State of the County Address
Brian M. Hughes, County Executive
Mercer County, New Jersey
Presented before the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce

January 19, 2006

Freeholder President Hamilton and Members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders; Chamber Chairman Loff, Chamber President Siekerka and officers, directors and members of the Chamber; honored guests, ladies and gentlemen: 

Let me begin by thanking the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce for once again hosting this event.  Your mission is vital – to connect Chamber members with the resources and opportunities they need to realize their goals.  All of us have greatly appreciated the work of the Chamber under Immediate Past Chairman Tim Losch and current Chairman Don Loff – as well as the fine work of President Siekerka and her staff.  Let’s give the Chamber leadership a round of applause. 

Let me also begin by acknowledging my wife Pamela.  I am so fortunate to have her love and support.  The pathway we have traveled together has not always been easy, but I am so grateful it has always been shared.

I also want to acknowledge the other members of my family who are here today.  I am grateful for their support and guidance, and for the values and principles we share – the values of my father and grandfather, who were both committed to good government and to being responsive to the needs of the people and the communities in which they lived, and who taught us to confront life’s challenges head on. 

I consider my work to be a family project – both for the Hughes family, and for the extended family that includes all of us who live and work in Mercer County.  Let me thank all of you who have had a role in this partnership effort. 

It is my privilege today to report to you and to the people of Mercer County on the state of our great County. This month marks the halfway point in my first term as your County Executive.  I am energized and passionate about fulfilling this role and serving the people of this great County.

Over the past two years, we have worked diligently to ensure that Mercer County lives up to the highest standards of good government, and to ensure that our County government is effective, efficient and ethical.   Over those two years, we have increased economic opportunities throughout the County.

We have made our County safer, with decreases in our crime rate.  We have strengthened our infrastructure, with improvements to our transportation networks, County parks, buildings and other facilities.  We have preserved open space and protected our environment.  While much work remains to be done, we have made enormous progress in every area.

As a result of these efforts, I am pleased to report to you today that Mercer County has never been stronger.  The State of our County is excellent.

The year ahead will give us the opportunity to build on our progress as we work together to achieve our common vision for the County – one that provides even greater hope, opportunity and security for the people of Mercer County. 

But before I provide further details about our accomplishments and our plans for the future, several congratulations are in order:

I want to offer my congratulations to our new County Clerk, Paula Sollami-Covello, and to Sheriff Kevin Larkin on his re-election to office.  Let’s give them a round of applause.

I also would like to recognize our two re-elected Freeholders, Tony Mack and Lucylle Walter; the new Freeholder President, Keith Hamilton, and the new Freeholder Vice President, Pat Colavita. Congratulations to each of you. 

Let me introduce the other elected officials in the Mercer County family: Freeholder Elizabeth Muoio and Freeholder Ann Cannon, and our County Surrogate, Diane Gerofsky.  Our thoughts are with Freeholder Anthony Carabelli, who is unable to be with us today because he is recovering from hip replacement surgery.

Now I would like to introduce the members of my Cabinet, led by Chief of Staff Kelly Ganges.  My Cabinet is truly an outstanding group of professionals.  I thank each of them for their hard work.  Let’s give them a hearty round of applause.

It is incumbent upon each of us as elected officials to ensure that Mercer County government continues to represent all of the people of the County.  But the interest of good government requires that we go well beyond that familiar platitude.  We must commit to keeping our County government inclusive and diverse in ways that strengthen our unity.  This issue is very important to me, and let me explain why. 

I don’t believe that government is a prize or trophy to be won by one political party or another.  I don’t believe that the spoils of government belong to the victors – or belong to any one person or party, for that matter. 

Let me tell you what I do believe:  I believe that government is a sacred public trust, and that it must be protected from the excesses of partisan politics. 

Now that the elections are over, we need to get back to the work of government – and the work of government is to serve ALL of the people.  I am committed to serving everyone, all across Mercer County, by providing strong leadership to move our County forward.  And I am committed to doing so with integrity. 

A year ago, I announced that we had become the first County in the state – and quite possibly the nation – to ban the corrosive influence of pay to play.  Let me say again how much I appreciate the leadership of Freeholder Elizabeth Muoio and the Freeholder Board for adopting that important campaign finance reform.  Mercer County also moved quickly to protect the public trust by establishing the position of Inspector General within County government.      

