.
“The project is one that I have been deeply involved with and have been working with our partners since taking my seat on this Freeholder Board, answers the growing and changing health care and housing needs of our senior residents,” he said.
Rios said that as the County continues to face cutbacks from the State in critical areas, such as healthcare and education, the Freeholders have turned their attention to ways they could expand healthcare initiatives, especially for women.
A question has been placed on the November ballot asking Middlesex County voters to authorize, but not bind, the governing body of the County of Middlesex to increase funding to be used exclusively for women’s health programs. The programs are designed specifically to enhance the early detection and screening for diseases uniquely affecting women. Such programs include mammograms, cancer screenings, PAP Tests, cervical exams and similar disease screening and detection programs. No new tax dollars would be used to pay for these programs, instead the County would allocate existing funds if the voters pass this referendum.
Also on the ballot is a second question that would establish the “Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund.” This fund would be used exclusively for the development, restoration, improvement to and maintenance of cultural and arts facilities, theaters and other arts venues within Middlesex County and to encourage and support arts education for County residents through support of quality arts educations programs, including those sponsored and conducted through qualified nonprofit arts organizations.
The fund would also provide general support to projects and programs whose purpose is to recognize and preserve the history and heritage of Middlesex County, including recognizing and honoring our veterans.
Rios said, “My Freeholder colleagues and I believe that now is the time to step up and fill the gaps the State has created especially in health and education funding. If voters agree with us, the County will assess its current programming and take the appropriate steps to fund these critical women’s health programs and arts education and services projects.”
The County has also embraced a “Get Out The Vote” initiative to make it easier for citizens to participate in the democratic process. For citizens who may not be able to get out to their polling places on Election Day, the new Vote-By-Mail program enables citizens to still make a difference at election time.
“Improving access to voting and to all our services has been a constant goal of this Freeholder Board,” said Rios. “ And in the 21st century, access to information is most easily delivered via the Internet.”
With that, Rios announced that Middlesex County’s state-of-the-art and interactive website will debut later this month. Through the site, the Board of Chosen Freeholders will be able to offer individuals and businesses the ability to engage and interact with County government more efficiently. Users will be able to complete online payment and registration for programs; fill-out grant and program applications; reserve picnic groves; contact elected officials and view Freeholder meetings.
Top-notch education, quality jobs and thriving industry are keys to boosting the economy here in Middlesex County. Recognizing that strong businesses need a skilled and educated workforce, the County has focused on continuing its tradition of offering quality education.
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the Middlesex County Vocational-Technical School district. Rios said the district has grown and changed with the times, offering students the education they need to thrive in today’s business climate. As a result of our efforts, and the efforts of the Board, Administration and staff of the district, three of our schools – over the last three years – have been awarded National Blue Ribbon designations.
He said Middlesex County College continues to expand its programs in a time when most other education institutions are pulling back.
The College broke ground on a new Center for Student Services, in which students will be able to conduct their enrollment process at one counter instead of making multiple stops. The College will also be building an Academic Science building that will house additional instructional and lab space for science programs (especially chemistry and biology) which will enable the College to expand its health-related and biotech programs.
The Board of Chosen Freeholders allocated $3.4 million dollars in capital funds for the science building project and $6 million dollars for the Student Services center, underscoring our commitment to the education of our residents.
“The programs and services I’ve mentioned could not be a reality without master planning and a methodical approach to our budget process,” he said. “Middlesex County has accomplished the goal of keeping our financial house in order over the past six years. This has been attained even in the face of federal and state cuts to programming.”
In 2014 the County paved the way in advancing new fiscal policies that are in line with continued long-term fiscal strategies. Middlesex County was the first in New Jersey to officially adopt by Freeholder resolution a “Fund Balance Policy” and a “Debt Policy.
This strong debt service strategy is reflected in the decrease in debt service of 11 percent over last year and the County’s continued work to increase surplus funds by $6.5 million dollars or 31 percent since 2013.
Rios said, “We have done this in order to ensure that we have the proper reserves to absorb any emergent situation, such as Super Storm Sandy in 2012. Middlesex County is the only County in the State that has NOT used surplus funds in 2014 to close any budget gaps.”
He added that as a result of this financial acumen, Standard and Poor’s once again assigned the County a AAA bond rating.
“A triple rating means that we can invest in our roads, buildings and bridges to ensure a strong, safe infrastructure and that we can build and maintain state-of-the-art educational facilities and communications networks at lower costs to our taxpayers,” he said.
These investments are made through the County’s Capital Budget, which in 2014 includes $27 million for infrastructure improvements, $9 million to enhance emergency response capabilities, and $8.4 million for improvements to the infrastructure and educational facilities at the County College and Vocational-Technical Schools. Another $4.8 million dollars has been allocated for Community Services projects, including efforts to end homelessness.
Middlesex County, unlike the State and many other government entities, has worked hard to lower our operating expenses so that they do not increase the burden on taxpayers. One example is by keeping healthcare costs in check. Middlesex County is not enrolled in the State’s health care plan for its employees. By being self-insured, the County has been able to keep annual increases down to between 3 percent and 5 percent. The State’s health care costs are rising by double digits every year.
Rios said, “By lowering costs in certain areas, my Freeholder colleagues and I are able to allocate funds to programs that improve the quality of life of all our residents, especially in the area of safety.”
He added: during Super Storm Sandy and other water related situations, the County recognized a need for resources to specifically address these problems. The County will provide inflatable boats to three designated municipalities to facilitate evacuations during any flood or water related emergency. The boats will be fully equipped with supplies and fully trained staff to conduct water rescues, searches and evacuations.
Safety, quality education and state-of-the-art recreational facilities are the hallmarks of a great community. In addition to its award-winning schools and comprehensive human service and safety programs, the County offers a multitude of passive and active recreational facilities.
“This year, we completed more than $7 million dollars in Superstorm Sandy repairs at three of our parks, Old Bridge Waterfront Park, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park and Alvin Williams Park,” said Rios.