Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise delivers 2015 State of The County address

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Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise highlighted county initiatives to assist homeless veterans in his 2015 State of the County address.

Tom DeGise’s 2015 State of The County Address
Full Transcription

Mr. Chairman, members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen: Good evening.

Today, February 12th is Lincoln’s Birthday. So forgive me if I lean a bit on the wit and wisdom of Honest Abe to help make a point or two during this address.

To that end, let me begin with a short quote from Lincoln, who once said:
“I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.”

Now in our thirteenth year of service, this administration has long been described as a “steady hand on the wheel,” that our mayors, our legislators, and the people of Hudson County can trust.

Maybe we are a “slow walker” at times—in order to build consensus and allow all voices to be heard.

But any review of the past year’s accomplishments would show that we don’t “walk back” from our commitments.

2014: Never “Walked Back” from Our Commitments:

We are committed to sound government.

That’s why we received another bond rating increase in 2014. Today our county’s credit strength, as measured by the three major ratings agencies, is the best it has ever been under the County Executive form of government.

It is why we opened The County Center at Bergen Square this year, which completes our plan to place all county employees in county-owned buildings, rather than expensive, often inadequate rented space.

And it is why we will save the taxpayers $5 million annually through an agreement with Union County to regionalize juvenile detention services. Those savings will come without layoffs.

We are committed to expanding and enhancing our parks.

As a result, Hoboken residents welcomed a wonderful new park under the 14th Street Viaduct in December.

Lincoln Park in Jersey City was made safer for pedestrians and bikers this fall with a new traffic pattern and safety improvements.

We finalized plans on a new passive park honoring veterans and two new athletic fields within Braddock Park in North Bergen. This $6 million project is the largest investment the county has made in Braddock Park in decades.

And construction on our new public golf course in Lincoln Park West was completed in 2014. It will be ready for duffers like me to enjoy this spring.

The cost to play a round will be about the price of a visit to a movie theater. Our hope is it will open this sport especially to the young people of Hudson County who might never have considered it before.

I am a former teacher, so it should come as no surprise that we remain committed to education and to those struggling on the margins.

You can see this commitment in our steadfast support for Hudson County Community College. The college opened a beautiful new Library Media Center in 2014. It is the third major campus building completed in less than a decade.

Our Division of Housing and Community Development and Department of Health and Human Services provided funding to create a Homeless Street Outreach team. They are on the streets, 365 days a year, engaging the unsheltered homeless population.

A county-operated warming center has also been created for those who have nowhere else to go during the winter months.

Already a national model, we sought to further expand our program to reduce recidivism among female inmates at the County Jail.

Today our jail population is the lowest it has been since the opening of the modern correctional center building in Kearny two decades ago.

We are committed to improving our transportation infrastructure.

Our Transportation Management Association (TMA) worked with the business community to help coordinate a massive public education campaign for the Pulaski Skyway reconstruction. The campaign helped avert an anticipated traffic disaster.

We invested $2 million in road improvements in Hoboken. It’s worth noting “The Mile Square City” contains more than one third of all county bridge area within its borders.

And we cut the ribbon on the new 14th Street Viaduct in Hoboken in July. At a total cost of over $54 million, the project was the largest single investment in county transportation infrastructure ever.

Finally, we are committed to social justice and the cause of working people.

In October, the first We Are One New Jersey Center in the state opened right here in Hudson County, supported by a $125,000 grant and office space provided by this board.

Developed by immigration reform and labor organizations, the Center’s mission is to assist immigrants to move toward citizenship with all the rights and responsibilities it entails.

Last month, I observed the first outreach session conducted by We Are One New Jersey, held right in the lobby of our Bergen Square Center. Long lines of people waited patiently to learn how to take the next steps toward becoming an American.

A century ago, Irish, Italian, Polish and other European immigrants waited in lines like these. While the last names, the languages, and the accents of those in line have changed, the dream remains the same. It is a dream of a better life. One I know all of us are proud to support.

Those dreams are best supported by public policy that rewards work.

Last February, right here in this chamber, I signed the ordinance that added a COLA to our living wage law.

And in December, with the support of this Board, we committed $200,000 over four years to be a partner in a new Public Transportation Workforce Development Training Program.

The program will help clients of our Hudson County One Stop Training Centers and the Jersey City Employment Training Program develop the skills they need to work in the transportation construction trades.

Our partners include the New Jersey Amalgamated Transit Union, the Hudson County Building and Construction Trades Council, and the City of Jersey City.

Let’s hope that together, we can help more young people in Hudson County gain the skills they need to make a good living by rebuilding Hudson County.

The Road Ahead: “…Then We Shall Find A Way.”