Sadly, we have recently heard far too many examples of scandals and fraud in government.  I am very proud of our clean record in that regard.  We have brought about nothing short of a revolution in County government right here in Mercer County.  Just as Mercer County was the scene of two other revolutions in the history of America – the War for Independence and the Industrial Revolution – so too is Mercer County the site of a revolution for integrity and ethics in government.

Over this past year, my administration has worked hard to advance our County’s economy, preserve our landscape, and to provide essential services for our residents. Our accomplishments are many—indeed, far too many to list today.  Let me share with you just some of the highlights of what we have achieved. 

Economic Development  I am sure we all agree that improving economic opportunities across our County is essential to our future.  More economic opportunities mean a better quality of life for everyone across the county.  Today, we can be proud that our regional economy is doing extraordinarily well.

The key measure we look at to gauge the growth of economic opportunity is job growth.  Our job growth in Mercer County has been about seven times better than in the state as a whole during the past four and a half years, and private sector job growth has increased by about five percent while it has declined slightly statewide.  This is a great record of achievement for our local economy.  Thank you for your role in creating those jobs and making our economy so robust.

We have undertaken several partnership efforts to strengthen economic opportunities.  For example, this past November, we initiated the first Latino Business Institute as a means to support small business development within the Latino community.  The Institute has been well received and we expect to offer it regularly. 

We are also committed to finding ways to support investments in research and technology, which are important drivers of our regional economy.  I’m pleased that we have been able to support partnership programs such as the Trenton Business and Technology Center, which incubates small technology companies, and the Small Business Development Center.  These programs are an important part of our economic development strategy for Mercer County.

We have been aggressive in our efforts to improve our transportation networks, which are crucial for the economic vitality of our County.  We’ve invested heavily to upgrade our county roadways and expect this to continue next year as we replace six of our bridges.  Trenton – Mercer Airport, which has become a major air transportation hub for corporate, personal and military aircraft, has received a “perfect” rating from the Federal Aviation Administration through our efforts over this past year.  Our bright future depends on our transportation system, and I’m proud of our progress in this area.

Our strong business climate has been recognized by Forbes Magazine, which ranked Mercer County as 21st in the nation for best business location.  This put us at the top of the list among all New Jersey counties.  Much of the credit for this ranking is due to your hard work, and let me thank you for helping to make Mercer County the very best location for business in all of New Jersey. 

Open Space Preserving open space has been one of the hallmarks of my administration. One week ago, we announced the preservation of the 54 acre Lee Turkey Farm in East Windsor.  Our arrangement with the Lee family will allow farming to continue on that land while protecting it from further development. 

Since the start of my administration, we have preserved over 1,750 acres.  Today, 19% of our land, or nearly 1 in 5 acres of Mercer County, has been protected in perpetuity from development.  This is an important part of our legacy to future generations of Mercer County residents. 

Seniors  Since I entered public life, I have been committed to improving the quality of life for our seniors.  One of the programs I previously helped to initiate was a successful grant program that provided matching grants over several years to the municipalities in our County for senior centers.  This grant program has proven to be highly effective in promoting improvements to senior centers across Mercer County, and today we have a network of high quality facilities.

Another issue of concern for seniors has been improving the quality of care at Mercer County Geriatric Center, and this has been an important priority for my administration.  Over the past two years, the Geriatric Center has moved from being one of the most troubled nursing homes to being ranked as one of the top two in our county.  We’ve installed new medical care equipment over this past year, new equipment for recreation and rehabilitation, we’ve improved the food service and we’ve improved nursing care.  We now have a first rate facility that serves its residents well.

Children & Recreation  We are, of course, also concerned about our children.  I have made it a priority to find ways to promote the positive development of our children.  Research has shown that too many children and young people do not have enough access to positive recreational opportunities.  We know that children face increasing health problems because of their sedate life-styles, including juvenile diabetes, adult diabetes, hypoglycemia and obesity. Our children need healthier recreational opportunities and places to have fun, yet municipal budgets across the County are stretched thin and there is little money available for parks and recreation. 

Today, I am announcing a new partnership program to address this problem.   We will be working with our Freeholder board to create a new matching grant program to support better recreational facilities throughout all of Mercer County.  This program will replicate our senior center matching grant program as a way to promote the creation of new recreational facilities or the upgrading of existing ones.  We think this partnership between Mercer County and our municipalities is a winning combination.  I believe this new program will make a real difference in the health and well-being of our children, and I am committed to making it work.

