Remarks of Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen

January 8, 2017

Honored Clergy, fellow Freeholders, elected officials, family, friends, and citizens of Union County:

Happy New Year to all and thank you for being here today.  We will do our best to move along quickly, so the Giants fans can get home in time for the kick-off later this afternoon.  

Judge Cassidy, thank you for once again lending us your historic courtroom and for participating in Union County’s 161st annual reorganization. On or about these hallowed grounds, one of the key battles in our Country’s birth took place, hence the genesis for our County seal. I should note that later today an event commemorating Alexander Hamilton’s 260th birthday will be held just up the block, where he attended prep school at what was later the original site of Princeton University.

We are privileged to be the heirs of this rich legacy, and once again, it’s our time to start another chapter in the history of Union County.

I would, as always, like to begin by expressing my love and appreciation to my wife Jodi and our children Stefanie and Ross for their support, understanding and tolerance, all these years.  I also want to thank my friends from the Springfield Democratic Party for their ongoing support and for being here today.

Thank you to our Democratic Chairman, Assemblyman Jerry Green, who once again displayed strong, principled and successful leadership at the helm of the party.

Finally, I must thank my dear friend and long-time mentor, Charlotte DeFilippo, without whose support and guidance I would not be here today.

Congratulations to my colleagues, Linda Carter, Bette Jane Kowalski and Sergio Granados, on their re-election.  I also welcome back Freeholder Granados as the Vice Chairman, where his boundless energy and innovative ideas continue to energize this Board.  Sergio, I look forward to serving beside you once more.

Finally, though it sounds like a cliché, I honestly am humbled and honored by the support of my colleagues.  I look forward to continuing to work with all of them in the coming year to build on the progress this Board has made over many years, moving Union County forward for all of our residents.  I also want to acknowledge and thank County Manager Al Faella, our department heads and the 2500 or so county employees, who work hard every day on behalf of our residents.

Though there has been improvement, these continue to be challenging times economically, for our citizens and for the County.  As we move into the New Year, I know this Board will once again succeed in delivering the services that our residents want and deserve, in a fiscally prudent manner.  This will be done in spite of the continuing pressure from the State to pay for expanding mandated services, without providing adequate funding.

We will also shortly enter uncharted territory at the Federal level with many critical government services across the board facing an uncertain future.

Here in Union County, we are prepared to stand for our core governing values and protect the most vulnerable among us, and to continue to stand for those who could be impacted in an unfair manner. Union County’s residents, many of them immigrants, have the right to be treated with the dignity and respect that all citizens of the planet deserve, regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, or sexual orientation.

With this in mind, we’ve crafted a series of initiatives entitled “Connecting our Community.” The inspiration for this phrase comes from Freeholder Linda Carter, who often talks about connecting the community, block by block.

“Connecting our Community” is about maintaining, creating and expanding programs for the young, seniors, Veterans, working families, those in need and all others who participate in our programs.

“Connecting our Community” complements and continues many of the initiatives undertaken last year, and brings new programs in the areas of:

  • Jobs, education and training for our youth;
  • Social services;                                 
  • The arts and history;
  • Public safety;
  • Parks and recreation; and
  • The environment.

The first “Connecting our Community” initiative acknowledges the importance of helping our youth reach their full potential. This initiative is entitled “UC LEAP”: Learning, Employment and Arts Programs for our youth.

In the centerpiece program, the County will partner with the Simon Youth Foundation, to create an Alternative High School for at-risk-youth that will open at the Mills at Jersey Gardens.   Services will be provided through the Union County Vo-Tech, our Workforce Development Board and the State Department of Labor.

Since 1998, the Simon Youth Foundation has created 29 alternative high schools located in their shopping malls, in 12 states, in response to the problem of students loitering during school hours.  We are proud to be hosting their first program here in the tri-state area.  We anticipate having at least 20 students in the initial class planned for later this year. 

Other programs that fall under the LEAP umbrella will be located in the Western end of the County:

  • In Summit, we will continue to co-sponsor the Project Search program at Overlook Hospital, which provides employment and training for youth with disabilities. It also helps them to become self-sufficient and transition into the work force. The hospital is one of only four employers state-wide that was selected to host this program.
  • And in Scotch Plains, our award-winning Union County Vocational Technical Schools will offer programs designed to train the next generation of County residents for high-paying legal and technology careers.
  • In September, the Vo-Tech is opening the new full time Academy for Law and Justice as one of six mini academies in the school. Up to 20 students will enroll in the inaugural program, which will prepare students for public service in law, government, and criminal justice.
  • Also, in June, the Freeholder Board will co-sponsor the Vo-Tech’s Hack-A-thon (no DNC Computers or voting machines will be involved), which is a twenty-four hour computer science and engineering competition open to all students of high school age.

Moving to the “Arts” part of UC LEAP, the Vo Tech’s Theatre Department has signed on to present “Bring it On, the Musical,” at our Union County Performing Arts Center in March.

Also, the Freeholder Board will once again sponsor the American Theater Group’s second Annual Group Drama Festival at the Hamilton Stage in April. During the day-long event, High School students will have the opportunity to present a scene from a play or musical and receive a formal critique from theatre professionals.  The day ends with all the students attending a professional performance. 

Speaking about the arts, we will also sponsor the third Union County Advancing Community Theatre program at UC PAC. This initiative was developed by my colleague, Freeholder Mohamed Jalloh during his chairmanship in 2015.  Through UCACT, the Freeholder Board sponsors local theatrical groups to bring their productions to the big stage at UCPAC in Rahway.

The second initiative “Connecting our Community,” involves the expansion of UC Means Green.

First, we will offer increased funding for another round of grants for local governments, community organizations and non-profits serving hundreds of residents, through the UC Community Gardens grant program which was so successful last year.