So we have, with our “steady hand on the wheel,” made real progress over the last year.

But just because you keep a steady hand on the wheel doesn’t mean you can’t press down the accelerator in the name of change.

When I look at this Board of Freeholders, with its four new members, ready and motivated to make a difference, and five veteran freeholders with outstanding experience, I especially believe this is true.

I welcome the opportunity to work with you. There is much to accomplish in the days ahead. Let’s set an agenda we can all be proud of and make it happen.

As Lincoln said when it came to setting goals, “[If] we determine that the thing can and shall be done —then we shall find the way.”

In just the year ahead, we are poised to:

• Develop a partnership with Union City, in order to construct a new, shared DPW garage to serve the City and our Division of Roads.

• Assume control of the western end of Duncan Avenue, making it a county road; this will allow us to clean it up and make it an attractive entrance to the new golf course in Lincoln Park West.

• Engage state and federal officials in support of extending the West Side Avenue light rail to spur development and reduce traffic. I will do all I can as NJTPA Chairman to help move this forward.

• Put in place a host of park improvements including a dog run, a fishing pier and a boat dock in Laurel Hill and adding five new fields in Stephen Gregg Park in Bayonne.

• Increase the signal power on our 1710-AM Traffic Information Station (TIS) to make it more effective in emergencies.

Let’s make this happen, this year, together.

As for longer-term goals, I propose we seek to accomplish the following:

Let’s finally build a new campus for The Schools of Technology on county property adjacent to Laurel Hill Park.

The Schools of Technology have been an award-winning institution for decades. It’s time we finally provided them a new campus worthy of their reputation. Our bonding authority is in place, it’s time to turn some shovels.

I mentioned Hudson County Community College’s new Library earlier. But we can’t rest on our laurels when it comes to expanding the college’s services.

That is why we support the construction of the college’s planned Science Technology Engineering & Technology (STEM) building to keep up with student demands for new technology-related programming. The college selected an architect in September and is working to make the project financially feasible. It is a wise next step.

President Obama’s call to make community college free of charge signals a major change on the horizon. More and more, community college will be like high school, a necessity rather than just an option. That is why we must make sure our Community College is ready for that new, expanded role it will play.

A year ago, I demanded that New Jersey Transit should “buy it or beat it” regarding acquiring property from our Koppers Koke site in Kearny as part of the construction of NJ TRANSITGRID.

NJ TRANSITGRID was designed to help fortify the system that powers NJ Transit’s rail lines. It got a green light in Washington in 2014. And that finally brought NJ Transit to the bargaining table for Koppers.

After a good bit of wrangling between NJ Transit and our designated developer The Morris Company, the two sides finally began developing the frame work for a deal. It should leave The Morris Company with about 85 percent of Koppers and NJ Transit with about 15 percent.

Once the two sides have settled their issues completely, we should expect that the long-delayed promise of new construction, new jobs, and new economic vitality will at last become a reality at Koppers Koke.

I live a mile and half from the Brennan Court House in the Heights Section of Jersey City. Sometimes it takes me 40 minutes to drive to work.

Sounds crazy? The reason is a combination of the historically twisted traffic patterns in the area and disruptions caused by the reconstruction of Route 139.

We can’t speed the construction work on Route 139, but we can at least attack the underlying problem. That is why we have proposed the Central Avenue Extension Project.

The Central Avenue Extension Project will bridge an approximate 500 linear-foot gap missing from Central Avenue between Hoboken and Newark Avenues near Journal Square.

Currently, travelers heading south on Central Avenue must drive down to Cook Street, a one-lane, one-way road emptying onto Newark Avenue with no traffic signal at the intersection.

Travelers driving north on Central Avenue near the Journal Square transportation hub must take Oakland Avenue, a one-lane, one-way road.

Both of these roads have limited capacity and cannot handle the traffic load spilling from Central Avenue. Now with construction detours in the area, there is only one way to describe the situation—a nightmare.

We need to bridge the gap in Central Avenue. Making it a main artery running north and south will allow drivers easier access to both Journal Square and Route 139, significantly reducing traffic congestion.

With the support of this Board, we have moved ahead with a plan to acquire, survey and demolish properties in the gap area. It is projected that the plan will generate at least 100 construction jobs and boost development in the area.

And there is an additional benefit. This project would allow for the vacation of Cook Street, which is only two blocks long. That would provide a sufficient footprint for the construction of a new Hudson County Criminal Court in the future.

The opening of Central Avenue and our continued acquisition of property are the next steps on a deliberate path toward a much-needed new courthouse that is both more road-accessible and affordable for the taxpayers of Hudson County.

As County Executive, I am regularly invited to all kinds of events with state, local and sometimes even national leaders. But the invitations I am most honored to accept in this job are for ceremonies honoring and involving our veterans.