We cannot wait another year to begin to promote this kind of healthier lifestyle for our children. That is why we have already been hard at work to improve our own network of parks and recreational facilities.  For example, this past year, we made many improvements to Mercer County Park and worked hard to accommodate the increasing requests for use of our various ball fields and other facilities.  As you may know, Mercer County Park is used intensively.  Last year, more than 150,000 people attended over 80 events there.  We added a new one this past Fourth of July weekend that we are calling Freedom Fest, which drew over 30,000 people. 

Let me also note that Mercer County is pleased to be hosting part of March Madness this year at the Sovereign Bank Arena.  I hope you’ll all be there to see some great women’s basketball.

Gangs and CrimePositive recreation and safe havens are two factors shown to combat the rise of gangs, and they are a part of our pro-active efforts to reverse the spread of gang activity.  We are also using an aggressive law enforcement approach to combat gangs on a regional basis, because gangs are not just an urban problem.  This past year, we have worked with Sheriff Larkin, Prosecutor Bocchini, local mayors and law enforcement officers from across the County to create the Regional Violent Crime Interdiction Task Force.  This multi-agency group has been an effective way for law enforcement to work together on our streets, to share intelligence and to reduce violence in neighborhoods that have been victimized by gangs. 

We also need smart strategies to ensure that those who have been convicted and served time for their criminal conduct have positive alternatives once they are released from incarceration.  Mayor Palmer and I have worked together to create one such option through the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training.  Through this partnership, the County will support the training and placement of ex-offenders and others into public and private sector jobs.  Our goal is to help these men and women develop a trade and learn the skills to re-enter society.  I want to thank the Mayor for his partnership in this important new program.

One of the biggest challenges County government faces over the next few years is the financing and construction of the new Mercer County Criminal Courthouse and Parking Garage.  This project is enormous and complex.  We are in the midst of the design phase and will be moving forward expeditiously over this next year.  The Freeholders and I want a first-rate judicial complex, without cost overruns.

  One issue that each and every one of us is concerned about is the rising burden of property taxes.  Governor Corzine has addressed this issue, as have the leaders of the State Legislature.  Clearly, only the State government can provide the relief we need for all of our residents.  We also face rising costs for healthcare, looming problems with our pension obligations, and serious debt burdens that we have inherited.  I have made several suggestions to the new State leadership for how counties might play a role in the solution to our property tax crisis. 

We should not rest until this issue is resolved.  I support the proposed Constitutional Convention, which would attempt to create long term solutions to our property tax problem through citizen participation.  But the Legislature has the power to act on this, and I strongly urge them to act immediately.  We cannot wait any longer for the relief we need today. 

Meanwhile, our job is to run our government as efficiently as possible and keep our expenses down.  As I have said many times before our success in this area can be seen in our County budget.  And it can be seen in our tax rate. 

I am committed to tax stabilization.  For the past two years, I am very pleased that we have been able to avoid any increase in the County’s equalized tax rate.  While we have not yet presented our proposed budget to the Freeholders, I intend to do everything I can to keep our rates low.  While we need to provide essential services and invest in the future, you have my word that we will continue our commitment to fiscal discipline and stewardship.

And we will continue to search for new ways to lower tax burdens by sharing services with and between the county and our municipalities.

Before I close, I want to take a moment to recognize one of Mercer County’s heroes.  This particular hero works for the Mercer County Corrections Center.  Let me tell you his story.  While buying food at a store on East State Street one night in late October, Corrections Officer Robert Castro saw flames climbing the front of a nearby house, and heard screams from a woman whose children remained inside the house.  Ignoring those flames, Corrections Officer Castro ran into the burning house and emerged with a total of ten young children in tow, helping to save those ten children from certain injury or death. 

Corrections Officer Castro is proof that courage is not the absence of fear, but knowing something else is more important than fear.  All of us thank him for his heroic actions.  Corrections Officer Castro, will you please stand?  Let’s give him a round of applause. 

Extraordinary people like Corrections Officer Castro help to make our County great.  But all of us have a role to play in that greatness.  Today, I ask each of you to work with me in bringing to life the hopes and dreams we have for our great County.  I ask for your help in making our great County even greater.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your County Executive, and thank you for your partnership with us over the next twelve months.   

God bless you and all the people of Mercer County.