I must thank our community partner, Jonathan Philips and Groundwork Elizabeth for their invaluable work overseeing this effort.  [PAUSE]      If you did not have a chance, please stop and see the photos of this terrific program right outside the courtroom.

The second part of the UC Means Green involves turning a new leaf with our composting operations.  The Department of Public Works will renew the leaf composting operations at the Houdaille Quarry, a much needed service for our municipalities.  The leaf and grass collected countywide will be sold as high-end compost to private companies, producing as much as $500,000 a year in revenues.  It’s a great shared service that will also reap benefits for our taxpayers.

My third initiative is the continuation of UCHERO—our outreach program for Veterans.

This year, we will partner with local Veterans groups, including Operation Rebound and the New Jersey Vets Commission to strengthen the mental and physical well-being of veterans.  I would like to thank another community partner, Mike Boll, who leads these groups, for his tireless efforts. [PAUSE]   We will also work with other community groups to assist homeless Vets in our county.

Getting right to the heart of assisting our Veterans, we will establish our first Veterans Success Center, through our Department of Economic Development. Relying on existing resources, the Center will assist Veterans with job placement and training, career advisement, and referrals to health resources. The details of this program will be announced as the year progresses.

Finally, we will work to refurbish and re-dedicate the existing Veterans Memorial Grove in Rahway Park. We will replace missing trees, create a new online map, refurbish the area around the memorial marker, and re-dedicate this historic tree grove and marker. 

As every year, we anticipate another banner year of special events and improvements in our Parks system to further “Connect our Community.”

As I mentioned earlier, history abounds in Union County, and we will continue to work to maximize this unique advantage.

We are once again hosting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, this time at Oak Ridge Park in Clark.  We are excited to combine that with an on-site re-enactment of the so-called battle of Short Hills, which actually occurred right in the area of Oak Ridge Park, 240 years ago.

Also, Union County is proud to be part of the National Parks Service, Crossroads of the Revolution National Heritage Area. This year we will roll out signage at revolutionary era sites across the county to celebrate this designation and raise the public’s awareness of our history.

I also spoke about inclusiveness, and a new event fits the bill:  we will present the first-ever Family Pride CommUNITY Picnic event at Rahway Park in the summer, celebrating marriage equality.   Since the federal marriage equality ruling in 2015, thousands of same sex couples have married state-wide. This event aims to reach beyond Union County and invites all families, however they are constituted, from across the state to join us to celebrate commUNITY.

We’re also continuing to update our parks: developing a new spray park for Wheeler Park in Linden; a new multi-use turf field for Cedar Brook Park in Plainfield; and the opening of the new skating facility at Warinanco Park.

The public will also be able to access programs and popular parks events including the Pumpkin Sail and Harvest Fest, online through the use of a new system we’ve developed.

We care about a lot of things in Union County— our parks, our families, those with special needs, and even those who may need forgiveness and some help to get back on their feet.

That is why my next initiative is entitled the “Continuum of Care”—a series of social service announcements for 2017.

We read almost every day in the newspapers about the epidemic of opioid abuse across the State of New Jersey, which has ensnared more than 128,000 heroin users and shows no sign of letting up. Urgent action is needed to increase addiction services. 

This past year, the County Police, Prosecutor’s Office and Sheriff’s Office all engaged in Narcan training, response, or in supplying naloxone to local police departments to combat the plague.

But we need to do more, and we will. To assist our residents in need, the County will fund beds for a minimum of 25 additional residents who require opioid addiction treatment in 2017. The treatment will include up to seven days of DeTox and up to 28 days of inpatient rehabilitation. Thank you, Freeholder Chris Hudak, for envisioning and pushing for this much-needed program.

The second part of “the Continuum of Care” recognizes our reliance on our nonprofit partners to address community and constituent needs across our County.   

To do so, we will create and fund the Union County Nonprofit Consortium Leadership Development program. This will be a series of management leadership trainings, geared toward top non-profit management staff as selected by their Executive Directors. 

As part of an effort to further assist and work with non-profits, we are also exploring the creation of an Office on Volunteer Services.

We will continue to assist our seniors through the completion of a pair of 2016 programs.  Designed to support the quality of life for our seniors, “Senior Focus” funding is being used for equipment for or repairs and rehabilitation of local senior center facilities. Almost all of our municipalities applied for the $25,000 grants, and we look forward to announcing the awards early this year.

The vans for municipal transport for seniors in the “Seniors in Motion” program have begun to roll out, and will be continuing throughout the year.

The final initiative “Connecting our Community” will address public safety issues and the County’s role in assisting and equipping our first responders.

The need for our local firefighters to have immediate access to a water tanker has become apparent, due to several areas of the county that do not have an adequate water source to fight a fire.  High profile accidents on a number of our major highways have further demonstrated this need.

So the county will be purchasing a Fire Fighting Water Tanker that will bring 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water to a fire scene for any of our municipal fire fighters, providing an effective means to suppress an active fire in remote areas. 

And in an effort to keep our first responders in constant communication during a crisis, we will expand upon last year’s “Mutual Aide Radio project.” We will assist the 17 agencies who use our Union County Dispatch service with obtaining compatible radios to ease communication. 

Last, but not least, the Bureau of GIS is working with the UC Prosecutor’s Office to scan floor plans of key public facilities into our County GIS, to speed emergency response and enhance public safety. 

We have already added the plans for the County’s 230 public and private schools and will continue to work to capture as many important public facilities as possible.  I know our municipalities are extremely excited about this service.

In sum, “Connecting our Community,” as you can see, has many parts, and will require the efforts of many working together as a team to get it all done.

I look forward once again to working with our entire County family, our employees, our many public and private partners and our residents to achieve these objectives.

Once again, I wish you all a very Happy New Year.