Be it our Hudson County Service Medal ceremonies, our Memorial and Veteran’s Day Programs, or the Pearl Harbor Wreath Laying, all leave you feeling enormous gratitude for the service rendered by our local veterans.

For our veterans who simply need information about employment opportunities, programs available to them, or to get questions answered about their benefits, we offer an excellent Services Fair, developed in partnership with local veterans organizations.

But what about our vets who have struggled since leaving the service and eventually end up homeless, who may also be battling substance abuse or are dealing with mental illness?

According to the best estimates we have from the Division of Housing and Community Development, the number of homeless veterans in Hudson County averages around 50 at one time depending on the season and economic conditions. About 100 homeless vets will come into contact with staff in course of a year.

They are usually among our chronic homeless population, meaning they tend to be male, older, and have been living on the streets for months or often years at a time.

We have already pledged to eradicate chronic homelessness in Hudson County. It is a challenge that will likely take a decade to meet.

But when we consider the estimated number of homeless veterans in Hudson County is little more than five percent of the total number of chronic homeless, it seems clear we should be able to pledge something more immediate and more definitive to help our vets in need.

We should pledge that any homeless veteran in Hudson County in need of housing will be able to find it.

So, how do we make good on this pledge?

We are making progress on the issue of homelessness in Hudson County. And part of that progress has included helping more homeless vets find housing.

Through the use of $5.5 million in HOME funds, we created twenty-four new, permanent, affordable housing units for homeless vets in two developments in Bayonne and Union City with local partners in the last three years.

In the Union City development, project-based vouchers are provided by Continuum of Care funding. While this funding does not flow through the County, the Division is the collaborative applicant to HUD and coordinates the process.

This is real progress—progress that makes a difference, one life at a time.

One of our veterans now off the street thanks to these efforts is Keith Owens, who served our nation in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unlike the majority of homeless vets, Keith has a wife and three children who also endured homelessness for over a year with him. He says that moving into the Homes for Heroes building in Union City gave his family the most stability they have enjoyed since his discharge.

Let’s honor him tonight for his service—and for the steps he’s taking toward a better life for him and his family.

Please say hello to former Marine Sgt. Keith Owens.

To better focus on the issue, we have created a Homeless Veterans Committee within the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness.

The mission of the committee is to better coordinate the existing services we offer and to assist in the development of new permanent housing solutions for veterans.

Members of the committee include representatives from the cities of Jersey City and Hoboken, a staffer from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and various service providers in Hudson County. It is co-chaired by our Office of Veterans Affairs and Division of Housing and Community Development.

The committee’s first order of business is to develop a comprehensive resource guide for existing housing and services in Hudson County for veterans.

It will also collaborate with existing shelter providers to maintain a master list of homeless veterans they come in contact with. This should allow us to more easily find and counsel them one-on-one so they can link with services and housing.

It’s pretty simple: they looked out for us around the world. Now it’s our turn to look out for them at home.

Of course, in order to bring all our vets home, we will need strong support from our municipalities.

Already the mayors of Jersey City, Bayonne, Harrison and Hoboken have signed on to “The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness” launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

I’m confident that the remaining eight municipalities will sign on to “The Mayor’s Challenge.” We encourage them to do so. This will help us bring more resources and more attention to the issue in every community in Hudson County.

We can also encourage local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) to set aside Housing Choice Vouchers for permanent housing projects targeted to homeless veterans.

By making these vouchers project-based, the subsidy can be partnered with County, State and Federal resources to develop more permanent, supportive housing opportunities for homeless veterans.

The City of Hoboken is now considering this approach for a project at their old VFW post. We will look to use our HOME funds to assist with the development costs.

And finally, we can consider providing more County funds to pay for necessary supportive services for vets in developments created with project-based vouchers from local PHAs.

Those county funds could come from a number of sources, including our Homelessness Trust Fund—created by this board.

Regardless of where we find the funding, we must bring all our veterans home.

An Anniversary to Celebrate. A Legacy to Consider:

On April 6th, we will mark the 175th anniversary of the founding of Hudson County. When the 200th anniversary, the bicentennial, is celebrated, what will be remembered about us?

Hopefully it will be that we gave our people the educational and training opportunities they needed to compete in an ever more global economy.

And that while we made sure Hudson County was ready to move ahead, we made sure no one, especially our heroes, were left behind.

In the past I’ve offered statistics to show the state of our county growing stronger.

Today you only need to look out the window to see that our economy is growing and understand the state of Hudson County is strong.

With pride in what we have accomplished and faith in what we can still achieve, let’s work together to make her even stronger.

Thank you.

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